Is "Black Dynamite's" White Audience Laughing for the Wrong Reasons?

The show is problematic in more ways than one.

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Image via Complex Original
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Over the past few days, a lot of buzz has been circulating about the season finale of Black Dynamite, and comparing it to Ferguson. The special, "The Wizard of Watts," starts off when the lead character, Black Dynamite, gets hit in the head with a brick during a riot. He starts hallucinating and goes on a bizarre acid trip of an adventure in a magical land called Oz-Watts. From there, it's 44 minutes of singing, dancing, and ass-kicking through what is basically an animated, blacker version of The Wiz. (And, yes, I realize that The Wiz was already pretty black.)


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The thing about all the buzz connecting this show to Ferguson or Staten Island is that it's manufactured. It's not that the show creators are lying, or that they're trying to piggyback on something—it's all coincidence. Black Dynamite just so happened to show up early for a cultural war.

This isn't the first time Black Dynamite has accidentally been ahead of the game on social commentary. For example, at one point in season one, the main character is looking for a kidnapper, when he gets a tip that the actual culprit was Bill Cosby. Black Dynamite pauses for a second, in disbelief, and stammers: “Wait. Like Cosby, jello-pudding-date-raping-Cosby?”

Hannibal Buress' public call-out of Cosby wouldn't happen until months later.

It's not even about police brutality.

"To be honest," Black Dynamite Executive Producer Carl Jones admits, "the story itself is not about police brutality per se." And it's not—the most obvious reference to actual events in the story is an unexpected appearance from former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Police misconduct is just sort of part of the backdrop—cops beating kids, cops frisking (and sexually assaulting) black women, cops showing up armed to the teeth to a quiet community.


Police mistreatment of black people barely qualifies as a plot device in the show—it just gives the main characters something to talk about. And maybe that's the scariest part—that police brutality toward minorities is normal. It's so mundane as to be unremarkable, especially in a cartoon full of flying junkies and a cursing toy poodle voiced by Tyler, The Creator.

In fact, Carl Jones says that the show was basically complete long before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The basic outline for the script, he says, started about a year and half ago. So it's not really that the episode predicted the future—it's just that it was displaying a reality that the world has only recently been forced to acknowledge.

The last-minute changes.

But if you know what to look for, you do start to notice portions that were obviously added in as references to recent events. For example, at one point, a crowd of black people start getting fed up with racism and police brutality, and decide to take some action. One of them shouts: "Man, fuck this! I refuse to be treated like a cigarillo-stealing, cigarette selling, syrup-sipping stereotype! We need to do something. We should all turn our shirts inside out! Yeah!"

Black Dynamite retorts: "…or, you could fight back?"

The line about turning shirts inside out was in the original script: the show is making fun of the Clippers' protest of Donald Sterling last April, when they wore their warm-up jerseys inside out. Black Dynamite was originally just trying to poke fun at how pointless that “protest” was. But the “cigarillo-stealing, cigarette-selling” bit (a reference to Michael Brown and Eric Garner) was added in at the last minute.

The flexibility to add in references to events at the last moment is thanks to Black Dynamite's lo-fi approach to animation. As Jones describes it, he prefers to use only basic animations for characters' mouths. Since most of the animation is outsourced to Korea, it's hard to add any substantial visuals after main production has been finished. But because the mouth animations are so basic, there's room to let voice actors improvise their lines—or add things late in the production process. 

That's why the villain of the show, just before facing off with Black Dynamite, shouts, "Black lives don't mean shit," an obvious reference to the #blacklivesmatter hashtag that has been trending on Twitter. "Actually, we already had him saying something pretty close to that," Jones says. "It just wasn't that on the nose." So, they changed the wording at the last minute. 

Weapons that don't always work. 

This flexibility in character voices also allows for what will probably be the most quoted line from the show, when a character grabs an old-school camcorder and turns it on one of the cops. The cop squeals: "No, no! Don't record me! Not an irrefutable visual record of my illegal actions! …But at least a grand jury won't indict me!"

"All of that dialogue was there originally," Jones says. "The only thing we added at the end was the part about the grand jury."


The camcorder scene was inspired by Jones' own observations online, when he noticed that black people were beginning to patrol their own communities with mobile phone cameras, and uploading videos of police misconduct. "And it was working," Jones says. The cameras, in the hands of black and brown kids, seemed to function as a kind of anti-brutality weapon, and Jones wanted to pay homage to that trend.

"But, I guess those weapons don't work all the time," Jones laughs grimly. Hence the additional line. 

That’s not to say that changes are  limited to just voice tracks. Sometimes, the Black Dynamite animators will add some extra visuals, which is probably what happened with a scene in which one of the cops puts a man that looks suspiciously like Eric Garner in a choke hold.  

Too soon? Maybe. But while Jones isn't particularly worried about people being offended, he does want people to understand his intent. "Even when we make these last minute adjustments," he says, "it's not to exploit the issue. It's more about actually just trying to carve out a space where we can show as artists that we're able to speak to these issues as they happen in a way that is helpful for our society." Otherwise, Jones worries, the conversations might start to "lose steam, because it's not the 'right time' to talk about it yet." this helpful for our society?

Jones realizes that the way Black Dynamite addresses things like racism and violence may not be for everyone. "I mean, they may not want to watch the show again," he says. "But at least it will provoke some type of thought and inspire people to actually voice their opinion."

That is, there's plenty to dislike about this episode, if you feel like criticizing it. I lost count of instances of calling women "hoes" in the first few minutes, and Black Dynamite as a show is a parade of generic misogyny. You could argue that that's unavoidable given the blaxploitation source material, but you might not buy that argument.

Also, there's some pretty negative depictions of black people in general: In the very beginning, the police start beating a black orphan. A nearby man looks at the scene, and says, "that makes me feel like burning down my own community, starting with the Korean store!" He then throws a molotov cocktail through a Kim's Liquor Store window.


Then there's the fact that the most memorable song in "Wizard of Watts" is an extended rework of Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" that features a junkie rapping about stealing televisions to pay for his crack habit.

A lot of this stuff mirrors talking points that racists have been all too happy to bring up. After all, as soon as the Ferguson protests started, the television was full of racist news commentators eager to point the finger of blame at black people. We heard all the old lines—what about black-on-black crime? Aren't you causing all of your own problems? Pants Up, Don't Loot!

So, it's possible that a good portion of the predominantly white male audience of Adult Swim will simply laugh at the stereotypical black characters as confirmation of their own racist ideas. Whether they like it or not, the creators of Black Dynamite are up against the same predicament that inspired Dave Chappelle to walk away from a multi-million dollar contract: you never know if your white audience is laughing with you, or laughing at you.

Where is our Black Dynamite?

So, we're left with a show that's pretty funny, but gives us no answers. In a weird way, that's probably the point. And it's here where I think I could probably convince even Pound Cake Speech Bill Cosby that this obscene-laden romp was a good idea.

In the climax of the show, Black Dynamite realizes that even though he was looking for a mystical wizard that would grant his wishes and protect the people of Oz-Watts for him, that quest was pointless. Everything he's looking for already exists within him—he just has to (literally) fight for himself and his community. I think that's one thing that Jones and his fellow artists are trying to get across. A lot of the black celebrities and leaders we might expect to speak up for us—​Don Lemon, Charles Barkley, hell, even Kendrick Lamar slipped up the other day—are, as one character says, "on [their] magical throne, not doing shit."

In other words, we’re on our own.

So as confusing as this might sound, Black Dynamite is not our Black Dynamite. This show isn't going to save black people. It's also probably not going to change anybody's mind about much of anything. At the worst, it will give racists something else to laugh about, and at best, it will give us a chance to think. 

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