Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Blaxploitation lives. I don't mean in the throwback, intentional cult movie form of Black Dynamite, but as an ongoing grass-roots phenomenon of low-budget cinema. Not that Mark Hicks's movie has no ties to the past; its ties are actually fairly strong. But this is blaxploitation for the 21st century, albeit in a relatively family-friendly form. It's also a martial-arts comedy that's as dumb as a bag of hammers, and the first movie I know of that claims to be inspired by a YouTube video.

The Afro Ninja legend begins in 2004, when Hicks, a stuntman, was auditioning for a Nike commercial. He threw a back flip but flubbed the dismount, shall we say.

When the clip was uploaded to YouTube some time later, it became one of those viral videos that I sometimes hear about. It even got shown on The Tonight Show, and Hicks's movie borrows footage of Jay Leno ragging on him. Hoping to get something more than fifteen minutes of fame from his flop, Hicks turned to screenwriter Carlton Holder to shape a story around the footage that would allow him to poke fun at himself but also transcend his infamy.

Hicks plays Reggie Carson, a dorky postal worker who joins fellow workers in coming to work in costume on Halloween. His idea of a costume is a ratty wig that's supposed to make him look like Jim Kelly. Neither his colleagues nor his elderly Aunt Sally (Marla Gibbs of Jeffersons fame) buy it. But the outfit inspires him to play the hero when a crazy veteran menaces the post office with a machine gun.

There must have been some magic in those nunchakus he found, for when he grasped them in his hands...

Attempting to intimidate him with martial arts, Reggie executes (in the sense of nearly killing himself) the backflip, which is caught on a surveillance camera to become the original Afro Ninja video. The vet gets the drop on him, then reveals that the machine gun is a water pistol. Then he produces a grenade. "You should see the look on your face," he tells Reggie, "This will wipe the face off of your smile!" Is that Carlton Holder's idea of crazy dialogue or did the actor flub his line? I don't know. I do know that Reggie sees the grenade, cries "bomb!" and escapes with the other workers from the unconvincing post-office set before it blows up.

Before this went down, Reggie found a long-forgotten package that has somehow been laying around the office since 1975. It was sent from Japan and intended for one Cleavon Washington. Inside are a pair of nunchakus that glow when Reggie touches them. Meanwhile, a dying Japanese woman breathes some glowy essence into his mouth. The long-term effect is something like a radioactive spider bite. He awakens with ripped abs and an afro. He has unconscious martial arts skills and can read Japanese fluently. He has become Afro Ninja for real and under that name starts to fight crime, most of which is organized in secret by shoe magnate and martial-arts champion Jerome "Black Lightning" Gordon, who we learn was a renegade student of the long lost Cleavon Washington, who we learn, in turn, was Reggie's father.

"I know this sounds cliched, but your ass is grass." Actual dialogue from Afro Ninja: Destiny.

As Afro Ninja, Reggie learns to stand up for himself and his dreams, finds love with a co-worker, becomes "anal with clean" after years of slovenly bachelor living, and learns from an occasionally materializing Japanese master that "Sometimes you must tumble to stumble onto the right path."

Hicks is no Jim Kelly (as proven when the man himself materializes to give our hero his blessing) but he's no Rudy Ray Moore, either. The martial arts aren't sophisticated or stylish, nor are they marred by wirework or CGI. The fighting consists of stuntmen punching and kicking one another, and they do it with enthusiasm, especially in the final showdown when Afro Ninja invades Black Lightning's dojo. The only special effects in this sequence are the lights glowing in the villain's eyes and the sparkles when Reggie repels machine-gun fire with his nunchakus.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Jim Kelly.

You know you're dealing with a low budget project when Hicks lets Marla Gibbs take top billing over him on the box cover, but like Kelly Gibbs is a link with a legendary era in black entertainment and despite her obvious enfeeblement she's a welcome presence in a project like this one. It was also a treat to see Kelly, however briefly and inactively, in what IMDB tells me is his first screen credit since 1994. Afro Ninja is quite conscious of its cultural heritage, and while it isn't set in the Seventies it doesn't quite seem to be of the present day, either. It's definitely not a hip-hop movie by any stretch of the imagination, nor a good movie for that matter. But it has a certain naive charm and its heart is in the right place in its affection for oldschool martial arts. It might make a good second feature to go with Black Dynamite (which my local library doesn't have yet, to my knowledge), and this one you can play while the kids are still up.

These three ladies parade provocatively through scenes often enough to make you expect them to go all Charlie's Angels on somebody. Disappointingly, that never happens.

Here's the official trailer posted by none other than afroninjadestiny to YouTube:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Who da mastah?" "Sho Nuff"

"Who da mastah?" "Sho Nuff"

"Whd da mastah?" "SHO NUFF"