As Black Panther fever sweeps the culture, the long and varied legacy of the black superhero in pop culture is now being re-examined with gusto. Perhaps no movie preceding Marvel’s upcoming blockbuster in this vein is more well-known to even the average non–comic book fan than the Blade trilogy, starring Wesley Snipes as the titular vampire slayer (who is himself part-vampire, part-human). The first film, released in 1998, pre-dated the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it today but undoubtedly played a large part in its foundation, grossing $131 million worldwide; its 2002 sequel, Blade II, did even better, grossing $155 million worldwide. Critics were and have remained mixed on the trilogy as a whole (the widely panned third film was famously plagued with behind-the-scenes drama), but it’s nonetheless garnered a cult following and remains one of Snipes’ most beloved characters.
I recently spoke with the actor about the making of Blade, his vision for a Black Panther movie that never came to be, and Hollywood. Below is an edited and condensed excerpt from that conversation. You can listen to the full conversation on the next episode of Represent, out on Friday.
Update: You can now listen to the conversation in full:
Aisha Harris: Take us back a bit and talk about how you got involved with Blade, and how difficult or not it was for you to even get that first film made?
Wesley Snipes: Well, it came to me through my agent, at the time. … The Black Panther conversations preceded Blade. You know, I really wasn’t familiar with the Blade character at the time. But, I thought, especially after having put the effort towards [making] Black Panther, and getting that off the ground, and it didn’t come to fruition, I thought it’d be a cool thing to go ahead and play the black vampire.
Eddie [Murphy] did a black vampire movie, which was interesting. But there was also William Marshall who did Blacula back in the ’70s. William Marshall was a classically trained Shakespearian actor, which is the background that I come from, the pedigree that I have as well. So, I thought it was OK, that if William Marshall could do Blacula, then it’s OK for Wesley Snipes to do Blade. I didn’t know that it was considered a comic book adaptation, I approached it as just this cool character that we had no point of reference for, and I would get a chance to do some acting, some martial arts, and wear a cool leather coat like Shaft.
So, it was all good for me, you know. Most of the people around me at the time, they really didn’t agree. They thought it was somewhat beneath my skill sets to be playing this comic book character. They were using things like “There’s never been a hit,” or “Nobody’s ever heard of it, why would you want to do that when you have these other roles here? We’re going for awards and all that kind of stuff, and you’re a thespian.” I was like, yeah, but, for me and my partners, it would be so cool for us to see this in the movies, because we’ve never seen a black vampire that could fight martial arts.
One of the things I’ve found interesting about the character—I don’t remember in the first film if it’s really talked about, but in the second film there is a moment where your character is met with some racial taunting by the leader of the Bloodpack, played by Ron Perlman. “Can you blush?” he asks. And you respond to that by—
Smacking him up.
Yes. Smacking him up.
Putting them paws on him.
Yes. But, it was interesting to me to see that, because in the first film I don’t think it really touches at all on your race. Can you talk a little bit about kind of incorporating that more into Blade II? Did you see any parallels between Blade’s narrative and what a black person might experience on a day-to-day basis?
To be really honest, I would love to give you some great quotes to show how we were thinking about that and we were cognizant of its social impact and social commentary, racial dynamic commentary, but that wasn’t it at all. It was [Blade II director] Guillermo del Toro’s idea to add that into the movie. It just gave some other dimension to the dynamic of these mercenaries, if you can call them that, right? Being plunged into a predicament that they were all resistant to. One of the personalities was this guy who was kind of a, you could say, a supremacist. I don’t even know if he’s a white supremacist, because he was a vampire. But that really wasn’t the intent, and it was ancillary to what we were trying to accomplish in terms of the entertainment.
I think that’s one of the interesting things—especially for that time, and even now today, it’s hard to make a movie with a black character without someone feeling the need for there to be that commentary. But the fact that those films didn’t focus on that, I think, in itself is kind of revolutionary in that way. I’m sure that might have been a little bit of the appeal for you as well.
Yeah. I mean, to your point, that is a challenge within the industry, and the mindset of the writers and the producers. Often they perceive, once you put African Americans or people of color in the film, then you have to address the social dynamic that may exist in the real world. I don’t always agree with that, I think there’s a time and place for everything. I mean, you can go, you can have Thanksgiving dinner, but you don’t have to put everything on the table. Some things you can leave for dessert, you can leave for later. The more diversity in the behind the camera, the more diversity in the space, I think, you’ll see an increase in content that doesn’t always focus on that, and deals with day-to-day, common, everyday experiences, be you black, white, polka dot, or vampire.
Halle Berry in X-Men aside, it seems like the incorporation of people of color into the comic book movie universe took a long time, even though Blade came right before it. It seems like Blade was for a short period sort of forgotten, and not included in the conversation. What were you thinking during those years as you watched the genre blow up?
Oh man, if I had known what I know now then, I mean, it’s the classic statement. We had no idea that Blade would be a success. Really, it was a labor of love that we thought would be only watched by very few people. But, I had a good body of work, but I wasn’t concerned with it having a damaging effect on the career. But the fact that it blew up the way it did, and it had the appeal …
I remember, one of the executives of the studio at the time, in the screening, commented after they did the focus group, and they got back the numbers, and they saw how the numbers was so high, and there was so much appeal for the character and the world, he commented, “I don’t understand why people like this.” There were others who thought that black people or black talent in film doesn’t sell internationally, doesn’t sell foreign, doesn’t sell in Japan. Blade comes out, and it blows up in Japan, despite the fact that the lead is a black guy. These were testaments to the lack of cultural awareness, intelligence about the world itself, the global landscape, and the appeal that African American culture has around the world.
Moving on to Black Panther, what was it about the idea of inhabiting that character that really got to you? You were more familiar with that as a comic than you ever were with Blade beforehand.
Absolutely. Well, I was a very, very culturally attuned, and my minor in college was African diasporic studies. This is also what led me to studying under Dr. John Henrik Clarke. So I had that in the background, and when the idea of doing Black Panther came along, and envisioning the world of Wakanda, oh my God. Not only did I want to be a part of that, but I thought it would be a fantastic way to help address some of the stereotypes about Africa and the Africans’ glory, the African history, African people of the day, of the time.
It was cool, once again. I imagined the world of technology, and the ability to do medical procedures and operations on a holographic image. These things already existed, the great writers of Black Panther already included these things in the storyline, the vibranium, all of these things were like, wow. They’re technologically sound, advanced, they’ve got flying things, they’ve got things that morph, and they’re blending the modern tech with the ancient traditional customs, the healing practices, with the Western medical science. That was fantastic to me. I mean, I was even down with the tights and everything, the leotard, it was all good. I would do it.
You recently did an interview with the Hollywood Reporter where you mentioned there are a couple of different directors who were in the running for the film at the time, one of which was John Singleton. You told a funny story about talking to him. Can you elaborate a bit more on that, and what his vision was?
’Cause John was in that Boyz n the Hood mode, and … what was the other one he did about the school?
Higher Learning. So that’s where he was going. He was kind of oriented in that direction. He thought the idea of picking the Black Panther out of Wakanda, out of the high-tech world, and bringing him into the civil rights movement, and the civil rights mission in West L.A. was a good move, was a good idea. I was like, “My man, my man, look, you cannot sell any toys, you’re not going to sell any records, you ain’t none of that if we go down that route.”
Plus, you gonna freak people out. The white community might break out, you come talking about the Black Panther and we already got the [real] Black Panthers from the nationalists and the revolutionaries from the ’70s and the ’60s. Man, no, clearly, if there was an issue with selling the concept to the foreign market before that came along, once you throw that kind of storyline into the mix, it’s dead on arrival. It’s dead on arrival. He was like, “Naw, naw, because it’s about the father, and the son, and they have this rift.” I’m like, “Man, this is … no, no, no, no, no.” I love John, but he might tell the story a little differently, but that’s the way I remember it.
You’re also thinking about this as a business. I can imagine it’d be very hard to try and sell, at least back then—
Huey P. Newton standing next to T’challa …
… Having a conversation, you know what I’m saying?
Did you have any ideas for where you wanted it to go? Were there any specific scenes, or did you have a vision of how it would open, if you were to be able to put your stamp on it?
I don’t recall having specific scene ideas, but I had a general vision of depicting Africa and the multicultural world of Africa similar to what you might have found in ancient Aksum, or Timbuktu, these glorious empires, and the cultural diversity, the clothing. … Most people in the world are unfamiliar with and don’t know that there are systemized martial arts, African martial arts systems on the continent, some that predate what we now know as kung fu and the Shaolin Temple.
Many people don’t know the migration of great African warriors into China to teach them what we now assume and think of as kung fu and the Shaolin martial arts. So all that was a part of what the vision would include. Of course, we had to have great music. Great international music, yeah, and the technology, yeah, all of that was … I was a tech head back at the time, and me and Sinbad used to occasionally meet at the Mac store and trip out that we were like one of the only two black guys we would ever see at the Mac store back in the day, you know. This was when you had to log on with a dial-up, you know.
I remember that very vividly. So, now that we have the new Black Panther … it sounds like you’re very excited about it. What are you hoping comes from this?
Excited is definitely not the word. Overcome, overjoyed, clutch the pearls, I am ecstatic about it. I know what it’s going to do, the impact it’s going to have, not only on the minds of the community, but on the industry and the minds of those who are now the new gatekeepers. When they see the money, that’s a wrap. It’s a wrap. It’s inevitable that it opens up new opportunities, it’s like dropping a load of seed in the mud. It’s going to grow. It’s going to grow.
Keep in mind, too, the digital age opens up that possibility. It brings the world closer, and then it allows your marketing dollars to travel further. So, I can’t even imagine what this version of Black Panther would have been 20 years ago when we were talking about it. …
It’s the right thing, at the right time, and the right occasion. For that, that’s the divine will of the most high, and I am always, always submissive to that. Let it be. I feel no sense of loss whatsoever, none. I’m happy, ’cause I know what’s going to happen after this. I know where it’s going. Remember, I was 20 years ahead of the game then, I’m already 20 years ahead of the game now. It ain’t got worse, it got better. I know where this is going.