Michael Jai White has had a pretty fantastic career, with roles ranging from Spawn and Gambol in The Dark Knight to his own bonafide cult classic Black Dynamite. He’s back this year with Never Back Down 2, which premiered at ActionFest 2011 and which also marks his directorial debut, as well as a new web series that begins this week, Mortal Kombat: Legacy. A terrifically nice man, he revealed during a panel on fight choreography at ActionFest that he does in fact have story ideas for Black Dynamite 2 and that they make him laugh constantly in public like a crazy person, and that one of his dream projects would be to do a movie version of Black Panther. I recently sat down with him to discuss his interests in fight films and the difficulties of getting a superhero movie off the ground with an African-American star as its main character relying solely on backing from a major studio (though it seems he has a pretty good relationship with Sony right now as they’ve released or funded his past couple of projects.)
CA Literary Review: What keeps bringing you back to the MMA genre? You’ve done Undisputed, and Never Back Down, and I know you have a large martial arts background. What interests you as a filmmaker in fermenting that genre into further forms?
Michael Jai White: I understand the worlds; I understand the worlds of martial arts and MMA, and the acting world, and the cinematic world – you know, the whole business of moviemaking. Many times the different sides don’t meet, and I feel like I have something to offer in that genre. I think the genre can be made a lot better, and I intend on really doing my best to make it what it can be.
CLR: What kind of projects are you working on that you have coming out or happening soon?
MJW: I’m almost, I guess, superstitious in a way, where I don’t count my chickens before they hatch. I don’t even count the darn chickens when I see them on set. You know, in this business, with the economy and everything else, the rug can pulled from under you at any given moment, so I only talk about the things that have been completed. You know, I’ve got Mortal Kombat, coming up – Mortal Kombat: Legacy; We The Party, a coming-of-age comedy, for kids; and Hangar 14, with Stone Cold Steve Austin, which is a love story. (laughing) No, that’s an action movie.
CLR: Spawn was the first time that there had been a major African-American superhero film, even comic, and I was wondering if there might be an interest you had in exploring future projects with other prominent African-American superheroes or creating a sort of positive image in films.
MJW: Actually, if you’re looking at the last eight to ten years, I think that’s an old argument.
CLR: Well, I guess maybe what I mean is more specifically related to the superhero genre, where there still seems to be difficulty getting a superhero movie off the ground. I mean, there’s Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and War Machine, but there’s still not a major character out there, and I was wondering why that might be.
MJW: Everything is run by fear; they think you narrow the audience, which is ridiculous, because action is colorless, really. Wesley Snipes wouldn’t have been so significant if he hadn’t sold overseas. And there’s never been an African-American movie that had action that didn’t sell overseas. There’s just so few of them. You can’t say Blade II didn’t make any money.
CLR: I guess what I have in mind is this Black Panther cartoon that was immensely successful in Australia and in Europe, but here no one will play it on their TV network, and even though it’s done okay on DVD, it kind of has reached a limited audience because of that.
MJW: I would have a couple of theories on something like that, because some people who haven’t grown up with Black Panther, and there’s a large group of people running movie studios where the words “black panther” mean something totally different, so you know, it has a kind of a fearful connotation for someone. I would resist the whole idea that when you make a movie and it involves anyone African American, not for it to be a crutch, that they just happen to be black; it shouldn’t really make a difference. But when you’re asking somebody to risk millions of dollars, they find a lot of reasons why not to do something instead of making a superior movie.
I think the day is gonna be coming where the filmmaker doesn’t have to lean on a studio, and can get private financing to really hit home, to reach the audiences out there. Because the studios, to me, are decades behind. You know, we have an African American president, but they’re scared to do a movie like this. It’s ridiculous. It’s the same situation with Mortal Kombat. You just have to go out and do it yourself, like Kevin Tancharoen, myself and Larnell (Stovall, the choreographer), we went out and shot a concept that now is a reality. But we could’ve never expected a studio to come out for that.
Never Back Down 2 should come out sometime later this year, and Mortal Kombat: Legacy starts streaming April 12 on Machinima.com