As the writer, director and star of “Outlaw Johnny Black,” Michael Jai White revives the Hollywood Western of the 1970s Blaxploitation era.
As a cowboy who pretends to be a preacher in order to avenge his father’s death and deal justice to a greedy land baron, White, 55, specifically nods to the light-hearted Sidney Poitier-Harry Belafonte ‘70s Western “Buck and the Preacher Man.”
But isn’t White, who had a hit with “Black Dynamite,” another Blaxploitation riff, gambling with a Western?
“I love Westerns. I think when they’re done right, people respond,” White, who has an exemption during the actors’ strike to promote his independent movie, said in a Zoom interview. “One of my favorites is ‘Unforgiven’ but I always intended on doing a Western in the Blaxploitation era, kind of harken back to that.
“Just like with ‘Black Dynamite,’ this is a look back at movies set up to be circa 1972-73, that kind of thing. I guess if you look at the Duffer Brothers, they brought back the ‘80s with ‘Stranger Things.’ It’s just reliving that kind of style and that kind of storytelling.”
“Outlaw” is, he added, “influenced by several movies. Some of my favorites are basically from when I was young. There was a lot of morality in the movies that I grew up with and I like to bring that back. I wanted people my age to relive it and I want a younger audience to stop and discover it.”
Westerns, with their white hat good guys and black hatted villains, “celebrated true manhood and honor. I feel like that’s some of the best storytelling and it’s something that I love.”
As a former school teacher who worked for three years with students who had behavioral issues, White believes in noting historical references when appropriate.
“I like,” he said of his writing, “being able to package this in such a way where it’s not only entertaining, but it teaches you something.
“I basically pulled a story together based on largely, if you’re familiar with, Black Wall Street, what happened in Greenwood, Oklahoma, a long time ago,” which was the racist massacre of the town’s thriving Black business community by a white mob.
“There were a lot of these stories where thriving communities of freed slaves, free Black people, were decimated from the Klan and what have you.
“This is one of those stories but,” he pointed out, “it’s got a bit of a spin on it. This is a movie that touches on that stuff but it’s a feel good movie. Something that the whole family could come to. That’s the gist of why I want to do this.”
“Outlaw Johnny Black” opens Friday