— Angus Kohm (@AngusKohm) January 16, 2021
I have a lot of Blaxploitation films in my collection. I discovered the genre, without even knowing it was a genre, at a fairly young age. I’m honestly not sure which movie would have been the first Blaxploitation movie that I ever saw. Some possible contenders might be Three the Hard Way (1974), Penitentiary (1979), Black Caesar (1973) and Shaft (1971),
Shaft is a funny one, because I have a distinct memory of watching it on TV when I was very young, and losing interest in it part way through. Basically, I thought it was boring. For years, I believed that this was my experience of Shaft and I avoided watching it again. Finally, when I gave it another shot, I realized that it could not have been the movie that had bored me all those years ago. For one thing, I loved it. But more to the point, I did not recognize a single moment in it. I decided that it must have been one of the sequels that I had seen all those years ago. But when I watched Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973), they were even less like the movie in my memory. To this day, I don’t know how to explain it. I watched some movie that I was pretty convinced was Shaft when I was a kid. What could it have been? I hope to figure it out one day.
In a funny way, the very first Blaxploitation film I saw was actually Live and Let Die (1973). I was a huge James Bond films growing up, and I watched all of the movies, multiple times, whenever they came on TV. This was, of course, before VCRs. Had I been able to tape stuff, I’m sure I would have seen all of the Bond films many more times. As it was, I saw Live and Let Die (1973) several times growing up, and it was one of my favourites. Of course, I had never heard the term Blaxploitation, and I didn’t think of the characters in the movie as black or white. They were just characters. It wasn’t until many years later that I heard someone suggest that Live and Let Die was hugely influenced by the (at the time) very popular Blaxploitation genre. This surprised me, but I thought about it and realized that a person could almost see the movie as being part of it.
Somewhere throughout my early days of TV movie watching, I recall seeing Willie Dynamite (1974) listed in the TV Scene (our local newspaper’s TV guide). In fact, I recall noticing it being on more than once. It was a strange title, so it stuck out to me. I may have even stumbled upon an actual broadcast one night, flipping the channel and finding myself in the middle of a strange looking movie that I didn’t recognize. I opened the TV Scene to find out what I was looking at, and Willie Dynamite was the answer. I’ve never liked starting movies in the middle, so I didn’t stick around and watch it. But the brief glimpses I got made me realize that It was something that I should definitely see sometime. Unfortunately, it was usually on very late at night, and I had no way to tape it (yet). So, I didn’t wind up seeing the movie until quite a few years later, on VHS.
The thing that remember most from that first viewing, is the theme song, “Willie D.” (written by Gilbert Moses,the film’s director, & J.J. Johnson). Like a lot of the best #Blaxploitation films, the songs on the soundtrack tend to comment on the action of the movie. “Willie D.” is what I might call a perfect character song, describing the titular character of this movie:
Seven women in the palm of his hand,
Got a woman for every man,
It’s magic the way he runs his game,
Never treating two girls the same,
’bout what you please,
It’s no different from any other industry…
And while Martha Reeves belts out these lyrics on the soundtrack, we see the credits play overtop images of seven beautiful women walking into a hotel lobby full of middle aged conventioneers. It doesn’t take genius to figure out that these are working women looking to connect with some lonely, out of town men with money. And those men clearly like what they see. The mini scenes that ensue are mainly played for laughs, and between the music, the lyrics, and the comedic action, the opening sequence is a pure delight. We also see images of Willie D. himself, in a fancy hat and shades, driving in his fancy car with personalized plates that say “DYNAMITE”. He pulls over and gets out of the car, revealing his whole outfit for the first time – and it is a fashion statement that must be seen to be believed. Willie D. is the epitome of the stereotypical pimp – at least how he is portrayed in 1970s pop culture. Whether or not he is a reflection of reality, past or present, is beside the point. He is a larger than life character with a larger than life theme song. And by the time the music ends, we feel that we know exactly who he is, and I, for one, felt like I’d already had my money’s worth. This movie was awesome…
Watching Willie Dynamite for what must have been the third time last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn, I was struck by how much more serious-minded the movie is than many of it’s brethren. This may seem like an odd thing to say, considering that Willie Dynamite contains plenty of funny bits, both intentional and unintentional, but the movie manages to tell a rather serious story while making us laugh. It is over-the-top with its fashions and attitudes, but it is not particularly exploitative. It’s about pimps and prostitutes, but it does not contain any nudity. The main character, Willie D., is played by Roscoe Orman who most us know as Gordon on Sesame Street. He is quite convincing as Willie D., showing a completely different side of himself. Diana Sands plays Cora, a social worker (and ex-prostitute) who makes it her mission to destroy Willie – or does she? In the final act of the movie, characters make unexpected choices that resonate with real human emotion. Put simply, the movie gets better. The characters become more real, and what could have been a stereotypical, by the numbers ending becomes something so much more powerful.
I hate spoilers, so I’ll stop there and hope that I haven’t already said too much. I should note that Diana Sands, who is excellent in this movie, died of leiomyosarcoma in 1973 – presumably before this movie was released. She was only 39.
Gilbert Moses was a theatre director, and co-founded the Free Southern Theater company which, according to Wikipedie, was “an important pioneer of African-American theatre” in 1963. Willie Dynamite was his first film. He went on to direct a lot of television. He died in 1995 at age 52.
Willie Dynamite (1974) is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic that probably gets less respect than it should. It’s too bad that Gilbert Moses didn’t give us any other films like it. The closest he came was The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979), which a friend of mine once told me was the first film his father took him to see in the theatre. Strange choice, but certainly unforgettable. I wish I had seen Willie Dynamite on TV all those years ago. It probably would have blown my mind.