One of the blaxploitation era’s lesser-known titles gets the high-definition treatment, and we couldn’t be happier.
We all know Shaft, whether it be for Richard Roundtree’s genre-defining 70s hit, its funky Oscar-winning theme song or the random Samuel L. Jackson starring remake. At a push you might even know Super Fly too, or Sweet Sweetback, or Coffy, but Willie Dynamite? That might be one race-themed thriller too far.
Starring none other than Sesame Street’s Roscoe Orman as a fur-coated pimp on the streets of New York, it’s certainly one of the lesser known titles in the blaxploitation canon, but far from the worst. In fact, with big name studio Universal pulling the strings, and Martha Reeves on soundtrack duty, it’s easily deserving of a louder shout-out.
Digging down even deeper into the crux of the early 70s melting point, Willie Dynamite isn’t just a movie about a pimp doing pimp stuff. Sure there’s the elaborate coats and feathered hats, the army of brightly-dressed hookers and the occasional pimped-out Cadillac, but Gilbert Moses’s film wears its social protest firmly on its sleeve.
While not quite as extreme in the sex or violence department as any number of its blaxploitation siblings (for a movie about a pimp there’s almost no bare flesh on display whatsoever), it’s instead a film that feels way ahead of its time socially. Everything from Willie’s workforce to the cops and fellow pimps he tangles with are a wide-stemmed mixture of races and genders; an integrated world.
It is still fairly cut-and-dry who the bad guys are, but Willie Dynamite remains surprisingly careful with who it points the finger at, not so much demonising white oppressors, as rallying against police corruption and institutional racism. More simply, Moses takes the more aggressive approach of the bigger blaxploitation movies, and dials it back a bit, honing in on where the problems really lie and in the process, making a film that speaks out far more sincerely overall.
Obviously though by shifting things a little further away from the usual insane blend of sex, action and more sex, this one does come off feeling a tad too sanitised in parts. Considering it’s a movie about the dangerous world of sex trading, there’s not a lot here. Pimps argue, the occasional gun or knife gets pulled, but the hefty majority of the action is in court rooms and offices. Thanks to that ‘respectable’ studio stamp, all the ‘fun stuff’ the exploitation world brought forward in the 70s is more eluded to than embraced.
Fans expecting more Sweet Sweetback levels of silliness will likely be disappointed with this one, but Willie Dynamite still remains important. It’s a film that shows there’s a little more to the often cheap and nasty exploitation era; that some used their selling point to protest just as much as entertain, making Moses’s film a seriously interesting watch in hindsight.
Those wanting to dive more into the blaxploitation canon, should be happy enough with the added back-to-basics documentary Kiss My Baad Asss on this latest blu-ray release too. Although there’s little else included beyond the standard Arrow Video essentials of a HD update and some funky new cover art.
On the whole Willie Dynamite is far from the most essential of the blaxploitation releases. It still stands as a surprisingly stimulating entry for the genre, but one that’s not quite as entertaining as it really could be, even if its fashion tastes alone pretty much warrant several watches straight off the bat.
Willie Dynamite is available on dual-format DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from today.