It’s been a long road for fans of Black Dynamite since the uproarious Blaxploitation comedy burst onto screens in 2009. And it’s been an even longer road for star and co-writer Michael Jai White, who has spent much of the intervening decade and a half pulling together the movie’s long-awaited spiritual sequel, Outlaw Johnny Black.
First teased with a trailer back in 2018 and filmed a year later, Outlaw Johnny Black has taken its sweet time to make it to screens. But it’s finally here: The comedy opens in theaters this weekend, and it isn’t like anything else at the movies this year. As a teaser released in May put it, “As faith-based Western Black exploitation kung-fu action romantic comedy dramas go, it’s right up there with the rest of ’em.”
White wore many hats on this production, on top of the black cowboy hat he wears as the movie’s title character. In addition to starring and co-writing with his friend and Black Dynamite collaborator Byron Minns, White directed Outlaw Johnny Black and produced it under his company Jaigantic Studios. Polygon spoke to White on a video call about the lengthy process of getting the movie to this point, the state of action comedies, the influence of Monty Python and Sidney Poitier, and much more.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Polygon: When did you first know you wanted to make this movie? How did it come to fruition, and why did the trailer come out five years ago?
Michael Jai White: You know, when I did Black Dynamite, we always intended on doing three movies in this Blaxploitation genre. And the second one was this one, which was going to be a nod to Buck and the Preacher, as well as several movies of that time period, just Western movies. It’s kind of West-ploitation, right?
I shot the trailer, and it was a one-day shoot, because I designed the actual trailer on paper first and shot what was in my head. And so that became the campaign for getting the money for the movie, with crowdfunding, and eventually with private monies. And the crazy thing is, a lot of people saw that trailer and thought the movie was done already. So that became a little confusing to folks. And so even folks in Hollywood, and WME, one of the high-ranking people there, he said, Yeah, I want to see this movie. I’m like, The movie’s not done. There’s, like, no main actors in it. That’s, like, a one-day shoot. That eventually got the money put together for the movie. And then the whole pandemic put a kink in things as well, because we always intended for this to be something an audience would share.
When did you shoot the movie?
We shot this in 2019.
How’s that wait been for you? I’m sure you’ve been wanting people to see it.
Yeah, it was frustrating. But, honestly, fortuitous. I mean, it’s the craziest thing, because now that we’re post-pandemic, the audience can see it as it was intended. And if it wasn’t for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have been able to edit the movie like I really was able to.
Going into it, we expected to have the music done [by] maybe a composer, but it gave me time — I had such a bed of amazing music given to me by the musical director, David Hollander. He had amassed such an amazing amount of Italian spaghetti Western music. And I could sit with these thousands of songs, and began to orchestrate and actually compose music that was already existing for the movie. It would seem that it was composed afterward — traditionally, it would be done [that way]. But I was able to sit with the music for so long that I started to be able to create similar melodies to frame the entire movie.
There are so many different genres at work in Outlaw Johnny Black. Was that part of the project from the start?
This is exactly what was in my head when I was writing it. I wanted to bring everything together. I’m a child of Monty Python and physical comedy, and in my writing, if you really pay attention, there’s a lot of influence from Monty Python in Black Dynamite, and even in this movie. They always had these layers. There’s the political layer, there’s the silly layer, you know, there’s the physical comedy layer. I can’t help but draw from what influenced me.
And then on this one, also, I was a big fan of [1970s] moviemaking. I grew up on movies like Buck and the Preacher and Uptown Saturday Night, and these movies that were done by Sidney Poitier that had morality. They’re movies the whole family can watch and feel good about. So I wanted to do that for another generation.
I think it’s much like the Duffer brothers did with Stranger Things, using the tapestry of the filmmaking of that time so people my age and older can revisit it, and then a younger audience can discover it. There was something really amazing about storytelling and moviemaking in the ’70s, which I think is the best time for movies in general, and also music. I’m a tough critic of myself, so it had to be something that would impress me. So I had to do it.
Action comedy as a genre is in a weird space right now, with big blockbusters taking over what used to be a smaller genre. What’s your thought on the status of action comedies today?
My favorite action comedies are the ones that are not played for the comedy. Midnight Run, you know, movies like that, those are the movies that I love. Within those tones, you can get poignant. The danger still works, but the comedy works on another level. So it’s about maintaining that kind of tone that I really understand. And the fact that I’ve been a schoolteacher, and I’ve been an acting coach, I feel pretty confident that I can extract the performances I need from my cast. They were amazing people. I felt like I was cheating.
Did you know from the start you wanted to direct this one?
Oh, absolutely. There are some things I’ve directed and not gotten credit for, which is fine with me, because I’m all about the collaborative effort. So I don’t care where I am. Whether I’m an actor or director, producer, I want it to be something everybody is going to be proud to be a part of. So I feel like it’s such a blessing to be able to do this.
So what was different for you about this one, as opposed to, for instance, directing the Never Back Down movies?
Something I’m very much about is that you can entertain and actually tell stories. The thing I’m really excited about is that the test audiences have walked away saying they haven’t seen a movie quite like this, and that the stories and messages have been reading loud and clear to them. That’s something I’ve been happy about, because when I write or direct something, I don’t fall in love with it. But I hope people get the message. And I’ve been happy that people have been getting the message and the fact it’s a movie about redemption and forgiveness, but disguised as a revenge film.
One of my colleagues talked to Juel Taylor, director of They Cloned Tyrone, a few weeks back. Listing his inspirations for that movie, Black Dynamite was one of the first ones he brought up. Have you seen the movie? What do you think about hearing that from a fellow filmmaker?
Yeah, I was very flattered. And he contacted me about using some stuff from Black Dynamite in it, which I was absolutely flattered by. I thought he did an amazing movie. That thing was amazing.
When the movie comes out, there might be some discussion around the casting of non-Natives to play the Native American characters. What’s your perspective on it?
Well, it’s about authenticity, isn’t it? So being authentic to ’70s moviemaking is, Well, how did they cast Native Americans? This is a parody, making a joke of things, and making statements. If you notice that there might be someone who may not be Native American playing a Native American role, [it’s] authentic to that time period. But we had plenty of real Native Americans in the movie, even during the same shot, who might be staring daggers at this Anglo playing Native American. [laughs] Because if I cast a Native American in that role, it would be inauthentic.
To the movies you’re playing off of and parodying?
Yeah. So there’s certain ways you make your political statements. Of course, Hey, this movie is extrapolated from the Tulsa Massacre, and other things like that. You know, the basis is Black Wall Street and things like that — these catastrophes that happened to these thriving Black communities. And if I’m able to put this in a different context, I think other people can understand my methods of storytelling, and making these statements.
One of the strengths to me is specifically the blond, blue-eyed kid who’s playing one of the first Native American characters you meet in the film. It’s so obvious that’s what you’re going for.
So many people want to be insulted in some kind of way; they want to be outraged. They search for the outrage and they make themselves look silly when they don’t get it, when their desire to be outraged trumps their desire to look and discover the whole point. I’m making that point. I’m trying to tell that story. But we can laugh at it.
You mentioned Monty Python and some Blaxploitation films as influences, and you’ve mentioned Billy Jack as another influence on this movie. Do any other influences come to mind?
There’s so many that I want the audience to discover. I could tell you so many. But I don’t want to give that away. I want the audiences to discover those. And that’s a fun process when people know I’ve actually used dialogue from this particular gem. There’s a lot of things for the lover of Westerns. They’re gonna see things that are gonna remind them of a lot of classics. And some tell you right away. Some are giveaways to [iconic actor] Terence Hill, you see things for Blazing Saddles, and there’s certain things even in the trailer. There’s a lot of things within the movie itself that the Western lover is going to pull out.
Blazing Saddles obviously jumped out at me, with the punching of the horse.
And then there’s the intermediate audience — they’re going to recognize that probably the most celebrated jiu-jitsu master in the world [Rigan Machado] is the person punching the horse.
Full circle there. Star athletes doing that in both movies.
Right! So there’s things that are put there to entertain [those audiences]. That’s why I enjoy watching it in a theater, where you’ve got a smattering of an audience that’s going to be laughing about things that are going to go over the head of another segment. And they go, What did I miss? You know, that’s what’s fun about it.
Outlaw Johnny Black is now in theaters.