If the 2005 film Hustle & Flow taught us anything, it’s that “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”—the tune in the movie that won an Academy Award as Best Original Song. William Andrew Short (Roscoe Orman)—known to friends and the ladies in his employ as “Willie Dynamite”—is a testament to this; he’s the Avis of flesh peddlers in Manhattan in that he’s number two…but no one tries harder (as the poster tagline goes: “He’s Got to Be Number One”).
Willie is an admirably shrewd mack; he explains to his girls that the world’s oldest profession is a business and he intends to run it in the manner of a Ford or General Motors: “Seven girls out there. Every ten minutes, one comes off the production line, like that.” But like the automotive industry, hooking can be quite competitive; Willie, attending a “pimp council,” learns from his chief rival Bell (Roger Robinson) that Bell and his fellow procurers want to carve up the city into different territories for each pimp—that way, it will be more difficult for The Man to crack down on their operations. Willie D is the dissenting voice among the group: such a business plan will hurt his business, and in a statement (that’s no-holds-barred in its chauvinism) declares that his ladies are “animals of the jungle” and that they need to “roam free.”
The antagonism between Willie and Bell continues throughout, but it’s only one of Mr. Dynamite’s worries. Willie D has attracted the attention of two sadistic cops, Pointer (Albert Hall) and Celli (George Murdock), who harass him at every turn with a litany of trumped-up charges in addition to arresting his “harem.” Willie’s most formidable foe is social worker Cora Williams (Diana Sands), a one-time prostitute who’s determined to not only save the women working at Willie Dynamite, LLC but the CEO himself…and her boyfriend, district attorney Robert Daniels (Thalmus Rasulala), is only too eager to help (he’s freezes Willie’s bank accounts with the assistance of the IRS).
Author-artist Darius James declares in his 1995 book That’s Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury) that 1974’s Willie Dynamite is “the hands-down winner of the all-out best blaxploitation movie of the seventies.” Dynamite may be overshadowed by the likes of Shaft, Superfly, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (all of which I’ll admit are slightly better flicks)…yet the film is a truly neglected gem that not only operates as a slyly subversive squint at capitalism but is, as Mille de Chirco rightly observes, “less like your run-of-the-mill ’70s inner city crime drama than a funky Greek tragedy.” Directed by Gilbert Moses (Roots, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh) and scripted by Ron Cutler (who co-wrote the story with Joe Keyes, Jr.), Willie Dynamite marked the first production teaming of Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown—who were prepping the Academy Award-winning The Sting (1973) at the same time.
A large portion of what makes Willie Dynamite so delightfully entertaining is the presence of actor Roscoe Orman in the title role…an individual who’s perhaps better known as “Gordon” on the long-running TV series Sesame Street. (The movie provides ample opportunity for Sesame-themed wisecracks.) Orman’s Willie is the picture of sartorial splendor as the pimp models a variety of colorfully stereotypical outfits with heavy emphasis on fur coats (“This is lamb! I paid over a grand for it!”) and matching head gear. There’s more to Willie D than just his wardrobe, however, and Orman acquits himself nicely in a part that’s admittedly unsympathetic (he slaps Pashen [Joyce Walker], his Number One girl, around in one scene that made me wince even though I saw it coming) and yet allows him to show his human side (he’s devastated by the deaths of his mother [Royce Wallace] and Honey [Norma Donaldson], his chief hooker) once he’s on his road to redemption.
The standout performance in Willie Dynamite is claimed by Hal Horn favorite Diana Sands, a long-underrated actress (so wonderful in movies like A Raisin in the Sun  and The Landlord ) who was sadly succumbing to the cancer that would take her life in 1973. As social worker Cora, Sands’ concern for liberating Willie’s “girls” from the life is genuine because she’s walked the walk and talked the talk, telling the ladies that she’s not a cop but more like a consumer protection agency (she jokes she’s like a “Ralph Nader for hookers”). Cora takes a special interest in Pashen, encouraging her to leave Willie and pursue a career in modeling because of her striking good looks. As the film’s events unfold, Pashen is attacked by three other women while she’s in the sneezer, and her face is scarred by the encounter…but Cora reassures her that she will “make it right.”
My longtime character actor obsession got a workout in Willie Dynamite (one of Willie’s hookers is played by Marcia McBroom of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls fame) because what I found so amusing is that George Murdock—an actor born to play sleazy cops, like Barney Miller’s Lt. Scanlon—actually plays the more subdued flatfoot; it’s Albert Hall’s Pointer (Hall plays him like the poor man’s Sidney Poitier) who’s intent on violating 57 varieties of Willie D’s civil liberties. You’ll also recognize Ted Gehring as the desk cop when Willie is dragged in for questioning, Jack Bernardi (Herschel’s brother) as Mr. D’s attorney, and Wynn Irwin (the bathrobe-clad brother-in-law of Dom DeLuise on the sitcom Lotsa Luck!) as a bailiff (while he’s not credited at the [always reliable] IMDb, I’m pretty certain that’s George Wyner playing a bailiff in the second courtroom scene). The old-time radio fan in me also got a hearty chuckle at seeing Ken Lynch as a judge…but the icing on the cake was spotting Olan Soulé as a john busted in a hotel room vice raid (I swear I’m not making this up).
From the moment you hear Martha Reeves (of Martha and the Vandellas!) singing the infectiously catchy Willie D over the opening credits, Willie Dynamite stakes its claim as one of the truly captivating blaxploitation features of that era, deftly mixing comedy and action (I enjoyed Willie telling Pointer that he learned how to be a pimp by watching Ironside, and the two of them later embark on a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase through a building that should have been condemned years ago) while avoiding a lot of the gratuitous violence and nudity of those movies (the language is probably what got it an R rating). Released in an excellent Blu-ray edition in January by Arrow Video, it also features the original theatrical trailer and Kiss My Baad Asss—a nice little guide to the blaxploitation genre hosted by Ice-T (and interviews with icons like Richard Roundtree and Melvin Van Peebles). Profuse thanks to Clint Weiler of MVD Entertainment for snagging me the screener.