There are few performers in Hollywood whose description requires more hyphens than actor-writer-director-producer-martial artist Michael Jai White. He’s earned black belts in seven different disciplines, but rather than competing as a professional fighter, White has become one of the longest-reigning champions of low-budget martial arts cinema, starring in dozens of theatrical and direct-to-video action films. He’s a comics cult figure, having portrayed the title character in 1997’s Spawn and numerous voice roles across the DC and Marvel ouvre, as well as a small but memorable role in 2008’s The Dark Knight. He’s also a comedic actor whose character in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? received a sitcom spin-off that ran for 162 episodes. At the nexus of his talents rests Black Dynamite, an uproarious and endlessly quotable parody of 1970s Blaxploitation, which White wrote with co-star Byron Minns and director Scott Sanders. Black Dynamite became a cult hit, and fans have been eagerly awaiting its spiritual follow-up, Outlaw Johnny Black, for over a decade.
But Michael Jai White isn’t just one thing, and he doesn’t want his new film to be just one thing, either. Outlaw Johnny Black is marketed as a “faith-based Western Blaxploitation romantic comedy/drama,” which White admits is not the sort of movie that a major studio is likely to greenlight.
“Studios like to tell the same stories,” White tells Observer. “They’re very formula-oriented. If you want to make something like this, you tend to have to do it in an independent fashion. This is the epitome of an independent film.” (White spoke during the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes thanks to an interim agreement with the unions that allows the promotion of independent films.)
Indeed, Outlaw Johnny Black is about as indie as it gets. The project began in 2018 as a 2-minute teaser trailer, shot in a single day. White plays the titular gunslinging ruffian on a quest to avenge his father’s murder, but in order to evade his own execution, he assumes the identity of a Black frontier town’s new preacher. Like Black Dynamite, this initial trailer is an off-the-wall slapstick comedy played totally straight, featuring returning cast members Byron Minns and Kim Whitley, as well as Cobra Kai’s Martin Kove. The trailer launched a crowdfunding effort for the full feature, which White says confused some potential backers who, based on the trailer, believed the film was already finished. Though the response to the IndieGogo campaign was underwhelming, it led to White acquiring more conventional independent financing, and the full, 136-minute epic was born, which White directed himself. (Barry Bostwick assumes Kove’s role in the final film.)
White and his new, Connecticut-based studio JAIGANTIC withheld release of Outlaw Johnny Black through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that it could debut safely to full theaters, only for it to land in the midst of the simultaneous WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Thankfully, while the majors essentially sacrifice their entire fall season in the hopes that the striking talent will starve before they do, White and his independent company signed an interim deal with the unions in order to promote their film during a relative drought for the Hollywood press. White acknowledges this important moment for independent film, and says that small studios like his are “part of a solution to the problem,” blaming the AMPTP’s stubbornness on the need to satisfy corporate stockholders.
Outlaw Johnny Black may have its own uphill battle ahead of it, given how different it is from what fans of Black Dynamite might be expecting. The initial IndieGogo teaser (and, to a lesser extent, the final theatrical trailer) imply a pace and tone like the 2009 cult classic, but Outlaw Johnny Black is a far more sincere film. Where Black Dynamite is a deadpan farce whose ludicrous action plot is played for laughs, Outlaw Johnny Black unfolds like a more conventional comedy, albeit with pointedly old-fashioned sensibilities. Some of the production period meta comedy of Black Dynamite remains — one Native American character is portrayed by Indian-as-in-from-India actor Russell Peters, another by Kyle Rezzarday, possibly the whitest-looking guy you’ve ever seen in your life — but for the most part, it’s a comedy in the style of a 1970s Western rather than a comedy at the expense of a 1970s Western. This provides cover (though often, not enough) for some dated or cornball humor. Michael Jai White kicks far fewer people in the face in this film, and with its PG-13 rating and religious target audience, there’s not as much sex and violence in general. To paraphrase Rudy Ray Moore, Outlaw Johnny Black has “no titties, less funny, and less kung fu.”
In its place, Outlaw Johnny Black contains something surprising: a heartfelt message about faith and forgiveness, one that White thinks will hit home precisely because audiences won’t expect it.
“Nobody likes to be preached to, but there’s a way to delicately weave in messages so that people don’t see coming, but they’re not insulted when they see it,” says White. “Even if a secular audience doesn’t notice the significance of just how much faith-based content there is, the messages are still coming across.” It’s for this reason that Atlanta’s actor/pastor/producer DeVon Franklin told White that Outlaw Johnny Black was “one of the best faith-based films [he’s] ever seen.”
That said, Outlaw Johnny Black’s messaging is welcoming enough to agnostic humanists, if I’m any indication. The moral of the film is not that its characters or its audience need to get right with Jesus, but rather that they need to make peace with themselves. Faith in God is simply a component to finding that peace, and there is no judgment or condescension towards anyone who walks another path.
“We’re all connected as human beings,” White says. “And if I can thinly veil something like it’s a revenge movie but leave an audience with something — especially nowadays — that tells you that we’re more alike than we are dissimilar, that tells you that hanging onto anger and resentment only harms the person who’s hanging onto it, and to share that with the intended audience who might benefit from that, that’s something that’s very dear to me.”
White speaks proudly about a producer friend who, after screening Outlaw Johnny Black, reached out and reconciled with his mother after eight years of estrangement. For as much as Black Dynamite is a tighter, funnier film, it’s unlikely to have this profound an emotional effect on anyone watching. This may be one of the greatest benefits of independent studios like JAIGANTIC, where a filmmaker can overcome the corporate pressures to repeat success by avoiding risk. For better or worse, Outlaw Johnny Black is Michael Jai White’s uncompromised vision, a reflection of a storyteller who doesn’t fit easily into any one box.