As we approach February 16th, the buzz surrounding Black Panther has been nothing short of electric.
Whether it’s the incredible ticket sales or sky-high box office projections, Ryan Coogler’s Afrocentric blockbuster, one which features a predominantly black cast, has been hailed as a progressive and indeed revolutionary expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it’s by no means the first Marvel movie to be anchored by a black lead.
That distinction belongs to Blade, Stephen Norrington’s 1998 actioner starring Wesley Snipes. And though it’s important to distinguish between a superhero movie and a comic book movie – Black Panther belongs to the latter category, while one could argue that Blade is a member of the second – Snipes spoke to Slate about the cultural significance of his vampire thriller, and why its legacy is still felt to this day.
I thought it’d be a cool thing to go ahead and play the black vampire. 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.
The actor continued by drawing attention to Blade‘s status as a bona fide sleeper hit, and how it greatly exceeded expectations – both critically and commercially.
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.
And it wasn’t just members of the audience who felt apprehensive; as Snipes recalls, the suits at New Line Cinema struggled to wrap their heads around Blade‘s status as a cult gem.
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.
Looking further afield, the actor recently admitted that he’s still game for a fourth Blade movie, providing the stars align. And though he was once developing a Black Panther movie of his own, Wesley Snipes is simply “overjoyed” by the way in which the Marvel film is resonating with audiences worldwide.