Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cool Characters: Blade

Hollywood is ill at ease with images of black male power.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the flurry of superhero films that have invaded the world’s multiplexes in the last decade.  These comic book characters exist in science fiction and fantasy universes where people of color occupy supporting and subservient roles at best.  Every now and then, one is allowed make an appearance at the forefront, usually side by side with other white characters. 

The irony of all of this is that the current wave of comic book adaptations was kicked off by a hero that in many ways was the living embodiment black male strength.  He was not a flagship character of parent company Marvel Entertainment, but rather a featured character that later spun off into his own series.  In the late 1990’s, when Hollywood decided to take a brief sabbatical from big-budget superhero flicks, New Line Cinema took a huge gamble with him.  The resulting film was a veritable Frankenstein monster of a movie, containing elements of horror, sci-fi, martial arts and black exploitation.

Blade in his original comic book incarnation.

Eric Brooks, better known as Blade, made his first appearance in the tenth issue of The Tomb of Dracula in 1973.  He was created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Gene Colan.  The bastard son of a prostitute who was attacked by a vampire while giving birth to him, Blade is what’s known as a Dhampir.  A Dhampir is a human/vampire hybrid.  He possesses all of the Vampires strengths and none of their weaknesses.  As a teenager was schooled in the ways of combat by Jamal Afari, a jazz musician who moonlighted as a vampire hunter.  Blade would later become a vampire hunter himself.

In 1998, New Line cinema released the film Blade, which was very loosely based on the comic character.  The film was mostly a vehicle for star Wesley Snipes, who had slogged through a series of forgettable b-level action pictures since his New Jack City/White Men Can’t Jump heyday.  Snipes, a martial artist and aficionado of action cinema, used this platform to engage in a bit of cinematic alchemy.  Black heroes in comic book films were a rarity then as they are now.  Also scarce in Hollywood at the time was the otherworldy fight choreography of Hong Kong cinema, as well as a truly “comic book” approach to such material from a cinematic standpoint.  This was quite a few months before The Matrix would bring many of the aforementioned elements into the mainstream.  Until then, the first Blade served as a bridge between two different eras of comic book cinema.

Blade (Wesley Snipes) fights his vampire father Deacon Frost (Stephen Doriff)

The character of Blade himself was a revelation.  He was the walking embodiment of identity crises and self hatred, particularly the brand experience by many African Americans.  His vampire blood blesses him with superhuman abilities, yet he loathes it.  He not only hunts vampires, but he takes a custom made serum meant to stave of his blood-lust.  He refuses to live as a vampire, even if it puts his health in jeopardy.  The black identity crises metaphor goes even deeper when you consider that the father of Blades "condition" is Deacon Frost, a Caucasian. Frost has essentially cursed Blade to an existence as a half breed.  He is neither fully human nor fully vampire.  He is the fantasy equivalent of the African slave woman’s bastard child, fathered by the white slave master. 

Yet, Blade is anything but helpless.  He is both a master of the fighting arts as well a connoisseur of exotic weapons, all of which are customized for vampire hunting.  His attitude and look are borrowed from his Blaxploitation forefathers, yet he has more depth and humanity than any of them.  They were merely cool caricatures, while Blade is truly a complex man of painfully few words.  He lets his hands do the talking, He stands alone, but he also stands as tall as a skyscraper.  He kicks wholesale ass in wondrous amounts, much like Ogami Itto or the man with no name.  

Blade (Wesley Snipes) surrounded by blood soaked vampires.

Unfortunately, Blade is also one of the more sullen superheroes to ever grace the silver screen.  Much like Black American men of the real world, it seems that he is forever in search of an elusive prize.  Being what he was born to be means giving in to the blood-lust and becoming a monster, but fighting his true nature makes him an “Uncle Tom.”  He is forever between a rock and a hard place, never to realize his true potential in any regard.  Yet, the audience feels no sympathy, because it’s hard to feel sorry for such a badass.  Blade may achieve the peace he craves, but he most certainly gives his enemies hell in the coolest ways possible.  That’s what makes him great.  He never gets a happy ending, but he will surely get his bloody revenge.  Long live the day walker!
Long live the Daywalker!

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