Scott Sanders is the director of Black Dynamite, an award-winning film that premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. By crafting a comical spoof of the blaxploitation genre, Sanders time travels to the 1970s and takes his audience along for the ride. Along with Michael Jai White, who plays the film’s lead character, the cast includes a host of up-and-coming actors, as well as special cameo appearances by Arsenio Hall, Tommy Davidson, and Nicole Sullivan.
Upon the DVD release of Black Dynamite, Scott Sanders managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on Afro-zodiac posters, special filming techniques, and humorous moments on the set.
As you signed on to direct Black Dynamite, what kind of background research did you conduct to capture the mood, language, and props for the film?
Well, I had already been familiar with a lot of the main themes of blaxploitation and I had seen a lot of the basic films – especially the ones that starred Jim Kelly, Jim Brown, and Fred Williamson. And we eventually just started watching all of them one by one. We watched the good ones, the bad ones, and wanted to kind of mix them all up in the Cuisinart and have one that was sort of definitive, at least to us, of all of them. We tried to weigh that out with like Soul Sisters Revenge and—I’m trying to think of some of the wackier ones—Darktown Strutters; all of the blaxploitation films I think had some influence on us. But there are some in particular that were stronger for us than others.
During the sex scene between Gloria and Black Dynamite, I thought it was clever for you to use cartoon imagery instead of having a stream of gratuitous nudity. How did that idea come about?
Well, I knew I wasn’t going to get Salli Richardson naked! [laughing] So I thought, well, what can we do to just represent that they had sex? And it seemed like a very '70s answer to use the Afro-zodiac poster. I remember those when I was a little kid, in my uncle’s basement. They’re these sex position posters, and I just thought it was fitting for the time period.
In addition to that particular scene, is there one that's particularly memorable, perhaps because it was difficult to shoot or it required a unique filming technique?
I hate to reference another sex scene, but the first scene where you see Black Dynamite was a lot of fun. We took that concept from the Dolomite movies. It was the only movie that I had ever seen where the camera had the point-of-view of the person having sex. So my cameraman was the guy who was actually going up and down on top of the girl with the camera. And it was really funny because he had this picture of himself like squatting with the camera. And, of course, that’s the picture he sent his wife, the day afterward. And that was rough on him.
Behind the humorous, slapstick stuff, there are a lot of relationships that can be made between the social issues presented in the film as well as the contemporary ones we face in real life. When you look out at the current sociopolitical landscape, is there an issue that you think this film directly speaks to, even though the time and location reflect days gone by?
With these types of films, I think people realize how silly and anachronistic racism is. Although racism still exists, Black Dynamite really shows the silliness of it. Racism has taken on a new texture, today. It’s more of a name-calling sort of thing as opposed to an “I’m not going to let you vote” sort of thing. The names we use in the film are just ridiculous! [laughing] Even though it’s a hot-button issue, through the course of the movie, I just tried to come up with derogatory names for black people. Like “moon cricket.” [laughing] I really never heard of moon cricket before.
Yeah, that is a new one for me as well! [laughing]
I looked it up and I just said, “This sounds ridiculous. This will be good for Black Dynamite.”
Let me jump to one of my favorite quotes from the movie. Towards the end of the film, Black Dynamite turns to Gloria and he says, "A helping hand is a helping hand, clean or dirty." When you look at the filming experience for Black Dynamite, what special set of helping hands prepared you for directing this film—from Black Dynamite’s showing at Sundance all the way to its premiere in theaters nationwide?
I probably don’t say this often enough, but our producer, John Steingart, really was very key in doing that. We got to make a fairly outrageous movie, the way we wanted to make it, and he was so supportive. He was actually pushing us to make wilder and crazier decisions. And that’s not normal. Even the decision to shoot on color reversal stock is a very risky thing. He not only encouraged it, but started to insist on it. I was like, “Okay, well this is great. This is a great position for us to be in.” So I would have to say he was probably our main helping hand.
I noticed, as the final credits rolled, you have credits for the screenplay in addition to wearing the director’s cap. At what point did you actually become attached to the film?
Well, I was actually on before the screenplay of the story. Michael Jai White had done a photo shoot of himself as the character. We had worked together before, ten years ago, on a movie and I had approached him about something else. He sent a photograph he took of himself as the character. It was called “Super Bad” at the time, but we had to change it because of a certain movie! [laughing] And that’s where it started. We made a fake trailer, kind of pasting him into scenarios, for $500. And then we showed that trailer to John Steingart. He said, “I can raise the money for this movie.” So that’s when we started to write the scripts.
Arsenio Hall makes the cameo appearance as “Tasty Freeze” and Tommy Davidson as “Cream Corn.” What was the funniest moment that you had on set with either of those men?
The funniest moment had to be when Arsenio was talking to Captain Kangaroo Pimp. I think that was a lot of fun. It was just so funny because the guy did really show up looking exactly like Captain Kangaroo. And that’s the reason that Arsenio wanted to do the movie. So that was a lot of fun. And the guy was an extra, too, so he didn’t know what to expect; then all of a sudden he’s got this hot girl in his lap, and he’s in a pimp scene; so, that was a lot of fun.
For more information on Black Dynamite, visit the film’s official website.