By Randal C. Hill
Blaxploitation movies – the term is a blending of the words “black” and “exploitation” – emerged in the early 1970s. They followed Hollywood’s rethinking of race relations in films, with black characters (finally) being offered as protagonists rather than sidekicks, antagonists or victims. “Shaft” is a good early example of this nascent genre.
Now Hollywood is offering a blaxploitation movie far beyond a traditional shoot-‘em-up Western, and this laugh-filled romp just may be the film that mainstream audiences will head to see while getting to know its versatile star Michael Jai White.
In “The Outlaw Johnny Black,” young Johnny (Jalyn Hall) witnesses his preacher father being gunned down by the evil Brett Clayton (Chris Browning). The adult Black (Jai White) seems to have a singular goal in life: to track down and kill Clayton, using a bullet that Johnny has carved Clayton’s name onto.
Black gets paired with Reverend Percival Fairman (Byron Minns), who’s headed for Hope Springs, a town in need of a preacher. The Reverend also entertains the prospect of marrying a comely woman there named Jessie Lee (Anika Noni Rose), who has been writing to Fairman for two years.
Black swaps places with Fairman after the two are attacked by Indians. Black assumes that the preacher is dead, unaware that his Bible has absorbed a potentially fatal blow from a well-shot arrow. Johnny assumes Fairman’s identity and arrives at Hope Springs. As the fake preacher, Black sermonizes—ironically — “If you have unforgiveness in your heart, then you are shackled to your past.”
Later, the real reverend shows up to reassume the mantle that Black has stripped from him. And this is when the fun goes into overdrive.
“The Outlaw Johnny Black” spotlights the talented actor Jai White. (He looks much like a mustachioed Richard Pryor.) Some of Jai White’s lightning-speed martial-arts moves with pistols and kicks will have you thinking that there’s computerized trickery going on here, but that’s not the case.
The script pays homage to a pair of classic 1970s Westerns, melding the over-the-top machoism of “Billy Jack” with the inventive goofiness of “Blazing Saddles,” the latter featuring a horse being sucker-punched, a questionable act also repeated in Jai White’s creation.
Jai White wrote and directed “The Outlaw Johnny Black” and was one of four producers of the Samuel Goldwyn Films release, which opens September 15.