Adapting a film to a television series is always a tricky proposition. When the film in question is a beloved cult favorite–such as Black Dynamite, the 2009 film that did for 70s Blaxploitation what Wet Hot American Summer did for early-80s Summer Camp movies–pulling off an effective series becomes even more difficult. What is it that draws the audience to the film and keeps them watching it repeatedly? Is it something that can be pulled from the film and effectively employed in the form of an ongoing series? The Adult Swim animated series Black Dynamite brings back many of the actors and creative team behind the film, but in its first season it struggles to find a consistent level of quality, despite featuring many individual moments of genuinely inspired humor.
Taking place before the events of the film, Black Dynamite is something of a prologue series. Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White reprising the lead role from the film) runs a Whorephanage, where Honey Bee (Kym Whitley) helps keep the whores in line and takes care of the orphans. They regularly team up with constantly-rhyming hype man Bullhorn (Byron Minns) and Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson), a pimp who lives with his mother, usually to thwart a threat to the Black Community. Given that this is an animated series, these threats can include an alien invasion led by young Michael Jackson, puppets from a popular educational series turned bad, a giant albino gorilla named Honky Kong, and other such things that would be prohibitively expensive to portray in a live-action film.
Unfortunately, the film Black Dynamite was at its funniest when sticking closely to the look, style, and tone of the Blaxploitation films it simultaneously parodied and paid tribute to. Given the comparatively free rein of an animated series, the creative team behind the series goes immediately for more outlandish, surreal story lines. Sometimes this works, such as in the series’ web pilot (“Trouble on Puppet Street”), which fills in some of Black Dynamite’s back story and hilariously sends up a couple of very unexpected targets: Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. The series constantly ties in its stories with pop culture references, though, and the results mostly fall flat. The series hits its peak with “Apocalypse This,” an episode that sends Black Dynamite and his crew back to Vietnam to stop his old army buddy Mr. T from waging his own guerrilla war–and/or bring back his barbecue sauce recipe.
This episode in particular works so well in part because it hews closer to the style of the film. There are a lot of inspired characters and bits throughout the series, but for every hilarious bit there’s a handful of tired pop culture and/or race baiting jokes. The dialogue also leans pretty hard on being as profane as possible, too often expecting enough swear words to substitute for actual jokes. The series felt like it was starting to find its footing in the second half of the season, so hopefully when the series returns for Season Two the creative team will find a better balance between exploring the possibilities of the animated series and featuring the characters in a way that keeps the show more grounded.
Warner Brothers released Black Dynamite: Season One on DVD and Blu-ray 15 July 2014. Special features include video commentary on select episodes, a “Making Of” featurette, and the series pilot.