Community, Forgiveness And Creative Independence: Michael Jai White Talks ‘Outlaw Johnny Black'
Nearly fifteen years after the release of Black Dynamite, martial arts maestro and actor extraordinaire Michael Jai White is following up with action-comedy Western Outlaw Johnny Black. And this time around, the star also served as director.
In theaters starting Sept. 15, titular cowboy Johnny Black (White) seeks revenge for the death of his father at the hands of Brett Clayton (Chris Browning). He becomes a wanted man himself along the way and must disguise himself as a preacher while laying low in a small town that’s overtaken by a greedy landbaron.
Ahead of the premiere, Modern Luxury spoke with White about the essential magic for a good Western, why Outlaw Johnny Black was made for theaters and his thoughts about the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes.
What do you think is the secret to success for making a good Western, to get the genre right?
First of all, you have to get actors who symbolize the West. Back when they made westerns, there was a quality of the actors. Many of the actors of that time were quite extraordinary human beings.
The Charles Bronsons and Clint Eastwoods and Lee Marvins, Lee Van Cleefs, Barbara Stanwycks— they were exceptionally strong-willed people. Like when you have a John Wayne, you have the most macho of all macho people. And unless your actors have that kind of a throwback quality, I feel like they don't really belong in a Western. I find fault with modern Westerns who cast very contemporary-acting people. It seems not to mesh to me. I never want to look at a movie and feel like the actor just left a Starbucks.
In a number of your Instagram posts about the film, you highlight how, at least for now, it's only in theaters. Why do you think Outlaw Johnny Black is important to see on the big screen?
I feel Westerns should be shared with an audience. You’re producing panoramic shots. And this is a very family-friendly movie that’s enjoyed best with a crowd
This is designed as a community experience. I'm happy to say that the storytelling is very layered. And I've enjoyed the test screenings where there are different factions of humor that hit different crowds. I enjoy when there's a smattering of laughter that goes over the heads of other audience members and it forces other parts of the audience to wonder what they missed and to want to see it again. That's something that I really enjoyed with Black Dynamite. And this movie was designed for everyone, including the diehard Western fan who will get messages that other people won't.
Why is a movie like Outlaw Johnny Black something that audiences need now?
I based this story off of Back Wall Street. And with a story as tragic as that, I present ways to look at life and learn from the past, but prosper in the future. I have a story of redemption and forgiveness that I like to offer the audience. In my first screening, a producer that saw the original first screening left and called me the next day. He told me that because of the movie, he contacted his mother, although he hadn't spoken to his mother in eight years. He contacted her because of the movie. It was something that he got from seeing the movie that made him call and repair their relationship. And at this moment, that is the best accolade I've gotten from an exiting audience member. Because I feel like if I can get a Hollywood producer who may be pretty jaded from a history of seeing films, if somebody like that has received that message and changed a facet of his life, I feel like I'm doing the right thing and I'm sending the right message.
That just makes me think of partly why the strikes are happening in the first place and why it's so important to put artists first in this business. The end result is great moments like your story: movies can change lives.
We're all connected through human condition. And I think that's at the height of what we offer. In show business, sometimes the business takes the front seat, where I don't think it should. I feel like back in the day, the people who ran studios still loved movies. I don't feel that's the case nowadays. I believe it’s business people at the helm, which is why we see formulaic movies and pretty much repeats of the same thing over and over. My interest is in great storytelling, and that provides a new experience for the audience.
Do you have any sense of optimism that the unions will be able to reach an agreement with the studios that actually puts you know the laborers and artists first?
I am an optimistic person by nature. Yes, I do feel that way. But the trick is, I believe it's not the studios, but the shareholders that make it difficult. Studios can see the benefit of collaboration and making it work. But shareholders, who are behind the studios, only see this as a monetary endeavor. And I don't believe they're in it for the sake of people's lives or the sake of fairness. They’re in it for only money, so therein lies the problem.
We're able to talk about Outlaw Johnny Black because your film was granted a SAG interim agreement to be able to promote the film. Furthermore, in an Instagram post, you called the film a “pure example of an independent movie.” Did having that independence make it easier to execute your creative vision?
Absolutely, it made it easier. I had final cut on this movie, which almost never happens. I only know it happening for Quentin Tarantino and now myself. But for me to deliver a story that's equal parts faith-based, action, blaxploitation, martial arts, romantic comedy and drama— that's not a thing that the studios would usually do.
They're not in the business of making something unique. I think it's very clear that they're in the business of—I look at like McDonald's. They're in a business to make money off of a formula. And I think that's just the nature of what they do. And it's very difficult to get something that's authentic to the masses. I believe that's why television and streaming got so popular in the first place. I, for one, feel that these eight-to-10-episode arcs that we've seen in a number of years are far better than the movies have been in this last decade because at least they have a freedom to tell you these stories.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.