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Michael Jai White and His 'Black Dynamite' Collaborators on Parodying Michael Jackson and Rewriting History

By Ethan Alter | Indiewire July 14, 2014 at 5:32PM

Michael Jai White and his collaborators reveal how they animated a character who was already something of a cartoon and how they plan to raise their game for Season 2.
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Black Dynamite

His live-action incarnation may only have scored one big-screen outing, but blaxploitation badass Black Dynamite is still going strong on the small screen in cartoon form. Premiering on Adult Swim in the summer of 2012, the animated "Black Dynamite" -- which features the co-writer/star Michael Jai White of the 2009 cult favorite voicing the titular hero, whose libido is almost as strong as his roundhouse kick -- performed well enough to get a second season pick-up, with a new batch of episodes scheduled to debut in October. 

With Season 1 arriving on Blu-ray and DVD July 15, White and his collaborators on the show, including co-creator and co-writer Byron Minns (who also voices Black Dynamite's sidekick Bullhorn) and executive producer/director Carl Jones, paid a visit to New York. There, they spoke with Indiewire about animating a character who was already something of a cartoon and how they plan to raise their game for Season 2.  

How far along is Season 2 right now?

Carl Jones: We're still in production, so most of the episodes are in various stages. We have one episode that's ready for delivery and we've got five that our fully animated and are in post. Making each season is about a year-and-a-half process altogether, so it's pretty intense. We had generated some ideas for Season 2 episodes when we were working on Season 1, but there was a small gap between seasons just for our sanity. 

When you look back at Season 1, are there things that -- knowing what you know about the process now -- that you wish you had done differently? And did that impact the way you approached the second year?

Byron Minns: I don't feel that way. We hit some high marks in Season 1 and we're endeavoring to hit some high marks in Season 2.

Jones: It's more of an evolution; both seasons are one body that's just evolving. We were pretty happy with everything we did in Season 1, we just want to aim higher this year. There was a lot of experimenting in the first season, partly because we were still trying to find the right animation studio to handle the style of the show. We were underequipped to produce the show at the level it needed to be, trying to make sure we tell stories as cinematically as possible and that the characters are drawn really well. Unlike a lot of other animated shows made in the United States, the characters in "Black Dynamite" are real people. It's not like "Family Guy" or "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" where the design is more cartoony and stylized. [Our show] takes a little more understanding of the human anatomy and a lot of artists aren't trained to do that. 

READ MORE: Watch: The Trailer for Adult Swim's Animated Spin-off of 'Black Dynamite'

Michael, on the featurette that's included on the DVD, you admit that, of the three of you, you were the least familiar with animation going into the show. Have you learned more on the job? 

Michael Jai White: Yeah. At first, it all went completely over my head. Early on, I was told by [Adult Swim Senior Executive Vice President] Mike Lazzo that [my performance] was some of the finest voice acting he'd heard, but it wasn't until I saw that married with the image that I understood what he meant. I remember getting an animatic and it was like a stick figure drawing. Everybody was so happy about it, but I was like "Okay... These are stick figures doing stuff." Now that I've see what Carl does, I understand that every little moment that's not necessarily funny to me on the page will become [funny] onscreen. So this time I went in with the understanding that [the humor] is in the nuances and it becomes really fun to find those moments. In live action, if you don't shoot it, you don't have it. You can't go back and add something later, like you can here. 

Jones: We're not supposed to go back and add shit. But we do it! All the time. [Laughs]

One of the primary sources of humor in the movie was spoofing the low-budget trappings of blaxploitation movies -- mismatched cuts, cheap sets etc. etc. -- and that doesn't really translate to the animated realm. Were you concerned about losing that aspect of the original "Black Dynamite"?

Jones: Not really, because in the movie, the characters were so great and the world was defined so well so there was a lot to pull from already. If the characters were shells or archetypes, that would be a little different. But they were actually the perfect family. And that's the biggest difference between the movie and the series; here, we get to see them interact more as a group. It's the main focus of the show, to bring them together and create this kind of dysfunctional family. We also tried to turn the '70s into a universe, not really an era. We never say what point in the '70s a particular story is taking place; we just give you the idea that this is a bizarre world that exists in the '70s. 

Minns: What we miss in those specific jokes about continuity errors and such, we gain in being able to expand the world, because in animation, we're able to do things like leave the planet. It was a good trade.

"What we miss in those specific jokes about continuity errors and such, we gain in being able to expand the world."

One thing that does carry over from the movie is how there's how there's almost always a conspiracy at the center of the plot of every episode.

Jones: Within the black community there's always conspiracy, but usually those conspiracies are true! They didn't come from nowhere; we didn't just wake up one morning thinking the white man was trying to destroy us. This was how the country was built. I think the '70s were probably the birth of that awareness, when people started to be more conscious of what was going on in their communities. So they wanted to point the finger and figure out who this unseen hand was and a lot of conspiracies come from that perspective. What we usually do for the show is take an incident from the '70s involving an iconic figure where we know there's a story that everyone is familiar with and then we play around with it. Like, we know what Bill Cosby is like today, but we can present him as he was in the '70s according to us. We can rewrite history in that way.

You've already based episodes around such deceased '70s celebrities as Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. Have any of their surviving family members contacted you to complain about the way you presented them?

Jones: Just Joe Jackson! No, I'm playing. I don't know any of the Jacksons, but for Joe, [that Michael Jackson episode] was kind of a good look for him. Because Joe's always been the villain and he wasn't that time.

Since you've already tackled Jackson and Pryor, which famous people will be cameoing in Season 2?

Jones: Mr. Rogers, Bob Marley, Melvin Van Peebles, Don Cornelius, Dick Clark and Woody Allen. A guy named Jonathan Kite does Woody. He's on "2 Broke Girls" and does literally about 60 different voices. In terms of voice actors, we've got J.B. Smoove back, along with Sam Jackson, Mel B, Erykah Badu, Chance the Rapper and Tyler the Creator.

Even though you're playing around with stereotypes that are rooted in blaxploitation, do you ever worry about taking those caricatures too far?

Jones: I don't think we really worry about that too much as long as we're honest. The goal is not to caricaturize the '70s or the black community or anything like that. We're just trying to tell stories that are honest, and hopefully they resonate with people who aren't even familiar with the era. I always say that I don't think the show is even a blaxploitation show, because I don't think we exploit black people. I think it's more white-spolitation show if anything. Like, we did an episode about Elvis and another about a giant albino gorilla named Honky Kong. We play into a lot of stereotypes across the board and have fun with them, not just black stereotypes.

Which cartoons inspired the look of "Black Dynamite"?

Jones: The look of the show was inspired by anime director Takeshi Koike and his 2009 film "Redline," but I think there's a little bit of everything in there. I was a huge Chuck Jones fan growing up, as well as Bob Clampett and Hanna-Barbera. Ralph Bakshi was also a big inspiration, with films like "Coonskin" and "Cool World." I look at everything from anime to "Aqua Teen," because if it's good, it's good. I have an appreciation for the different kind of aesthetics you find in animation. For example, "Ren & Stimpy" is an example of very cartoony limited animation, but we can implement some of the same ideas because those characters have really good expressions and strong poses. That's half of storytelling. 

Michael and Byron, are you also cartoon addicts?

White and Minns [in unison]: No. [Laughs]

Minns: I approach the series in the same way as making a film in terms of character. That, to me, is what it's all about. So I've learned working with Carl for these last few years what animation is and should be and the intricacy of creating all this stuff, which I'm amazed by. 

"You can freeze frame anything and it looks like a blaxploitation poster."

White: I can't contribute a damn thing. I just know what Carl can do and he continues to talk over my head about Takeshi somebody. [Laughs] I'm not in that world. There are certain things I can grab onto; like one thing I can say is that almost any frame of our show looks like a film poster. You can freeze frame anything and it looks like a blaxploitation poster. 

How do the recording sessions work? Are you able to get the cast together in one room?

White: I'm usually solo, because I'm in and out of the country and state so it would be a nightmare to have all these busy peoples' schedules line up. It's not like a situation where we're primarily voice actors and that's it. We've got all these different stars, so scheduling gets tricky.

Jones: We did one session at the end of the first season and it was horrible. There were a lot of very funny people in the room together with a lot of energy. It was basically like being with a lot of kids! It was hard to get the work done and took twice as long. But [our recording sessions] are usually very collaborative...

Minns: ...after Carl gets what he wants. [Laughs]

If you could pick a favorite single Season 1 episode that best represents the show, which would it be?

Jones: Michael Jackson. I thought it was pretty smart and took a very different approach to a Michael Jackson episode. It was really funny and weird.

White: To me, it's absolutely Michael Jackson. We satirized the most famous person who ever lived and if we're not going to get backlash from that, it speaks volumes. Sometimes, when something like that works, it doesn't get the recognition as it would if it were negative. But the fact that we were able to do that is a great representation of what we can do. 


This article is related to: Black Dynamite, Adult Swim, Michael Jai White, Michael Jai White, Byron Minns, Byron Minns





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