With movies like Spawn, Undisputed II and The Commando under his belt, Michael Jai White is one of Hollywood's heavyweight Black action stars. But the actor never misses the chance to flex his comedy muscles as well, whether that's as Black Dynamite, Undercover Brother... or Johnny Black. That's the title character of White's newest film, Outlaw Johnny Black, a comedy-laced Western that he wrote, directed and stars in. "That's part of the alchemy," he tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I get messages in these films that people don't see coming because it's veiled by comedy."
Just as Black Dynamite, which White co-wrote and starred in, was a lovingly satirical nudge at such Blaxploitation favorites as Shaft and Super Fly, Outlaw Johnny Black takes its inspiration from Westerns like 100 Rifles and Take a Hard Ride, which starred such big-screen Black icons as Fred Williamson and the late Jim Brown — both of whom make cameos in White's film. But it's also got a healthy dose of Blazing Saddles in the mix, right down to a gag that directly echoes the famous horse-punching moment from Mel Brooks's controversial 1974 comedy.
White's onscreen alter ego is a vengeful orphan looking to exact some payback on his father's killer. But through a series of unfortunate events, he has to go undercover as a frontier town preacher... even though he knows next to nothing about the Good Book. It's in that guise that he meets and falls for god-fearing single lady, Jessie (Anika Noni Rose), and takes on a tyrannical white land baron, played by film and TV staple, Barry Bostwick. "Audiences who have seen the film have been walking away saying they've never seen a movie like this," White says proudly. "They expected it to be funny, but they didn't expect to walk away with messages they could apply to their own lives."
While Hollywood's historical double strike by the Writer's Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild has largely kept actors from promoting their work, White successfully secured a SAG-AFTRA interim agreement for his independently made feature, which opened in theaters on Sept. 15. The actor answered three questions for Yahoo Entertainment about promoting a movie during the strike, whether Blazing Saddles could be remade today and featuring Jim Brown in what proved to be his final film role.
Watch a clip from Outlaw Johnny Black below
1. What's it like promoting a movie during the strike?
It's glorious that I'm able to talk about Outlaw Johnny Black, because we represent independent filmmaking at its core. By adhering to the interim agreement, we're part of the process of changing things [in Hollywood]. My heart goes out to the struggle, and we're doing our part to change that. It's such a tough time in terms of what we're going through, but I understand what this struggle is and how you have to fight for what's right.
It's difficult for the Screen Actors Guild to issue these waivers, because they've got so many people that they have to wade through. The process was difficult on my side, but it's difficult on their end as well because of the sheer volume of what they're up against. You feel your pain first and foremost in a lot of situations, but I think it's better to feel your pain by seeing the full picture. I've been on the picket lines, and there's a delicate line between showing up for the cause and that cause not being your own ego. I'm very careful about that line and not playing to the other side.
A lot of people are pointing fingers at the studios and making them out to be the boogeyman, but I would also urge people to look at what's behind the studios, which are their shareholders. There's a lot of studios who really want to do the right thing, but it's the shareholders that they have to answer to that may not care about human beings, and are just thinking about the bottom line. So I just want people to follow the money — that's something that's worked in a lot of scenarios. Just keep following the money, and you might see what's up.
2. Could Blazing Saddles be made today?
You could absolutely do it, but it's a different tapestry. Blazing Saddles was great for that time period and lampooned things that were going on back then. You've got to understand today's world. A knock I have on Hollywood now is what I call "look at me" filmmaking. There's got to be an authenticity in crafting something like that. You can't be like, "Hey, look at me — this is going to be funny." You've got to adhere to the same criteria that writers of that time period adhered to, and not just celebrate your own sense of humor.
Look at what the Duffer Brothers did with Stranger Things, right? You can absolutely do that. And there's a certain voice in Black Dynamite and Outlaw Johnny Black where I'm acting as a writer from that time period. I approach it as, "I'm going to do this circa 1971, but also paying attention to what's happening now and reverse engineer it." So I know [Blazing Saddles] can be done, and I know I could do it if I was given the chance because I see it parsed out in other things.
Prior to doing Outlaw Johnny Black, I sat down with David Zucker, and talked to him at length about how I was going to do the movie. We also talked about resurrecting The Naked Gun, because I felt I knew how to do that. They're doing it with Liam Neeson, which is smart. If you've seen the comedic stuff that Liam has done with Ricky Gervais, that's my wheelhouse. If you're going to remake it, that's how you do it.
3. What was it like directing Jim Brown in his final film role?
Jim was really a surrogate father than me. I spent more time with Jim Brown than my biological father in all honesty. Before I was an actor, I was a schoolteacher and was quite active doing motivational speaking. Our paths crossed while I was doing a number of outreach programs, and I stared working with his Amer-I-Can Foundation and would accompany him to talk to gang members. We became quite close, because we both lived for service. I spent time with him and his wife just months before he passed last May.
Jim and Fred Williamson [another former NFL star-turned-actor] appear together in the film, and they were very instrumental in why I wrote Outlaw Johnny Back in the first place. They did a movie called Take a Hard Ride and if anybody notices, I have them in the same outfits they were wearing in that movie. They were my heroes. In preview screenings, you weren't able to hear their dialogue because the audience just cheers as soon as they see them.
Jim and Fred wrote their own dialogue for that scene. It's making me a little emotional right now to think about hearing your father figure say, "The boy done good." I mean, come on! I'm trying to keep it together right now. When I was a kid, I said that I wanted to be like those two guys and to grow up and befriend them was a dream come true.
Outlaw Johnny Black is playing in theaters now.