Thursday, September 5, 2013

Black in Action: WILLIE DYNAMITE (1974)

I stumbled across this recently and was stunned and amazed that I had never seen it before. I'm not a huge fan of the "Mack" subgenere of black exploitation cinema, but with Richard D. Zanuck producing and an amazing cast, I can't understand how I missed it. The cast? Try this on for size: Roscoe Orman (of "Sesame Street" fame), Thalmus Rasulala (of pretty much everything), Diana Sands (of A RAISIN IN THE SUN and a whole mess of TV), George Murdock (pretending to be Vic Morrow), Albert Hall (of APOCALYPSE NOW and countless others), Robert DoQui (what hasn't he been in?), Jophery C. Brown (stuntman/actor in everything from SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT to SWORD AND THE SORCERER and this year's OBLIVION), and (sort of) Alan Weeks (from TRUCK TURNER). Damn!

Now that I've seen it... I understand. Starting off pretty much like a way over-played, virtual parody of THE MACK (1973), the film tells the story of superfly pimp Willie D whose threads are so over the top (one outfit is red, trimmed with white fur making him look like a Harlem Santa Claus) that all the other pimps have to viciously chew the scenery to even get noticed.

Willie's the number two pimp in NY and he aims to be number one, but before he can even make the attempt, he shoots himself in the proverbial foot by dissin' the guy who is number one, Bell (Roger Robinson, who lays on the ham and cheese heavier than the Denny's breakfast menu). Says Bell "When the heat comes down, you gotta collectivize or... run." Now, the peevish Bell is bringing down the heat on little ol' Willie. To make matters worse, an ex-hooker turned social worker (Sands) who is the Assistant DA's (Rasulala) girlfriend, has him in her crosshairs too. Next thing you know, his hos are getting busted, his car is getting impounded, he's getting his fine threads messed up by the man. What's a pimp gonna do? So you figure at this point, he's gonna get a plan and stick it to the man, right? Uhhhh, no. Nope, he's going to get shafted more and get his ass beat more and finally... wait for it... yes, he's going to realize the error of his ways and turn over a new leaf. No I'm not kidding. Totally serious.

Lots, and I do mean lots, of TV-esque dramatic scenes go into making him go straight. Some scenes are almost like a soap opera, which makes sense since most folks involved worked in daytime "stories". Don't think a bunch of shoot-outs and car chases did it, nope, this sheep in wolf's clothing is as earnest and tame as an ABC After School Special, with the exception of a dramatic scene in which one of the girls gets her throat cut by a competitor. Matter of fact, the bulk of it sports the kind of cornball drama that can usually only be found on the small screen. For instance when Willie is brought up on his first charge, his estranged mother just happens to be in the courtroom. So distraught by is she by her son's possession charge, as well as the (inadmissible) police claims of other crimes, she suffers a heart attack right there on the spot. Even worse is the saccharine final scene where a smiling, de-pimped Willie catches a child's football and throws a return pass to the cheers of the crowd. Again, not even kidding. Since virtually everybody involved, aside from Zanuck, worked in or was going to work in TV land, it's really no surprise that this feels like a TV movie. Don't expect nudity or any sort of gratuitous anything other than Willie's wardrobe, that's not what this movie is all about. As long as you don't buy into Universal's marketing, it's kinda cool to see the cast go through their paces (Albert Hall should have had his own cop flick after the blistering Poitier-esque performance here), but if you want some COFFEY, this ain't the pick-me-up you are looking for.

Anybody else remember this cast, or am I the oldest man alive?

4 Reactions:

  1. You forgot to mention the prostitutes include Mary Wilcox (LOVE ME DEADLY), Marcia McBroom (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), Judy Brown (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), and Leslie McRae (GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS). Sadly they don't do much of anything.

    I actually like WILLIE DYNAMITE and consider it an interesting almost anti-blaxploitation movie made by a black director who just may have been fed up with the direction of the primarily white-produced genre.

  2. Oh man, yeah, I forgot to mention them. The cast overfloweth.

    I didn't hate the movie, but I didn't care for the bait-and-switch tactic. The opening scene where the business convention speaker is giving a speech on sales strategies while Willie's hos are shown literally using those points on the convention goers is brilliant. It, as well as the meeting with Bell and the other pimps set the stage for a flashy, tongue-in-cheek popcorn flick. Then, when you expect the worm to turn, the writer turns... everything into a soap opera.

    I appreciate that they were trying to de-glamorize the black genre films of the day (I'm willing to bet that the hookers in the jail and court scenes were definitely legit), but it definitely could have been less 1965 TV cornball. Don't forget it was written and produced by white guys who are firmly embedded in the establishment, so it's not like it was a group of indy black filmmakers that wanted to buck the trend and make a statement.

  3. I always saw it as a glossy, big studio attempt at the genre that was to blaxploitation what "Love, American Style" was to "hip".

    Having said that, I enjoy the Hell out of it, and you could even see it as a commentary on how true capitalism is/was being punished in order to reward crony capitalism. Might be reading too much into it there though. :)

    Diana Sands is by far the best reason to watch WILLIE DYNAMITE; she was better known for her Broadway work than her TV work, twice nominated for Tonys during the 1960's. It was her final film; she died of cancer several months before WILLIE was released.

  4. That's a good point about it being a statement about individual vs. crony capitalism. I think you are absolutely right, but I think that commentary gets lost in the second act when some of the more schmaltzy aspects are brought in.

    Yeah, Sands is really the best part of the film showing quite a range, from sassy and brassy down to vulnerable and conflicted. It would have been interesting to see what she would have gone on to do.


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