Find it at 5th: Black Dynamite

A satire film that addresses social issues through comedy and reflection

This week at 5th Avenue Cinema—Portland’s only student-run theater—Portland State students can catch a free showing of Black Dynamite in 35mm!


Scott Sanders directed the action comedy film in 2009, which starred Michael Jai White, a well-known actor and martial artist. The film’s cast includes notable actors such as Tommy Davidson, Arsenio Hall and Salli Richardson-Whitfield.


Black Dynamite tells the story of a former CIA agent seeking vengeance for his dead brother after he was killed by “the man.” Black Dynamite, played by White, takes a long journey to the White House, contending with pimps, gangsters and government officials.


Over-the-top violence, drug use and sexual content are featured heavily in this satire. The script is also noteworthy, with clever and witty dialogue that keeps the audience engaged and laughing. The film honors the blaxploitation films of the ‘70s with its bold colors and stylized camera angles while poking fun at the conventions of the genre.


Each term, the staff of 5th Avenue Cinema curates a selection of movies that students can watch for free every week. Black Dynamite was chosen for screening by Clara Johnson, one of the projectionists at 5th Avenue Cinema. Johnson is an Art Practice Major at PSU and has worked at 5th Avenue Cinema for almost an entire year.


“I chose the movie, honestly, because I heard it was very funny,” Johnson said. “I was looking at the reviews of movies I was thinking of picking, and all of the reviews for this movie—even on different platforms—were just quotes from the movie, people saying they were laughing out loud to these specific quotes.”


5th Avenue Cinema is known for screening movies that are foreign or experimental with comedic aspects, but they don’t often show action comedy movies. “I wanted it to be funny partially because it’s January/February, so it’s winter, and it’s kind of depressing,” Johnson said. “I think that this is the time in our three terms that we should have something that is relatively funny—not all of them should be—but maybe one or two.”


Johnson wanted to choose a funny film but also a film with depth. “I thought it was funny, but I was also searching for, like, a satire that had multiple layers to it,” Johnson explained. “I thought it was interesting because it’s both a satire and an homage to black exploitation films from the 1970s, so it’s like an art within itself of paying homage and appreciation to something, but also critiquing it or pointing out things that don’t make sense.” In addition, she said the respectful way the film plays with the blaxploitation genre is quite humorous. “I ended up liking how retrospective it was,” she said.


Johnson pointed out that Black Dynamite is a film created, directed and written by Black people for Black people. “This term, in particular, we wanted to do non-white-led movies and to highlight different voices,” she said. Johnson reported that this film fits with the other movies shown this term and will screen just in time for Black History Month.


Blaxploitation films date back to the 1970s, influenced by Spike Lee, John Singleton and Quentin Tarantino. Although Black Dynamite came out in 2009, it is easy to confuse it with the films released nearly half a century earlier. In her comment, Johnson said that this film is for people who love that genre. “The wardrobe is very ‘70s—the costume department is insane!” she said. “It’s sort of a blast from the past, but also keeping different elements modern for satirical purposes.” Johnson referred to a scene where the boom mic is visible in the shot, something that was done on purpose to make fun of the low-budget films of the blaxploitation era.


“I don’t necessarily think it’s a movie that takes itself seriously,” Johnson said. She added that Black Dynamite reminded her of many different types of satires that she has seen. “The director Scott Sanders had said that the film felt very nostalgic.” Sanders has created a genre-bending movie that combines a history of satire and blaxploitation. Johnson said that Sanders “is a fan of the Coen Brothers, Stanley Kubrick and the level of deadpan satire that exists in their movies—where you really get the joke, but it’s also a relatively serious topic that they did not take very seriously if that makes sense.”


The film is entertaining and radiates nostalgia while also including a message and commentary on the society and culture of the time it was made. “I think it’s definitely a fun, interesting time capsule,” Johnson said. “It’s sort of tongue in cheek, where [Sanders is] reflecting on the movies of the genre, appreciating and respecting them, but also making their own version and satirizing it.”


The way the film deals with social issues is not only through humor but also through a deeper level of thought and reflection. “I think those types of movies can be very important,” Johnson said. “I think satires are really interesting to watch, so I think they are important to make.”


As one of the two projectionists for 5th Avenue, Johnson said, “It’s really amazing to see just how much film is still out there—like it’s not dead, even though sometimes it feels like it is!” Although film like 35mm has been used less and less as technology advances, 5th Avenue Cinema continues to play films each term that utilize the beautiful medium. “There’s still a community out there that will only come to movies if it’s in film and it’s fun to get to talk to them,” Johnson said. “It’s a fun community that I feel grateful to be a part of.”

Students can catch a showing of Black Dynamite in 35mm for free on campus at 5th Avenue Cinema this Friday or Saturday at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., or the Sunday screening at 3 p.m.