Michael Jai White: 'Outlaw Johnny Black' a western with a message

Michael Jai White is "The Outlaw Johnny Black." Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
1 of 5 | Michael Jai White is "The Outlaw Johnny Black." Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Michael Jai White, who co-wrote, directed and stars in The Outlaw Johnny Black, said the western, in theaters Friday, was intended to send the message that even an outlaw can find faith.

White plays Johnny Black, a wanted man who gains a little faith through his adventures.


"This is something I wanted to say," White told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "I wanted to entertain, have something fun, but also have a message that I wanted to share."

White co-wrote the film with his Black Dynamite co-writer and co-star, Byron Minns. Dynamite parodied '70s blaxploitation films, so the duo wanted to tackle westerns of the same era aimed at Black audiences.

Buck and the Preacher starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte and Take a Hard Ride starring Jim Brown were among White's influences, he said.


"Morality is such a strong part of the western genre," White said. "I feel like a lot of movies that are in Hollywood today are in certain ways westerns, just done in different ways."

After escaping a hanging, Black encounters a preacher named Percival (Minns) on his way to the town of Hope Springs. When the duo get attacked, Black makes it to Hope Springs first and impersonates Percival.

Black adds lying and blasphemy to his roster of sins as a frontier outlaw. However, spending a few days playing a preacher begins to rub off.

"With moviemaking and storytelling, it's about the arc of that hero," Black said. "You may see that there's no possibility for this man to look at life any other way, but you follow the story and say, 'Wow, this might happen.'"

Flashbacks reveal that Black's father was a preacher who was shot and killed by outlaw Brett Clayton (Chris Browning). Clayton becomes Black's nemesis, but Black also loses his faith over the death of his father.

"He's wondering how God would allow something like this to happen," White said.

White also cited Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in the West, as a major influence on Outlaw Johnny Black. White estimated he's seen it 40 times, but he also liked the westerns of Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef.


"I feel like the westerns were made of people that had weight to them," White said. "If you don't have people that have that kind of timeless quality, it just doesn't work."

The Outlaw Johnny Black filmed in California studios that still maintain western town sets. White also gained access to an archive of Italian western scores through his musical director, David Hollander.

"He'd been writing a book on Italian western music," White said. "We've got a library of the best Italian spaghetti western music on the planet."

White said he and Hollander created a new film score using pieces of music that did not make it into other films. Those include legendary western composer Ennio Morricone and other Italian composers.

"It's the best of the best from the '70s which was really just sitting there," White said.

After tackling blaxploitation and westerns, White said he still hopes to make a '70s style horror film.

"I really enjoyed making Black Dynamite and I was so happy about the cult following that occurred afterward," White said. "But I also wanted to do several movies in this era."

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