Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Michael Jai White’s Outlaw Johnny Black

You can take the kid out of the tent revival, but you can’t take the tent revival out of the kid. Lord knows, Johnny Black tried. Like all legit gunslingers, he has dedicated his life to killing the man who shot his Pa. He thought he turned his back on his father’s old time religion, but it will creep up on him again when he is forced to impersonate a preacher in Michael Jai White’s Outlaw Johnny Black, which opens Friday in theaters.

Black learned to handle firearms from his trick-shooting Army veteran revival-preaching father, but Bullseye Black’s lessons in turning the other cheek never did take. After young Johnny Black watched outlaw gang-leader Brett Clayton gun down his father out of pure racist spite, the boy vowed to avenge him. It has been a few years, or decades, but he is still vowing.

At this point, Black’s gun-toting ways have made him an outlaw too, even though his targets all have it coming. His latest scrape with the law ended with a very narrow escape, but the desert would have killed him were it not for the intercession of the Rev. Percival Fairman (and the Lord, according to the preacher). Shortly thereafter, Black wrongly assumes Fairman dies in a skirmish with a Native tribe (yes, really), so he impersonates Fairman with his new flock in Hope Springs and with his unseen correspondence fiancée, Bessie Lee. To complicate matters, Fairman turns up very much alive and Black starts to fall for Bessie Lee’s sister, Jessie Lee, the strategist behind the town’s legal resistance to evil land baron Tom Sheally.

White, who stars, directed, and co-wrote
OJB with his Black Dynamite partner Byron Minns, largely sets out to do for Blaxploitation movies what their previous spoof did to the tropes of blaxploitation in the tradition of Shaft and Coffy. However, Outlaw Johnny Black is much more successful because it is less shticky, more grounded, and less didactic. Weirdly enough, the themes of faith and forgiveness also connect to a surprising extent. This film just works, quite well in fact.

Of course, White is a total badass as Black. Initially, he definitely puts an emphasis on the “anti” in anti-hero, but he slowly humanizes the gunslinger, while showing off his first-class martial arts chops. Frankly, he makes Black’s arc more compelling than most of those seen in “serious” 1970s revisionist Westerns.

Minns is also terrific as the real Fairman. His function is largely that of comic relief, but he is not cringy or cartoony. Erica Ash and Anika Noni Rose also bring a lot of refreshing strength and every to the film as the “Lee” sisters. Kevin Chapman is appealingly down-to-earth as Hope Springs lawman U.S. Marshall Cove, whom Black might possibly be able to work with. Unfortunately, only Barry Bostwick really stands out to any extent among the many villains, playing Sheally.

Admittedly, the 130-minute running time seems a wee bit long for a film like this, but White keeps it barreling along at a brisk gallop. He also includes periodic hat-tips to classic westerns, including two cameos in the closing minutes that will make blaxploitation fans smile from ear to ear. It is still a spoof, but it is not excessively spoofy. Indeed, it takes care of business so well, it might be the best Western since
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Highly recommended for fans of White, Westerns, and Blaxploitation Westerns, Outlaw Johnny Black opens Friday (9/15) in New York, including the Regal Union Square.