Michael Jai White Discusses As Good As Dead, Personal Loss, and Blaxploitation
Jan 18, 2023
Michael Jai White has had the kind of life Hollywood makes biopic movies about. From his childhood with a single mother (who he’s described as “the Black Edith Bunker”) in Bridgeport, Connecticut to becoming a special education teacher, White has had a very different life from the usual actor. He became a skilled martial artist in a variety of techniques, and put his mastery on display in many action movies, from Universal Soldier to Blood and Bone. He’s taken on some iconic roles, such as Mike Tyson in Tyson and Gambol in The Dark Knight, and became one of the most influential Black superheroes in the original Spawn movie.
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However, White has always had talents behind the camera, as well. He created and co-wrote the Blaxploitation film parody Black Dynamite, which then became a successful TV series on Adult Swim. He co-wrote and directed the upcoming western The Outlaw Johnny Black, which he calls “the movie [he’s] most proud of.” Before he brings that film to theaters in 2023, White wrote and stars in the new movie As Good As Dead, and spoke with MovieWeb about the action movie’s themes and influences.
Michael Jai White Is Making Movies from His Soul
Samuel Goldwyn Films
As Good As Dead is a character study that morphs into an exciting and brisk action film. White plays Bryant, a man with a mysterious past who lives out of his mobile home in the Mexican desert. When he agrees to help train a young teenager in the martial arts, Bryant finds himself wrapped up in the boy’s gang leader of a brother, and is eventually discovered by the dangerous men who are looking for him. As Good As Dead may be an action film with some serious fight scenes and a fun premise, but it’s surprisingly soulful and was influenced by White’s actual brother, who he has honored with the film.
“My brother inspired me to write this,” said White. “He had a great love for the Latino community. He drove his motorcycle from Florida into Mexico, and then fell in love with Playa del Carmen, a beautiful area there, and he then started a family. So when I moved to Los Angeles and got very connected with Mexico and the Latino community, I just always had a love for the family values that they’ve had, and the fact that they’re just the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. So it was in my soul to kind of tell this movie, and I wanted to bring this martial arts action genre, like in a very Karate Kid type of way, but with a Latino child, and with this is kind of fusing of genres together. I wanted to tell this story about people, and how sometimes our heroes are wrapped in different packaging.”
White Fights Past Tragedy in As Good As Dead
Samuel Goldwyn Films
“My character was kind of inspired by my brother,” White continued. “In fact, I use his name, and I intended on speaking like 50/50 Spanish and English, and my brother was set to be my Spanish coach, but sadly, I lost my brother to COVID about a month before we started filming. And so it’s been an homage, in honor to my brother […] and kind of immortalize his spirit and what he brought to me and taught me.”
White has suffered through great tragedy recently, having lost his brother and his son to COVID-19. However, he continues to push through, making the films that would have made them proud. “The first day was hard for me because he would have been right there with me, but I know what he would have wished,” explained White. “I know his wish would have been for me to forge forward and do the best I could. And I think he’d be very proud that his name is on this thing, and I’m very proud that the community that he loves so much, that he helped bring that community to another platform in the way of this movie. I think he would be very pleased, and it motivated me to get it done, and get it done as best I could.”
Related: Best Michael Jai White Movies, Ranked
White’s brother was more of an emotional and cultural inspiration, rather than a narrative one; the real Bryant had a very different life than the martial artist in hiding we see in As Good As Dead, so there’s a duality to the character’s origin. “My brother was like one of the lightest, joyful people on the planet, so he wasn’t as heavy as the character I play. But he inspired me to present the culture and that love for what’s really valuable in life,” said White.
The Duality of As Good As Dead
Samuel Goldwyn Films
That kind of duality is seen frequently throughout As Good As Dead — a person who seems weak and scared turns out to be extremely tough and capable; some of the people who seem like they’d be cruel antagonists are ultimately quite different. “I wanted to tell the story of heroes that may not look like the heroes that you are accustomed to,” said White. “People, on first sight, you may judge them in a different way. You may think that, ‘Oh, I know what type of person this is.’ But there are facets to everyone. So I wanted to tell a little bit about the human condition, and the complexity of all of us. Everybody is not exactly what you may think they are when you first see them.” White continued:
The toughest guys are tough for a reason. Because they have to build armor over a much more sensitive nature. I used to be a school teacher, and I was a special ed teacher. And I really noticed it to be true, that some of the most violent folks that you’ve ever seen, are the most sensitive, because it’s two sides of the same coin really. So I just wanted to kind of give an internal look into that.
Michael Jai White Defines Blaxploitation
Samuel Goldwyn Films
In a certain sense, this “don’t judge a book by its cover” perspective has defined much of White’s career. He’s the special ed teacher who has his eighth black belt; he has starred as one of the darkest superheroes ever created with Spawn, but is very funny and charming in Chocolate City, Black Friday, and Freaky Deaky. One of his major aesthetic influences (which can be seen in full force throughout Black Dynamite and The Outlaw Johnny Black) stems from ’70s action films with Black casts, or what some call the Blaxploitation genre.
While he didn’t direct As Good As Dead (that would be R. Ellis Frazier), the genre can be seen in some aspects of his performance and sprinkled throughout his creative vision at large. Blaxploitation is complicated, with some viewers highlighting the “exploitation” aspect of its name. White, however, has a more comprehensive, historically interesting take.
Related: Exclusive: Michael Jai White on Why Spawn Flopped and How the Remake Can Succeed
“Unfortunately, there’s this exploitive connection with this whole Blaxploitation word. It got taken out of context in a lot of ways, and it kind of is like a banner for everything that was Black at the time. There were movies like Shaft,” explained White. “Shaft was an action movie. There’s The Mack. A lot of these movies are just studio-made action films starring Black people, and unfortunately, they kind of get put into the Blaxploitation thing, even though those movies existed before the term Blaxploitation was even coined.” White continued:
That term came from movies that didn’t really have Black people in them; it could be a movie from Italy, or China, wherever. They’d cast a Black actor to do a few scenes, and then put them on the cover. That was true Blaxploitation, that’s why the NAACP railed against that, and it kind of was connected to movies that were exploiting Black people, that didn’t have a lot of production value. And then it became everybody’s interpretation of what the word was. It did a detriment to legitimate movies that happened to be action films from the studios, that happened to star Black folks, and it’s got this scarlet letter connected to it. I mean, to some people, Blaxploitation was and is a representation of cool. So it depends on anybody’s interpretation.
Regardless of what may be representative of ‘cool,’ one thing doesn’t need to be interpreted — White kicks butt in As Good As Dead and is still as cool as it gets. From Odyssey Motion Pictures and Badhouse Studios Mexico, Samuel Goldwyn Films will release As Good As Dead in theaters and On Demand on December 16.
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