Universal // 1974 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // March 15th, 2005
Ain't no one crosses Willie D. He's tight, together, and mean. Chicks, chumps, he uses 'em all. He's got to be number one.
I'm a man of simple pleasures, and they don't come simpler than watching a popular children's television star play a foul-mouthed pimp who parades the mean streets of New York in the gaudiest clothes imaginable, keeping his stable of "bitches" in check with a violent temper and a stockpile of dope.
Shortly after Roscoe Orman lit up screens as money-grubbing, fashion-conscious pimp Willie Dynamite, he moved on and settled down on a distinctly different kind of street -- Sesame Street. While in Willie Dynamite, Orman threw competing pimps out of his tricked-out Caddie and explained the economics of prostitution to ungrateful call girls, he can now be seen every morning as the genial Gordon, teaching basic math to a six-foot tall bird, and promoting the virtues of cleanliness to trashcan-dwelling Muppets. Quite simply put, one of these things is not like the other; one of these things just doesn't belong.
Pimp extraordinaire Willie Dynamite (Roscoe Orman, F/X) operates his high-priced call girl racket out of a ritzy New York hotel. A staunch capitalist at heart, Willie rules his stable with a fist of iron: "Every ten minutes another one comes off the assembly line" he tells them, and instructs his girls to study nudie magazines to "sell the fantasy" to lonely conventioneers and Shriners. As a wise man once said, though, pimpin' ain't easy. Although Willie has amassed a flashy customized Cadillac, fur coats and a team of high-priced lawyers, he just can't seem to win. Every time he turns around, the cops tow his car, his girls are hauled before the courts, or he's busted on some phony armed robbery charge.
Things get worse when ambitious Willie rebuffs rival pimp Bell's (Roger Robinson, Meteor) suggestion that all the local operations combine forces, angering his pimpin' peers and setting himself up as a prime target for revenge. Cora (Diana Sands, A Raisin in the Sun), a streetwalker turned social worker, proves an even bigger threat to Willie's organization when she attempts to persuade the latest addition to Willie's stable -- Pashen (Joyce Walker, Shaft's Big Score) -- to give up the life. Just as Willie catches wind of Cora's crusade, the ex-hustler tries to convince the rest of Willie's girls to set up a union to stop being exploited. Whatever happened to trying to make an honest buck in the world's oldest profession?
Despite the fact that the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, and even African American leaders like Jesse Jackson condemned them for glamorizing sex, drugs, violence, and the criminal lifestyle, blaxploitation movies put strong, identifiable black heroes on the screen for the first time in history, and were huge hits with inner city audiences. While there's no denying that some films did play up the illicit behavior of their anti-heroes while surrounding them with more money and women than you could shake your diamond-tipped cane at, few could really accuse a film like Willie Dynamite as advocating the pimp lifestyle.
Although Willie Dynamite is based at least partially on Iceberg Slim's book Pimp, and shares obvious similarities with Superfly, this film curiously declines to mythologize its protagonist as a hero to the black community. As far as visceral thrills go, Willie Dynamite is really all about the wardrobe department: Willie's fur-trimmed, bejeweled attire is about three steps beyond absurd -- even the bystanders that can be seen in the backgrounds of certain scenes can't help but be flabbergasted by Willie's pink body suits, completely ridiculous hats, lambswool coats, and his watch with a secret compartment loaded with high-grade cocaine. Although these creature comforts might appear perversely alluring at first, the film's apparent celebration of big pimpin' is quickly undercut by Willie's mounting troubles, which not only mirror New York's real life attempts to clean up prostitution, but ultimately turn Willie Dynamite into a sober, tragic tale about a streetwise hustler who got hustled by the streets himself.
Willie Dynamite may not offer up the exploitation goods like The Mack, Coffy, or other popular entries in the "pimp" subgenre of blaxploitation, but it proves far more satisfying on a dramatic level, as Willie must come to terms with his grandiose lifestyle. Whereas The Mack is about spreading the wealth and supporting the African-American community, Willie Dynamite is a look at the pitfalls of free enterprise, a film that exposes the dark side of the American dream and blind pursuit of capitalism. The film's underlying message is ultimately positive and forward-thinking, and even though the overall direction of the film is rather commonplace, it's obvious that director Gilbert Moses was trying to present something more than just a typical action-packed no-brainer here, the kind of film most often associated with the genre.
Orman, who had previously worked in Gilbert Moses's theatre group, is excellent as the downtrodden Willie, complemented nicely by veteran stage actress Diana Sands's portrayal of Cora. Sadly, Sands was diagnosed with cancer while filming Willie Dynamite, and passed away right after the film was completed. Minor roles are also filled with identifiable African American actors and actresses, making Willie Dynamite a hotbed of talent. Blaxploitation supporting role mainstay Thalmus Rasulala (why couldn't they have given this guy his own film?) is underused as a D.A., and Ethel Ayler, perhaps best known as Bill Cosby's mother on The Cosby Show, has a scene stealing moment as Willie's aunt. Perhaps the most notable performance in the film comes from Roger Robinson, whose fey pimp Bell is a masterpiece of scenery chewing flamboyancy.
Gilbert Moses also composed part of the score with blaxploitation musical favorite J.J. Johnson, but the music selections here are pretty forgettable. The sole track of note is Martha Reeves's rendition of the opening title song, "Willie D.," which kicks the film in style as a group of Willie's girls sashay through a hotel lobby crammed with bug-eyed, sweaty businessmen already reaching for their wallets.
Universal was not very active in blaxploitation in the genre, especially in comparison to Warner Brothers, MGM, and the B-film studios that cranked them out like they were going out of style -- which in fact, they were. Their entire library of blaxploitation films -- That Man Bolt, Willie Dynamite, and Trick Baby -- were released very late in the VHS game, and now they all make the leap to DVD as the first (and undoubtedly last) releases in Universal's bare-bones "Soul Showcase" line. Although digitally remastered, the quality of this release is nothing special. The image generally looks okay, although the transfer is a shade on the grainy side. Colors are deep and solid, though. The Dolby Mono track is always clear and free of extraneous noise, but fidelity is obviously limited. There are no extras on this disc, not even a trailer, which may not be surprising, but it is disappointing, especially given the opportunity for an interview with Orman.
Now, I'm not going to lie to you: Willie Dynamite is a passable, but not particularly notable, blaxploitation exercise that remains recommended only because it offers ridiculous pimp wardrobes and the chance to see Roscoe Orman play against type. If watching a mean-spirited Gordon smack his "bitches," pull a derringer out of his crotch, and descend into a pit of drunkenness sounds like a subversively good time, then -- like me -- you're sure to get a bang out of Willie Dynamite.
This DVD review has been brought to you by the letters P for Pimp and I for Innocent.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated R