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Outlaw Johnny Black: Michael Jai White on Western Comedy & Versatility

Michael Jai White (Black Dynamite) talks to Bleeding Cool about directing, writing, and starring in his comedy western Outlaw Johnny Black.

Michael Jai White is an artist in every sense of the word in Hollywood. While he's most synonymous with his career in acting, he's as versatile as it comes to creativity, whether it's doing scene work with a presiding director, working both ends in front and behind the camera, and writing. To say he takes pride in his work would be an understatement, whether it's his higher profile mainstream work or his more diverse indie projects, which remains the case in his latest action comedy Western, Outlaw Johnny Black, the second film of his ode to the 1970s. The first was the Blacksploitation tribute film Black Dynamite in 2009. Reuniting with his Black Dynamite writing partner Byron Minns, White also directed, co-wrote, and stars as the title character in the Samuel Goldyn Films Western. The film follows Johnny Black, who's hell-bent on avenging the death of his father and vows to gun down Brett Clayton (Chris Browning), becoming a wanted man in the process. He goes into hiding, posing as a preacher in a small mining town that's been taken over by a notorious Land Baron (Barry Bostwick). White spoke to Bleeding Cool about the films that inspired him for the project, reuniting with Minns, his versatility, the cameo that wasn't, and more.

(Note: The interview was conducted in accordance with SAG-AFTRA rules concerning independent films.)

Outlaw Johnny Black: Michael Jai White on Western Comedy & Versatility
Michael Jai White in Outlaw Johnny Black (2023). Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

How Outlaw Johnny Black Is an Ode to Classic Westerns

Bleeding Cool: What was the inspiration behind the Outlaw Johnny Black?

White: I grew up with movies that had a lot of moral value to them. These were movies of the 1970s where there were people like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte who did these movies like Uptown Saturday Night and A Piece of the Action resonated with me. I wanted to do this movie like that in the same vein as I did with Black Dynamite, where it felt like it was made during that time, like the Duffer Brothers did with Stranger Things (and the '80s). I wanted to create that world again for people in my age group and older to relive it and then share it with a new generation.

You work with Byron Minns again. What is he like as a creative partner?

He's one of the most talented actors I have had the pleasure to work with. To share a screen with him is seamless for us. We're on the same page chemistry-wise and everything else. Just as we did with 'Black Dynamite,' we got a chance to do it again with Outlaw Johnny Black.

Outlaw Johnny Black: Michael Jai White on Western Comedy & Versatility
Michael Jai White and Byron Minns in Outlaw Johnny Black (2023). Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

This is one of those rare opportunities that you are doing with directing as well. What made you decide that you want to take control?

It makes sense. I understand the world. I wrote this and I felt like I'm the best director for it. I tend to see the movie; I write what I see, and this became shorthand for me.

Does it become easier when you get to wear multiple hats at once, or is it easier to focus on one thing, whether it's acting, writing, or directing?

It's hard for me to focus on one thing, even if I'm just acting in the movie. It's hard because I'm often about the collaborative process. In a lot of movies where I'm just the actor, I offer other things. It's not about overstepping. My position is about collaboration because, say, I'm doing an action movie. Usually, that director has done maybe five movies. I've been on the set of eight. A lot of directors are aware of my experience, and I can be called on to share my wisdom oftentimes. That's why I'm made a producer in a lot of the movies where I'm an actor because if I'm going to spend the time, I want it to be the best. They know that they can count on me to collaborate in any way I can. So sometimes it is hard being just the actor. I can see potential mistakes because I had so much experience.

Outlaw Johnny Black: Michael Jai White on Western Comedy & Versatility
Michael Jai White in Outlaw Johnny Black (2023). Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Outlaw Johnny Black took a while to come to light. What has been the process in production over the years? Were there any hiccups?

We [originally] shot in 21 days, and we had a few key things we were going to do some reshoots for later. One was that Samuel L. Jackson was going to be doing a cameo, but he had had back surgery during the primary filmmaking part of it. We were going to shoot his stuff and pick up some other things at a later shoot since we were going to do that for Sam. That didn't take that long. We cut the movie together, and it came together during the pandemic. We wanted to wait until there was a time afterward when we could open in those areas, and that time is now.

Was there any aspect of the film or a sequence that was just more difficult to shoot than the others?

I had no real difficulties with shooting this movie. It was little obstacles, like, there was a horse…I guess we call it "horse politics" [laughs]. You can't run the horse that many times in a row. It must have a break, and then there are things like the weather. Those little obstacles like dust storms and things like that. Those are things you overcome easily.

Outlaw Johnny Black: Michael Jai White on Western Comedy & Versatility
Cr: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Can you talk about the cast as far as how it came together and how everything fell into place?

I wanted the best movie, not the most popular actors. I got the best actors for this project, and I feel a large part of what makes Westerns work is that the early Westerns were made with extraordinary people, people that have had such character coming from their eyes that to do it right, you got to have people with that timeless quality. I made sure that I had actors who were extraordinary people who happened to be actors. There's a word that's always associated with me for years, and that's "underrated." I've got a lot of underrated actors who are amazing talents. All you have to do is cast them, and you have magic. That's what we have in this movie.

Outlaw Johnny Black, which also stars Minns, Anoka Noni Rose, Erica Ash, Randy Couture, Kevin Chapman, Kym Whitley, Tommy Davidson, Buddy Lewis, and Gary Anthony Williams, is in theaters.

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Tom ChangAbout Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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