Blu-ray Review: Willie Dynamite

During the early ’70s, Hollywood studios discovered that moviegoers were eager to see films starring black actors. Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly and Pam Grier proved that they not only be the lead in feature films, but could sell tickets. I’m not a fan of calling this era “Blaxploitation” because who being exploited? The arguments quickly devolve down to a belief that it was just black actors being used by white filmmakers. But the truth is that quite a few of the directors during this time were black. Probably more minorities found themselves in the director’s chair than the next few decades. Case in point is Gilbert Moses. He had made a name from himself in the live theater including being Tony nominated on Broadway. Producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck, (the guys behind Jaws) brought Stern ought to Hollywood to make a film. Stern gave us a story about a pimp at the top of his game with both the law and his rivals coming at him in Willie Dynamite.

Willie Dynamite is a prime pimp in Manhattan. His stable of prostitutes are a like a military unit when they show up at a convention at a fancy hotel. They know how to spot the interested men in Fez hats who want that something their wives won’t do. It all doesn’t go too well as one girl is nabbed by the cops who haul her upstairs instead of to the station. Willie cruises the night in his purple pimpmobile that’s more tricked out than the Batmobile. Back at his office, the ladies return and give their earnings to Willie. He likes getting his money, but he’s not happy when he fears the count is low. He reminds them that this is a business and he’s got his production line working smoothly. Willie might be the second biggest pimp, but like Avis, he wants to be number 1. He heads up to a meeting of the local pimps which turns into games of mine is better. Each of the flashy dressed businessmen claim they have the best cocaine. They are wanting to declare turf on the island in order to protect themselves from the police. But Willie won’t abide. He needs his girls to be able to go where the action is. Things quickly go bad for Willie. First one of his girls gets busted and a social worker (A Raisin in the Sun‘s Diana Sands) wants to free the girls from working for Willie. His convention hotel gets taken over by a rival pimp who isn’t nice in claiming the turf. The cops come down on Willie and take away his pimpmobile and lock up his prostitutes. What’s a pimp to do?

During this time Super Fly, The Mack and Dolemite had pimps as their main characters. But those three films didn’t have a major studio backing the production. They were gritty affairs made low to the bone on locations. Willie Dynamite had major moments shot on the studio’s soundstages and backlots which worked to the advantage of allowing Willie and his ladies’ colorful wardrobe to look more vibrant since the director of photography Frank Stanley (Car Wash & Magnum Force) could light the space and not just grab the shot. Stanley lights up the screen with Willie’s brilliantly bright and textured pimp suits. The bad part about the film being made by a studio is the final reel isn’t as gritty as Super Fly and The Mack. Universal Pictures needed a happy ending to this tale of Willie Dynamite even with an R rating.

The most amazing part of the film is the work of Roscoe Orman as Willie. He plays the pimp as both cold blooded and a touch vulnerable without looking like a cartoon character. He portrays Willie as a driven small businessmen with a temporary help agency. When he explains his approach to growing his enterprise, he’s just an entrepreneur with flashier clothes. Of course it’s up to the viewers to notice that his winning business plan involves practically owning women and keeping their paychecks after a long night on the clock. What’s truly amazing about Orman is realizing who he’d become by the end of the year when Willie Dynamite came out in 1974. Orman landed the gig of Gordon on Sesame Street. He kept playing Gordon regularly until 2016. Imagine that there was a time where a guy could go from playing a pimp to being a resident on a TV show for kids without uptight people to send nasty tweets to the show and causing the producers to panic. Willie Dynamite wasn’t a massive hit so odds were the super uptight folks had no clue about the filmography of the new Gordon.

Gilbert Moses would go on to director an episode of Roots and other TV shows as well as return to the stage. His only other theatrical film was The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh starring Dr. J and Meadowlark Lemon (which deserves a Blu-ray release). Willie Dynamite remains a colorful blast from the ’70s.

The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The colors in Willie’s suit dazzle as he struts across the screen. The audio is LPCM 2.0 mono. The levels are just right for when Orman gives his character the deep seductive voice. J.J. Johnson’s score also sounds solid. The movie is subtitled.

Audio Commentary by Sergio Mims delves into the cast and crew. Mims feels that the film’s big studio backing is what makes it look so nice, but also cuts into the edginess of the characters.

Theatrical Trailer (2:05) sets up that Willie Dynamite is ready to explode in the Big Apple.

Arrow Video presents Willie Dynamite. Directed by Gilbert Moses. Screenplay by: Ron Cutler. Starring: Roscoe Orman, Diana Sands, Thalmus Rasulala. Rated: R. Running Time: 102 minutes. Released: January 8, 2019.

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