With just a few more days until it hits theaters, the hype around Black Panther is reaching a fever pitch as everyone prepares to see Marvel’s first film with a predominantly black cast and a black director. But with all the excitement in the air, there are some folks who don’t know that Black Panther won’t be the first film based on a Marvel character with a black lead.
That distinction belongs to Stephen Norrington’s Blade, the 1998 film starring Wesley Snipes as the titular, daywalking vampire who hunted his own kind in an effort to protect humanity from annihilation. It was a bloody, action-packed thriller of a movie that took audiences by surprise and proved that cinematic adaptations of comic books could become box office juggernauts. While Blade undoubtedly paved the way for the current era of comic book movies that Marvel, Fox, and Warner Bros. are currently enjoying, it’s not uncommon to hear the film left out of conversations about just how we got to this point. There are a number of reasons as to why that is and Snipes has a theory of his own.
In a recent interview with Slate, Snipes recalled how, even as it became clear that Blade was on track to become a hit with fans—and was going to make New Line Cinema a lot of money—people simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a movie about a black vampire resonating with audiences:
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. Bladecomes 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.
The point that Snipes is making is neither new nor unique nor difficult to accept. Hollywood has a long history of underestimating films with black leads while claiming that they’re merely trying to look out for their bottom lines. It’s also important to remember that Blade was an R-rated film (you’re welcome, Deadpool) that wasn’t particularly meant for or marketed towards children. Between Comic Book Movies™ not quite being a proper thing back in the late ‘90s and the culture assumption that black films don’t perform well, you can almost understand why some people might not remember Blade. I say almost because Blade’s phenomenal and there’s really no excuse to have forgotten it.
Judging from early sales figures, Black Panther once again disproves the idea that black films can’t make big bucks when given the proper care and attention they deserve. Now imagine what a rebooted Blade movie (or series) with a proper budget and marketing campaign behind it might look like.