Cuts Both Ways

This was a blog posting I made a few years ago, before the third "Blade" movie -- the one with all hottness all the time -- was released. NOTE: This page is full of spoilers about the first two "Blade" movies.

I used to date someone who hated watching movies with me. He'd be happily going along with whatever was on the screen, and I'd be saying things like, "That woman is trying to run from the bad guy while wearing high heels. Have you noticed how the point of high heels seems to be to hobble women so that they can't run away?"

And he'd respond, "can't you just enjoy the movie?"

And I'd say, "But I am enjoying it! Thinking about what it all signifies is my way of enjoying it!"

To be honest, I probably could have picked better times to spout multiple polysyllabic sentences than during the actual movies. We don't date each other any more, he and I. (And he still owes me wads of money, but that's another story.) Anyway, over the years I've accumulated friends and colleagues who share both my fetish for certain aspects of pop culture and my enjoyment for "reading" it through doubled and tripled lenses. I was once talking to writer Elisabeth Vonarburg (whose novel The Maerlande Chronicles--or In the Mother's Land in the U.S.--is one of my favourites. Elisabeth was intrigued by something I'd said about the Blade movies being in part about miscegenation, but that the second movie had backed away from the humorous and double (and triple) edged implications of the metaphor. Elisabeth asked me to break it down for her. My reply follows. If you've seen neither movie and hate knowing what's going to happen before you see a movie, then don't read it:

I've seen both Blade movies now. The premise is that there are now two humanoid races in the world; humans and vampires. The vampires prey on the humans, and if a human gets bitten by a vampire, s/he becomes a vampire, if they don't die outright. Kind of an interspecies one-drop rule. Once you try Drac, you can never go back.

Vampires can only be out at night; they can't stand the bright light of day. But Blade is different. He's the son of a black mother who was bitten by a white vampire while she was pregnant. Blade's a vampire-human mulatto. Unlike a full blood (!) vampire, he can tolerate the both daylight and night. The vampires call him Day-Walker. Blade hates vampires and is trying to kill them all, and to destroy the vampire side of himself. He spends a lot of time trying to discover a serum that will suppress the vampire in him. He has to take the serum regularly, or the vampire side of him starts to break through. In the first film, "vampire" gets coded as "black" and "human" as "white." The film makes explicit jokes about Blade being an Uncle Tom; it's right there in the dialogue. The serum is administered intravenously, and Blade goes through a total junkie enactment when he self-administers the serum; ties a vein up, injects himself, has a bit of a fit, trembles and shakes, nods off for awhile. Made even more interesting by the fact that he's played by a black man, the junkie imagery being a popular way of portraying black men in film and television.

The humans are cast as snow-pure innocents, living in the daylight, who are preyed upon by these dark creatures of the night who are very into music, dancing, style, sex and depravity, and who build a culture around a drug (human blood). Hmm; sound like any stereotype we know? I enjoyed the way that the first film played with the stereotypes. It seemed consciously done, and it had a humour and a brio to it. And it wasn't just working black/white stereotypes, either. In the first film, the vampires can be read as any number of things we love to fear. They can for instance be read as the stereotype of youth as callow, living for the moment, getting high, wearing really weird clothes and destroying everything their elders have worked hard to build. The vampire nemesis character who takes Blade on is very reminiscent of a young, hip Jim Morrison, the Lizard King. That possibility of reading the meanings in multiple ways was part of what made the film fun for me.

The second film complicates the Oreo imagery even more, but conversely, withdraws from its previous explicit recognition that that's part of what's going on. The vampires have inadvertently created a creature, an uber vampire, that preys upon vampires and is almost impossible to kill. They're having no luck catching the thing and prevail on Blade to help, since he's the expert at catching and killing vampires. He makes an uneasy temporary truce with them so that he can count this ultimate coup.

It turns out that this uber vampire is actually the son of the vampire king (the king is a visually arresting recreation of Nosferatu). The king has some serious Vampire Nation pride going on. He has experimented on his own child in hopes of taking vampirehood to the next level, i.e. creating a race of vampire Day Walkers. In other words, Blade the mixed race house negro m/u/l/a/t/t/o now has some serious competition, from someone who can do anything he can and more, but who doesn't give a shit about passing for white, er, human. Not only is the uber Day-Walker out there and making more of himself as fast as he can; his daddy the king has perfected the technique (it's not quite perfect in his son, and his son is in fact dying, despite his super strength), and has a storage bank of thousands of uber vampire foetuses waiting in vats, ready to be brought to term.

To make things more complicated, Blade develops a crush on the vampire king's daughter; for the first time, he feels attraction towards another vampire. She is a righteous bloodsucker, completely loyal to her vampire roots. She tries to convince Blade that his denial of his vampire self is only hurting him. She is the natural woman whose love stands a chance of bringing him back to the fold. But when she gets bitten by her brother, rather than become an uber vampire and prey on her own people, she chooses to die in Blade's arms as he exposes her to the sun at her request. (If you ever have the opportunity to hear writer Steve Barnes do his riff on why black male actors had better not have sex in movies if they want their careers to thrive, don't miss it. I saw him present it at the "Blacks in SF" conference at Howard U., where he titled it "Can a Brother Get Some Love?: Sociobiology and Images of Black Sexuality in Contemporary American Cinema." And Steve's probably right, though personally, I'd pay hard cash to see Wesley Snipes getting/giving some sugar.)

Anyway, back to Blade. The movie ends when Blade kills the uber vampire prince, the Vampire of Vampires, the angry, activist, headstrong, prosyletizing, very African Nationalist of vampires, who at the end is grateful to Blade for making the pain stop. His chance at some kind of belonging dashed, Blade goes back to his twilight world of brutally killing vampires, the other half of himself. This is written as a happy ending.

I could keep on drawing out the metaphor for awhile. (Hmm. Might be fun to do this with the X-Men II movie, too, which kept its ironic sense intact and used it to make all kinds of delightfully pointed jokes about racism and queerphobia.) It's a whole lot of fun to read a film this way, and I enjoyed that the "Blade" films kind of began to take on the issues. I'm only a bit saddened that they retreated from the few places where they were taking it on consciously. Not that I need the whole dang film to be about race; it's a comic book eye candy fight flick that can be entertainment on that level. But when they make a film about the dilemmas of being a half breed knowing that half of you is demonized, when they code that demonized race as black, and then, seemingly to reinforce their message, they make their "mixed race" lead character be a black man, they create some opportunities for lines, scenes and revelations that it seems a pity--at the very least--to pass up. At the very worst, it feels like the elephant in the room is still the elephant in the room, but, and those of us who insist on talking about it will just have to be ridiculed until we shut up. After all, why can't we just enjoy the movie? (But we are, we are. Though nowadays I try to reign it in until the movie's done.)

There is an elephant in the room. Puts me in mind of writer Ashok Mathur's essay on racial coding in the TV series "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie." It's hilarious. He posits Jeannie and Samantha as being white stand-ins for women of colour in mixed race marriages, trying to pass.


"I believe white folks would know if blacks were ever to really reverse racism."

-Lonnae O'Neal Parker

Happy Du Bois to all, and to all a good night.