Michael Jai White on ‘Spawn’, ‘Black Panther’, and Raising Five Kids
Martin Sheen said, 'This is gonna launch you to another stratosphere.' I said, 'No, I don't agree.'
Michael Jai White played the first black superhero to hit the big screen in a big way. As the title character in the 1997 adaptation of Todd McFarlane beloved, ultraviolent comic Spawn, white played a double-crossed anti-hero returned from the bowels of hell to seek vengeance. The film did precisely fine at the box office, bringing in $87 million worldwide on the back of a $40 million budget, but was not a critical success. White didn’t become an instant A-lister and black superheroes didn’t proliferate. It would be more than two decades before the release of Black Panther brought a black superhero into the mainstream and black action figures into the hands of kids.
Michael Jai White leveraged his skills as a martial artist to grab lower profile roles in the wake of Spawn. He fought alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier: The Return and Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds. He found work in China. He created his own company, Jaigantic Studios, and made fan-funded movies. In short, he hustled. He kept fight and acting and fight to act. But his priority wasn’t always the next thing. After having kids, White felt his focus naturally turn towards taking care of his five kids. White might be most famous for playing the leader of Hell’s army, but he’s a sweetheart of a man and, ultimately, he just wanted to be with his kids — to be a family superhero.
White spoke to Fatherly about what it felt like to be a superhero, what it feels like to be a black action star in Hollywood, and what he wants his children to learn from his remarkable experiences.
Given the ground you broke more than 20 years ago with Spawn, how do you feel today about hits like Black Panther?
I’m super proud of what Ryan Coogler and Marvel did with Black Panther. That’s like a dream come true. They stepped so many paces ahead with that one. They just did such justice to that story, being so rich in character and culture. They’re exhibiting the aspects of the oldest culture known to man, and doing so in such a futuristic and uplifting manner. The execution of the movie, the characters, the performances, everything just really hit for me.
I’m the most proud of what it’s showing to a young audience, especially young people of color, who don’t look at themselves with any limitations whatsoever because of movies like this.
Are you surprised that it took as long for a movie like Black Panther to be made, especially in the aftermath of your groundbreaking role in Spawn?
I’m not surprised. Knowing the industry, as soon as they see anything with black actors, any connotations of a high-budget black movie, it usually sends executives running in the opposite direction. They always looked at what happened with Red Tails and Amistad and The Color Purple, being connected to some of the biggest white directors ever, these big endeavors with black folks. They made people feel like, ‘Oh, black movies don’t do well overseas. They just don’t do well,’ without really thinking about what type of movie it is.
What do you mean by “what type” of movie it is?
There are a lot of movies that depict black people in a diminished light that we’ve seen over and over. I don’t think anybody wants to see those movies anymore. Executives forget that everyone’s seen that stuff. I’m glad that Marvel and the people behind them saw this as any other action movie, which is always global, and a black cast was not a detriment whatsoever. I hated that all black movies got categorized. This just goes to prove what I’ve always known. If black movies, action movies, didn’t do well overseas, I wouldn’t have a career making them. So, I always knew that that would work.
You mentioned right at the top that you think Black Panther is many paces ahead of the rest of Hollywood, but surely you have to feel that way about yourself.
I’ve seen that you can make a hit being a black performer in other countries and be overlooked or just disregarded. I remember seeing The Last Dragon and growing up with heroes like Jim Brown and Fred Williamson. Hollywood was never checking for them. Fred Williamson did his movies overseas. He was very successful in Europe and in Italy, and I had followed his model, because I know the racism that exists in the United States. If there’s an excuse not to look for a black action star, it will be used.
But meanwhile, you’re one of the more preeminent black action stars around.
Taimak from The Last Dragon came along at the height of the B-level action movies, and for him not to get another shot, even though his movie was wildly successful within the martial arts action space, it taught me early on that I have to understand this business, production and crafting of the movie. I could not wait to be hired. I’ve seen a whole generation of our heroes be left on the side of the road.
That’s frustrating — it seems like with your level of success that the opportunities should be flowing to you.
Early on, I remember Martin Sheen telling me with Spawn, he said, ‘This is gonna launch you to another stratosphere.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t agree. I’ve seen this happen.’ If you’re Academy-Award nominated, that means a great deal for anyone unless if you’re of color. I’ve never seen to this very day an Oscar win increase a black actor’s profile. Never once in the history of the Academy Awards. You have Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman, and Samuel L. Jackson, continue with the same career path that they were already on.
I’m not being bitter about it. I just try to be very realistic. I studied what happened before me, so I know what I’m dealing with. I’ve had several studio executives in the past call me directly to find the white version of me.
And they’ve said with no fear of reprimand, ‘Hey, Mike, I know you’re in the martial arts, and I know you’re an actor. I need the white version of you.’ This has happened so many times, and even for me to suggest, ‘Well, what about me?’ they took that as a joke. Instead of being bitter, I just chose to use it as a teaching tool. I do movies that appeal to an audience outside of the United States, so I can continue doing my job and provide for my family.
So you took your career to the place that makes sense for you.
Instead of concentrating on the ailment, I’d rather concentrate on the cure. This is one of the reasons why I’ve gone out to increase my fan base and open my doors to fan funding, which brings me to Jai Productions. I’m so happy for movies like Get Out and Black Panther, and Moonlight. These are human stories. I think that should be the new norm. It’s very easy to make stereotypical movies. That’s why there are so many of them.
It’s a welcome shift for you.
Once you get your platform, you can make a difference. Unfortunately for me, instantly someone wants to put me in a category or a box of, “Oh, he’s the black martial arts guy.” That’s fair. They can do that, and put me in a box until I kick my way out of the box.
I’m sure you’ve heard that now there’s an attempt to reboot “Spawn.” What do you think about that?
I’d say good luck. I wasn’t a huge fan of the original movie, but of course I’m thankful for the opportunity to do it. I know Todd McFarlane has got an idea for the second one. I think he said something about a Spawn movie where you almost never see the Spawn character. He told me personally what that was. But from what I hear, Blumhouse is supposed to be behind it, and I know Jason Blum is a very smart individual.
What do your kids think about this new world of black superheroes?
I don’t know if they know it’s a new world, which is very exciting. My youngest doesn’t know how strange it is to have a Black president. And that’s a good thing.
Are there any parts of your work, and training, and acting that go into your approach to being a father?
Kids don’t necessarily do what you say. They do what you do. If my kids see that I promise that I was gonna work out, and then the day has gotten away from me, and yet I’m out there in the gym at 9:30 at night, fulfilling a promise to myself, they learn that aspect from seeing what I do.
The reason why I follow through with my promises is that I have to be an example for them. If they see me sacrifice for a greater good, they’re gonna do that in their lives, and they’re gonna have better lives because of it
Besides getting out there and creating your own opportunities, what other values are you trying to pass down to your kids?
Every day, I do something for the future. Once I’m done with that, I live in the moment, because you’re never gonna see that day again. I think life is about balance. Satisfy the future, but don’t live in the future, because then you’re missing out on that wonderful day that you’ve been given.
I want my kids, like me, to be able to look up in the clouds and not say, ‘It could rain.’ I want them to be able to look at the clouds and notice that the cloud looks like a duck. There are all these gems that your day is gonna bring about. All these gifts. I want them to always be receptive to those things, receptive to each day, and what the gift brings in that day.