Movies We Like
This fine piece of mid-70s Americana is a gem criminally overlooked by hepcats since it’s one of the better blaxploitation movies produced in or out of the studio system. The funkiness is laid down with the traditional baaaad theme song, near-unbelievable fly threads, I mean, uh, costume design, and some joyously over-the-top acting by the principals, but the flavor is maintained with an excellent storyline & direction, terrific technical-production values and, I feel, an indefinable sense of care and love in the production near-universally absent from most ‘70s exploitation flicks.
The basic premise of the movie is classic Greek tragedy: the hero’s hubris bringing about his utter downfall and eventual self-redemption or catastrophe (more likely). Our man, Willie D., is a stylin’ pimp, dope dealer and rakish man-about-town in his oversized & fur-lined EVERYTHING. He runs afoul of the other playas, gets several kinds of “the law” on his case and for the real kicker, a “do-gooding” social worker with a past is trying to reform his ladies into honest citizens. Misery piles on constant misery (especially poignant and hilarious for me is his beloved mack Caddy Eldorado getting towed TWICE then street-stripped by neighborhood kids) as The Man wears down poor Willie ‘til he’s reduced to a self-loathing and impotent utter rage not seen in other blaxploitation protagonists.
Willie Dynamite was produced by Richard “son of Darryl” Zanuck at Universal Pictures, and with the budget afforded by those purse-strings, Gilbert Moses – who, a short time later, would direct the Roots mini-series – and his crew were able to build sets, film properly on NYC locations, buy huge quantities of fur, zebra-stripe cloth and purple velvet galore, and generally employ more of the typical Hollywood studio wizardry (the cinematography work is especially notable) to good effect than common for blaxploitation budgets.
Soundtracks figure very prominently, of course, for the genre, but whereas the de rigueur wah-wah guitar does make appearances, the score by jazz titan J.J. Johnson tends to be low-key with several non-funky tunes thrown in for good measure.
Speaking of non-funky, Willie Dynamite is also fairly novel in portraying the protagonist as well as non-black men and women of any color as three-dimensional figures with flaws, prejudices and strengths sometimes explored but always understood in order for the characters to feel believable. This attitude helps us empathize with Willie’s plight, his broken spirit, and disgrace till towards the end all the hammy stops are pulled and some wickedly funny melodramatics are thrown our way – yummy! Enough about that, however, since you’ll have to watch the movie yourself and I don’t want to give away any of the juicy details. Tenderness and emotion aren’t words associated with blaxploitation but for Willie Dynamite they bring distinction as one of the few films to go beyond genre expectations and shape a good drama.