Movies

Remembering ‘Blade’ And Its Influence On Seeing More Black Characters Thrive In Horror And Sci-Fi

When writer/director Jordan Peele revealed this past July that his upcoming horror film was going to be called Nope, Black people on social media couldn’t help but laugh their asses off. Not because the title was bad, but for so many other reasons — many of them having to do with how Black people have seen themselves portrayed in horror movies. The tropes are well known, from dying first to show what violence is about to be inflicted on the white characters to making totally unrealistic decisions that result in painful and gruesome deaths. If we see any character, particularly a Black character, who stays in a haunted house or goes outside in the dark (or downstairs to the basement) to investigate strange noises, we ask if that’s something that we would ever do. And the answer is always an emphatic “Nope!” That’s where the horror movie would end and the credits would start rolling.

Blade, on the other hand, throws the gauntlet down with its own version of “nope,” giving audiences something completely different in a way that still impacts genre films today more than two decades after its release. And it starts right at the beginning in the film’s opening scene, which takes place in a nightclub hidden in the meat-packing district that is filled to the brim with vampires dancing to loud, percussive techno music while happily bathing in human blood that’s raining down from the overhead sprinklers. Unfortunately for Heatseeker Dennis (Kenneth Johnson), the poor human who was lured to the club by his date, there’s nowhere to run. Every vampire wants to sink their fangs into him. All except one: Blade, the Daywalker.

The half-human/half-vampire has all of the strengths and none of the weaknesses of his vampire brethren. Played by Wesley Snipes who is dressed entirely in black leather, Blade shifts the horror paradigm with an extreme display, beating the absolute shit out of the bloodthirsty and homicidal killing machines, using everything in his vast repertoire: from his martial-arts skills, boomerang-like blades made of silver (which vampires are deathly allergic to), and good old-fashioned firepower with specialized ammo. The vampires we see Blade fighting are fast, tough, and absolutely ruthless, but the fact that Blade actually smiles when he’s about to do battle with them almost fills you with dread for what he’s about to do.

Snipes instantly makes it easy to cheer for his character: he has style, swagger, the ability to kick ass whenever necessary, and the zero-tolerance for bullshit that Richard Roundtree brought to the screen when he first appeared as Shaft in 1971, giving Black audiences a hero to cheer for who looked and sounded like them.

The film follows Blade and his partner-in-crime Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) who align themselves with hematologist Dr. Karen Jensen (N’Bushe Wright) after she is bitten by a vampire. They explain to her the existence of vampires and how they have both declared all-out war on “suckheads” for their own personal reasons: Whistler for the murder of his family, and Blade for being born a half-vampire after his mother was bitten while pregnant and died giving birth to him. The one vampire at the top of their hit list? Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who has grown tired of older and more powerful pure-bloods and has focused on a ritual that would grant him the abilities of the blood god, La Magra, making him the most powerful vampire of all.

Like The Crow, which was released in theaters four years earlier, Blade earned its R rating for its dark, intense, and incredibly violent approach to comic-book films. (Its portrayal of a Los Angeles that is overrun with vampires, as well as humans willing to work for them also seems to have inspired the version of L.A. that was seen on Angel, the spin-off of The WB’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer.) Their success at the box office, along with that of X-Men in 2000, Blade 2 in 2002, and X2 in 2003, made Hollywood realize that comic book films could still be profitable and popular when done right, following the critical downturn in response to the Batman franchise, and unsuccessful attempts at building franchises around other lesser-known comic book properties. That realization would eventually help usher in the creation of the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starting with Iron Man in 2008.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe may receive much of the credit for comic-book movies being as popular as they are now (especially since these movies are a lot more mainstream and family-friendly in comparison), but the influence that Blade has had still deserves acknowledgment. It gave Black comic-book fans a superhero who was worth cheering for when there were barely any Black superheroes to be seen onscreen. And it made audiences want to see more Black and brown characters in horror and sci-fi as the lead who get to fight back and even kill the monsters.

John Boyega in Attack The Block, Ice Cube as Desolation in Ghosts of Mars, Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later, Danai Gurira on AMC’s The Walking Dead (before she kicked ass in Black Panther), Sennia Nanua in The Girl with All The Gifts, the young protagonists of Vampires vs. The Bronx, and Y’Lan Noel in The First Purge all owe something to Blade. Busta Rhymes even got to say “Trick or treat, motherf-cka!” to Michael Myers while roundhouse-kicking him from pillar to post in Halloween: Resurrection. And of course, the films of Jordan Peele, where we see Daniel Kaluuya up against a racist white family in Get Out, and Lupita Nyong’o going up against her doppelganger in Us. (As a bonus, the Black characters in Peele’s films are beautifully dark-skinned, pushing back against the “But Not Too Black” trope that often favors light-skinned Black actors, but that’s another rant for another day.)

And though credit is certainly due to the late Duane Jones and to Ken Foree for their lead roles in the late George A. Romero’s classic horror films Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead in showing that Black characters are fully capable of fighting back against the supernatural, it is Blade who more recently reminded audiences of this, and who partly inspired all of the aforementioned Black characters in film and on television who have followed in his footsteps.

Not all of these characters have appeared in films and television shows created by Black writers and directors, due to Hollywood being Hollywood. Blade, the character, was created by two white men. The film was written and directed by two white men, who fortunately didn’t listen to the studio when asked if the character could be played by a white actor instead. But there has been some progress with films like Sweetheart, television series like Lovecraft Country, and more Black superheroes getting their time to shine in films like Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Blade with Mahershala Ali taking over the role.

Hopefully, thanks to Blade and what it was able to accomplish, the wheel will continue to turn much faster so that Black and brown fans of horror and sci-fi can continue to be scared, thrilled, and entertained like everyone else — and by storytellers who look and sound like they do.

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