…there was Blade
Since the turn of the millennium we have had a few superheroes of colour on the mainstream cinema screen who survive to the end of the film – Catwoman and Storm (Halle Berry), Hancock (Will Smith), War Machine (Don Cheadle)and Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Only Hancock got his own film, and it was all about a nice white guy saving him from himself. Uh Huh. Bring back Blade!
The low turnout of black heroes from page to screen is a disgrace for many reasons, but not unexpected. How proportionally few substantial roles there are created for, or simply filled by, people of colour is well documented. I am distinguishing between those roles created especially for a person of colour which address issues particular to experiences of race and racism, such as Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of Simon Northrup, and all the rest of the roles in Hollywood that could just be less white.
I am thinking of this particularly since Anthony Mackie’s respectability politics got critiqued all over the internet, for suggesting that black people not wear their hair in dreadlocks to minimise their chances of being stopped by police. The ‘look like you fit in, and we’ll let you fit in’ vibe is strong in Hollywood right now. But only so many of you, and only so far. Because, see, we built the system, and we decide who gets to play in our sandbox.
I find it particularly disheartening in science fiction and fantasy. These are the genres of the outsider, the free-form space to create anything, imagine any world. But somehow they got the reputation of being the preserve of white guys – which is way off base! (Go read Octavia Butler) It seems we are more comfortable with addressing prejudice against blue, green , or red people than real people of colour – Mystique, Beast, the Na’vi of Avatar, Gamora, Hellboy.
But who kicked off our current spate of great superhero movies? Before Spiderman (2002), before X-Men (2000), before even the Matrix (1999) gave us the fancy speed-ramping that put comic book looks on the big screen. It was Blade (1998) with Wesley Snipes that tore through previous problems in comic book adaptations of hum-drum scripts and plotholes the size of Hulk, and made it worth watching. And Blade was not the only black hero, he was just the best. The year before Snipes staked his way to victory, we had Spawn and Steel, and at the start of the decade the comedic Meteor Man (1993) and Blankman (1994). Ok, so not all these films are good films, but a lot of the comic adaptations of the nineties have been gratefully forgotten. Blade was the first Marvel adaptation to actually get a theatrical release. The smart, funny, adult-orientated storytelling of our current crop of quality blockbusters have more in common with Blade’s eponymous trilogy than they do with Batman and Robin (1997). Their heroes, however, are paler than Mr Freeze.
If you like the MCU, the Nolan Batman Reboots, the DC on the WB, etc etc then you know who to thank. Today on my blog is Blade Appreciation Day. He may not have locs, but I don’t think the daywalker is going to adapt his Shaft-like, black-as-pitch, cool-as-fuck, absolutely terrifying image for anyone. Gretchen Bakke noted the rise in black heroes killing whiter-than-white bad guys in the form of vampire movies. But the whiteboy heroes are still winning through sheer dominance in numbers. Exactly how many blondes named Chris can they find?? I look forward to seeing what Chadwick Boseman has in store for Black Panther (2017).