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AND JUSTICE IS BLACK: The Unapologetic Blackness of of Blade

By Wi-Moto Nyoka, February 29, 2024
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Wesley Snipes in Blade 1998, Courtesy of New Line Cinema

1998 was the year that gave us John Carpenter’s horror/western Vampires, the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. Nestled in the center point on this spectrum is Blade, a horror action film starring a Black vampire and the flashpoint for Marvel superhero films. The film was well-received and garnered a cult following soon after. However, it is rarely spoken about as a pivotal film in horror cinema and, in particular, in shaping the aesthetics of genre action films for the next twenty years. 

Like all good superhero movies, Blade began as a comic. Published in 1973, our favorite Black immortal was a supporting character in The Tomb of Dracula #10 written by Marv Wolfman and penciled by Gene Coleman. It was the seventies so a supporting role was the height of most, if not all, Black characters in visual storytelling across the board with the exception being in Blaxploitation films. The same holds true in 1998, where you still have “Black films” and then everything else. Action as well as horror films were not exempt from this rule and though there were successful horror action projects (Aliens, Terminator 2), melding the two genres was still in its early stages and sadly lacking in representation, cultural or otherwise (James Cameron had to fight for Ripley to be played by a woman. Can you imagine anyone else other than Sigourney?).  
 

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Blade.  Photo Courtesy of Marvel Comics

Enter the unapologetic Blackness of Wesley Snipes. Having hit the scene with notable roles in Spike Lee films, Wesley seamlessly moved into action films with Rising Sun in 1993 where we had the pleasure of seeing a Black man do martial arts, something that had not happened since the Blaxploitation era and a few Bruce Lee films. Throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, Wesley Snipes holds the unique position of being a mainstream action hero who rarely, if ever, code-switches. How he found this sweet spot remains a mystery but I’m glad I was alive to witness it. Though there were other Black actors in consideration for Blade (Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne) Snipes ended up being the only name on the list once the trilogy was pitched and greenlit. I believe this was divine intervention and that somehow the Orishas knew that Fishburne had to be Morpheus the following year and Washington had to be our Equalizer.

Whatever the reason, at the tail end of the 90’s we found ourselves enjoying a Black sword-wielding superhero dressed in leather, cutting his way through the pseudo plantation-esque dynamics of the underground vampire community in Los Angeles. A city known for its sun only emphasizes the rogue nature of our ‘Daywalker” and his militant look, reminiscent of the social justice leaders of the 70s, is further heightened by the industrial raver chic look of the film. Snipes is a walking exclamation point; an imposing Black man doing nothing to make you feel comfortable and who only smiles if a vampire is dying at his hands. I bring up its plantation undertones because the characters in the film do so directly. Nothing drives this home more than the antagonist, Deacon Frost, saying to Blade, “Spare me the Uncle Tom routine.” 

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Wesley Snipes and Stephen Dorff in Blade 1998, Courtesy of New Line Cinema

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Wesley Snipes in Blade: Trinity 2004, Courtesy of New Line Cinema

But it’s more than just this line. The entire film centers around a vampire hierarchy rooted in blood purity, who is born vampire vs who is made vampire, and in this first film, Blade is referred to as a half breed whereas in later installments the language is switched to hybrid. The action choreography, which still holds up today due to Snipes' stunt work, is punctuated by quiet moments where he confesses to us, ”I’m not human.” We, Black people, understand his stoic demeanor and lovely use of the word mothafucka (has there been a superhero since that has done this?) as a cover for real pain about his position in the world and how everyone, including himself, questions his humanity. Though his opposition views him as a creature that has all of their strengths and none of their weaknesses, Blade is an island; a being with one foot in each world but belonging to neither. This is emphasized in the third film where trusted ally and father figure Whistler states, “I see you alone, surrounded by enemies, and it breaks my heart.” 

Though the second and third films do not deal with Blade’s Blackness so directly they maintain a throughline that challenges and plays with notions of purity and race. The vampires always need his blood, his otherness being what makes him formidable and also the answer to their prayers and desires for global domination. Blade must learn to embrace his vampire side in the second film and must learn to accept help in the third because advocacy without community is unsustainable. As Blade moves from a one-man crusade to a movement of sleeper cells fighting against vampires, the vampires also level up to match his prowess, drawing a straight line between justice work and the work of the oppressor. The action, the weapons, his serum to hold back bloodthirst, the gore, and the vampire themselves evolve alongside Blade and when he implements his endgame biological weapon we are unsure if he will be destroyed as well. The trilogy ends with a haunting message, “Sooner or later, the thirst always wins,” reminding us that Blade could be our savior or our demise, and all it would take is one bad day. Our failure to believe Blade, let alone support him, puts him in the thankless position of holding the line and points to our expectation that Black labor should always come free of charge. 

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Wesley Snipes, Blade: Trinity 2004 Courtesy of New Line Cinema

I would be remiss if I did not mention the aesthetic influence of Blade on subsequent action genre films. In the US there hadn’t really been horror action films that incorporated martial arts, black leather, and Black people. Snipes was unlike his colleagues. Muscular but not body-builder-big like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, snarky like Willis but less scrappy, and graceful. This set the tone for genre action films to come. Our heroes no longer needed to be bulky, in fact, sleek was welcomed alongside vulnerable and even, romantic. Our appetite changed and this gave way to exciting franchises and solidified genre action films as a successful and sought-after form of storytelling, not to mention paving the way for the supernova success of Marvel movies in the decades to come.

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Blade is a trendsetter. There can be no Neo, no Celine, and no T’Challa without him. Much like Romero did with Night of the Living Dead, Blade is an example of using horror to address larger political realities and the hopes for a safer future. In this trilogy, Blade is justice and justice is Black. As we arrive at an election year that has already promised to be full of terror, heartache, violence, and uncertainty, revisiting this trilogy is timely to gauge how far we’ve come in the stories we tell ourselves, and how little we’ve changed. 

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Wi-Moto Nyoka is a horror and sci-fi writer. She is the founder of Dusky Projects, creating and producing genre projects for young adult and adult audiences.

Awards and honors include: Stowe Story Labs selected project, Independent Public Media Foundation grant recipient, Nightmares Film Festival Best Short Screenplay Award Winner, 13 Horror Screenplay Award Winner, Oregon Short Film Festival Best Horror Teleplay Award Winner and more. Published works can be found in Midnight & Indigo’s Speculative Fiction collection, Terror Unleashed: Volume 2, The Seelie Crow, The Last Girls Club magazine, and Dread Central. Follow her on IG @duskyprojects

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