Scored Too Soon? The Career of Michael Jai White: A Retrospective

In most sports, scoring early is a good thing. If you’re a soccer player or fan, though, you know the woes of scoring too early. If any of you listen to or watch Men in Blazers, you’ve heard this all before from Roger’s unending sadness with his Everton routinely scoring too early. This has happened to me both on the pitch, but mostly watching my beloved teams pay dearly for going up 1-0 in the first five minutes of matches only to be smacked down with three or four unanswered goals once the final whistle blows. It’s part of the roller coaster of emotions that is the world of football. I feel like this could be a metaphor for Michael Jai White’s career.

I recently had an evening to myself and while scrolling through the ever expanding Netflix streaming queue, I noticed a couple of recent Michael Jai White flicks I hadn’t yet seen. Double feature? Sure.

So I watched Falcon Rising and Skin Trade. Okay, that’s kind of a lie because after trying hard for twenty minutes, I skimmed through Falcon Rising because it was a total shit storm. Just horrendous all the way around.

Even if I didn’t have Brazilian roots, even if I didn’t speak the language, even if I had never been to Rio, even if I hadn’t done social work in a favela, even if it was clear it wasn’t filmed in Brazil and that only one of the cast (Lateef Crowder) actually speaks Portuguese, I could have tried hard to let some things go if they made a Sense8 type decision and kept the diversity in casting, but the language all in English.

However, they made this weird decision to make it bilingual with a bunch of Spanish speaking actors just slaughtering the language or just straight speaking Spanish. I’m not even getting into the weak production and acting. It was too much and maybe worst of all; it ends with a clear set-up for a sequel.

With Laila Ali in Falcon Rising

I was able to leave with two positives including Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter. Her part was small, but she was actually decent. The other is just worth YouTubing and saving yourself from the train wreck of a movie, which is the MJW vs. Lateef Crowder fight. Crowder brings his slick capoeira skills we’ve seen before and MJW battles hard as always.

While I gave up on Falcon Rising, I made it through all of Skin Trade. Human trafficking and the sex trade are tough subjects to cover in general, let alone in an action movie. There were definitely some hard scenes to watch and the crew did a commendable job. Compared to the other it was night and day, but it still felt like it was lacking something in terms of quality. Watching old Dolph Lundgren run around is just kind of sad at this point. And for you Arrow heads, you’ll probably be disappointed with Celina Jade’s (Shado) underutilized performance that has her playing something of a stereotype with an accent we know she doesn’t have.

Epic battle with Tony Jaa in Skin Trade

Again, the best part of the film comes down to a final fight that can just be YouTubed. This time it’s MJW vs. Tony Jaa. It is spectacular. But it’s also depressing because it made me think: “Is this what my man’s career is at this point? A bunch of YouTube fight scene clips and movies not worth watching?”

To be clear: I’m a big Michael Jai White fan and have been for about two decades. I think he brings something unique and fresh to the action/martial arts movie game and he’s just a huge badass in general. Every time he connects with one of his hopping side kicks my ribs just scream in agony for whoever had to take it.

Also, he’s Black Dynamite dammit! “Fiendish Doctor Wu; ya done fucked up now!”

As Black Dynamite

I want the best for this man that brings such awesomeness to the screen. Not that he necessarily needs or wants it, but there seems to be a hole that I would like to see him jump between getting back to a big budget film or TV show and reigniting a whole new audience’s interest in him.

I know he played Mike Tyson and had a small part with Van Damme in Universal Soldier, but let’s start with where he made a lasting impact on me in 1997. Spawn came out with a big budget from New Line Cinema to make a dent in the comic book movie genre. I had seen a few of the comics and was taken by how dark it was and liked Todd McFarlane’s Dante-influenced take on the battles in Hell and Hell on Earth.

As Spawn

For the time, the film’s special effects were outstanding and John Leguizamo’s physical transformation becoming Clown and his performance were amazing. Let’s pause and recognize that almost two decades ago there were two leads of color in a comic book superhero flick. Boom! More on that shortly. There was also a great soundtrack pairing a handful of ’90s rock bands with DJ’s for an industrial rock gut punch. I still love that Filter/Crystal Method tune. Crank it up.

Finally, there was the guy playing Spawn that just owned it and though there weren’t a lot of martial arts scenes, you could tell he really knew what he was doing. There’s so little of Al Simmons before his transformation, by the end I had forgotten about his ethnicity. It wasn’t until sometime after that I learned that history was made in that it was the first film where an African American had ever played a comic superhero on film.

And the name of this ground breaking actor that happened to hold multiple black belts and championship titles? Michael Jai White breaks down walls — literally and figuratively. I thought for sure I’d see this man all over the big screen taking the POC torch from the (white) old school Van Dammes and watch him and Wesley Snipes rise and add some needed diversity to the genre (I didn’t forget about you Billy Blanks, but you know… Tae Bo).

A few years younger as Al Simmons in Spawn

Now if you look at his IMDB, there’s tons of work between Spawn and the present. He takes on Van Damme again in a Universal Soldier sequel, fights with Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds, and fights Michelle Yeoh in Silverhawk. I have to stop to highlight his great work in Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing taking over the character from Ving Rhames. The fight scenes with Scott Adkins for the first time as Boyka are superb.

There’s also some TV work, like the Mortal Kombat Legacy web series as Jax (that’s dope), he does some dramatic work, some voice work, but for the most, you jump over a decade to the aforementioned over the top (and very sexist) Blaxploitation ridiculousness of Black Dynamite for most people.

The first of a couple times fighting Scott Adkins in Undisputed 2

I also really enjoyed Blood and Bone and Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown. When MJW gets into MMA, you’re in for a wild and awesome ride. I had just started training again, so maybe that’s part of the reason I liked them, but honestly, while the acting isn’t top notch, damned if the martial arts work isn’t. Here’s the thing though: did they have big commercial screenings? If you’ve seen them, you probably caught them on Netflix like I did.

Though he had a bit part going up against the Joker in the billion dollar-grossing The Dark Knight, nothing really took off and nothing was much of a Hollywood blockbuster — where he was centered — to shoot him into the stratosphere.

Why so serious?

Then he was cast as Bronze Tiger in Arrow. “Oh shit! Here we go!” Or so I thought. He was great, but only in three episodes. I felt like I was left hanging.

So if MJW in Spawn is my Goiás going up one goal early and then getting smoked by Corinthians 4-1. Who is Corinthians? I think we only need read from Viola Davis’ speech when she became the first African American woman to win an Emmy for Best Actress and said:

“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Sounds like two trail blazing actors of color should get together and blaze a blockbuster. Wait, what’s that? Davis is playing Amanda Waller in the Suicide Squad movie? Didn’t MJW play Bronze Tiger in the “Suicide Squad” episode of Arrow, but then wasn’t cast to reprise the role for the film? What the hell DC/WB? It’s bad enough we’re going to have two different actors playing The Flash at the same time, but come on; this is the shit I’m talking about. Had it gone down logically, I wouldn’t be writing this.

As Bronze Tiger on Arrow

So I call out Hollywood and the industry. I know there are some top writers and directors of color out there where forces just need to collide. In his handful of non-action movies, he has teamed up with the likes of Tyler Perry and probably had more commercial success than his action flicks. In two of his aforementioned better martial arts works, Blood and Bone had an African American director and MJW himself directed Never Back Down 2. I had my fingers crossed to see him either get cast as Luke Cage or Black Panther in a Marvel production to spearhead his second coming as the premier African American action star. It didn’t happen, and that’s okay, the guys they got will be great.

Snipes is now pushing hard post-prison time and he’s making headway. Why? Most likely because he has a team and connections around him tirelessly working for the absolute best for him, even if that means an Expendables sequel and an NBC show. Is it not more progress than the opportunities for our beloved Mr. White? By the way, Snipes as Blade still holds a special place in my superhero heart. However, maybe there’s a chance for a torch pass there too? Come on Marvel. Just sayin’.

Taking on MMA fighter Kimbo Slice in Blood and Bone

Michael Jai White is an A-list action star; I would argue the A-list action star. He just needs an A-list team around him. Maybe after his Black Panther comic for Marvel, Ta-Nehisi Coates has a screenplay filled with drama and action he’s been sitting on and Ava DuVernay is patiently waiting for it?

How about a very talented writer and director of color I really enjoy since she’s combined two of the passions referenced in this article — soccer and action flicks? Oh, and she’s also a champion martial artist in her own right. That’s right, let’s get Lexi Alexander working with MJW! I mentioned forces colliding: Kaboom! She loves him. She told me so.

Come on wealthy producers; I’m already dying to watch it. He’s been at the top of his game for many years, but none of us are getting any younger.

The action genre is also getting more diverse and some of the newbies are walking the path he paved. Actually, I like MJW as sensei/coach like in Never Back Down 2. Still, I would like to see him get back to some bigger mainstream recognition that he has earned and deserves. Like Black Dynamite says: “I’d like to take the credit, but dig, mama, there’s no ‘i’ in ‘revolutio…’ — in ‘team.’”

Keeping those kids in line in Never Back Down 2

Who’s going to be a part of team MJW? And when is Goiás going to beat Corinthians already? Sorry, just futebol frustrations there.

2 thoughts on “Scored Too Soon? The Career of Michael Jai White: A Retrospective

  1. Ohhhh! Snipes passing The Blade torch to MJW?! Mannnn – I am so here for that 😉 I was surprised when I saw the lineup for The Suicide Squad and he wasn’t on the bill. Like, come on! It would’ve been a smooth transition from CW to the screen. Hell, I’m sure he could’ve went back and forth between both with the right storyline. I do think he just need better folks in his camp. Hungry, dedicated, creative, and resourceful folks (no shade/diss to who he has now, but..).

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