Willie Dynamite


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Willie Dynamite
"A patchwork of impressive work and spectacular failures."

It's the early Seventies and on the mean streets of New York City, Willie Dynamite is king. With seven 'wives' to walk the streets for him and a wardrobe like no other, he goes what he wants and does what he wants, showing no fear of the police or of the rivals who want to move in on his territory. But his latest flame, Pashen (Joyce Walker) is proving to be a handful, earning too little and repeatedly getting arrested; and this draws the attention of campaigning former sex worker Cora (Diana Sands), who becomes determined to destroy him.

In his very first big screen appearance, long before he became famous for playing Trash Gordon in Sesame Street, Roscoe Orman goes all out to portray a man whose livelihood depends on glamour, attitude and a keen understanding of the law. He walks a fine line between the macho heroes of early Blaxploitation hits and the more complex, troubled antiheroes who would come to populate the decade's mainstream thrillers. Similarly, the film walks the line between celebrating the criminal lifestyle - especially the subjugation of women - and celebrating the fierceness of its indomitable heroine. In the manner of most films where a remarkable villain is subject to relentless pursuit, she and Willie develop sympathy for each other over time, adding a bittersweet note to the final showdown.

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Willie Dynamite was made on a very low budget and suffers from amateurish technical work in many places. Bernard Johnson's costumes can't be faulted for their boldness but cross the line between the believably OTT and the pantomimic, party because of the terrible quality of the fabrics used - Willie boasts of dressing his women in silks but there is only one silk item in the whole film (a briefly glimpsed bra) and there's an awful lot of bri-nylon. As they slink past one another in hotel lobbies, they risk giving off the wrong kind of sparks. This is unfortunate because it means that, too often, the actors are eclipsed by what they're wearing; but Sands, who gets to dress more discreetly, gives a forceful performance that forms the real spine of the film.

This is one of those films that's difficult to rate because it's a patchwork of impressive work and spectacular failures. Gilbert Moses' action direction is strong and he delivers some thrilling chase sequences, but the fight choreography is terrible, turning what should be thrilling and emotionally important sequences into accidental comedy. This amateurishness - together with the innate silliness of the central notion that a man running only seven women could dominate a city of millions - also undermines the film's subtler narratives about race relations and police brutality. Perhaps most damagingly, the film doesn't cut it when it comes to the music, a key feature of the genre. It has too few songs, the action isn't properly choreographed to fit them and they're just not strong enough to convince the viewer that anyone outside Willie's immediate circle thinks he's as cool as he does.

Ultimately, this is worth watching for its historical value as a work created at a point when the genre was in flux, but it's seriously flawed as a piece of cinema.

Reviewed on: 05 Feb 2017
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Willie Dynamite packshot
A New York City pimp encounters a woman who is determined to bring his business down.

Director: Gilbert Moses

Writer: Ron Cutler

Starring: Roscoe Orman, Diana Sands, Joyce Walker, Norma Donaldson, Juanita Brown, Thalmus Rasulala

Year: 1974

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: US


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