Blade and the Power of Liminal Privilege
In the first act of Stephen Norrington’s Blade, the titular black hero physically dominates a white police officer and vampire wannabe. Our modern context of the Black Lives Matter movement is filled with such inverted commentary on police brutality, especially superheroes like Luke Cage or Black Lightning, but being almost 20 years removed from the 1990s makes it easy for some to forget or be unfamiliar with the social tension at that time concerning police and the black community. The 1992 police brutality case of Rodney King, as well as the preceding Los Angeles riots in 1993, echoed through popular culture for years to come.
Despina Kakoudaki, while discussing racial tensions in disaster and science fiction films of the 1990s, says that, “Major cultural events of the 1990s [especially the Los Angeles riots and OJ Simpson trial]… brought to the American public consciousness an increased awareness of difference, of the noncongruence between competing interpretations of equality, justice, multiculturalism, citizenship, and the role of the state.” 1 In Kakoudaki’s view, these events represented a cinematic paradigm shift not unlike the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack in 2001. Thus, when Blade, a black superhero in the 1990s, especially in a film so concerned with matters of blood purity, violently enforces himself on a helpless white police officer, the reaction would have been undeniably charged with social relevance.
Salon film critic, Charles Taylor, had a noticeably bristling reaction to the role of the police in Blade. Taylor is particularly bothered by how aligning the police force with vampires dehumanizes law enforcement and makes them cannon fodder in relation to Blade himself. Taylor references the moment when police officers fire a hail of bullets that bounce uselessly off of Blade, and how Blade scares them away by demanding, “Motherfucker, are you out of your damn mind?” According to Taylor, the film has “an extra-disreputable action-movie charge: Blade can mow down cops with impunity.” 2 Apparently, this is particularly bad because, “You could read this horror-fantasy as a parable about the ambivalence of assimilation: The power structure […] is literally made up of bloodsuckers and the black hero’s choice is to fight them, against the odds, or to betray his nature by joining them. But neither Norrington nor screenwriter David S. Goyer have any interest in exploring that.” Ironically though, Taylor is the only one here showing little “interest in exploring” greater social issues. Blade is not some juvenile revenge fantasy against authority, but rather a layered exploration of the blurred lines of privilege that echoed throughout the 1990s. More importantly, Blade himself is a personification of liminal privilege and how those who possess it should use it.
Blade: An Identity between Worlds
Blade’s complicated identity comes from a unique background that places him in a liminal state between the human and vampire worlds. While Blade’s mother was pregnant with him, she was attacked and bitten by the film’s central antagonist, the white vampire, Deacon Frost. This makes Blade a hybrid between both species like the mythological dhampir. He has the enhanced physical abilities and the blood thirst of a vampire, but is immune to their notable weaknesses like sunlight and garlic. When looking at the film’s social context, Blade’s dual nature makes him an easy fit for a biracial identity.
Indeed, Frances Gateward says, “Blade’s crisis of identity in the film is in the vein of tragic mulatto, one of the staple Black stereotypes of classic Hollywood cinema” 3 Following with this stereotype, the “tragic mulatto” would often default to passing as their more privileged white identity whenever possible. According to Gateward, these films often “presented Blackness as undesirable and even as horror,” but “Blade on the other hand, identifies with the subordinate, denying the heritage that affords a higher place.”
Blade could try to fit in with the vampire society instead, but knows he will never be fully accepted by a more privileged class who will always judge his human blood. Even when Frost tells Blade, “I want you with us,” Blade scorns the offer, saying, “What do you think I’m stupid?” Blade knows Frost is just trying to take advantage of him, and Blade would likely have those doubts about any offer from vampires. Even though Frost reminds Blade, “[The humans] are afraid of you. And they should be. You’re an animal,” Blade feels more empathy for the underprivileged humans than he does for vampires. This is essentially what makes Blade more than just a representation of liminal race, but even more specifically, a representation of liminal privilege. Blade as human and vampire stands up for the underprivileged against the privileged, and he uses what privilege he has to help those who have less.
Blade’s Empathy for the Underprivileged
The reason for this empathy seems to stem from Blade’s mother. We never see anything about Blade having a human father, so it is implied that his mother would have been raising him on her own, had she not been attacked by Frost. A young black woman raising a child on her own in a large city is perhaps the epitome of being underprivileged in the United States. It is easy to imagine Blade having empathy for such a struggle, especially because we see in the film’s first scene that Blade’s earliest memory is that of his mother suffering as she reaches out to him. So if his mother is what makes him empathetic toward the underprivileged, it may be Frost’s attack on her that makes Blade not just vengeful against vampires, but against overly-privileged people in general.
To understand how vampires serve as examples of extreme privilege in the film, first, consider more closely Frost’s attack on Blade’s mother. The encounter, as with many vampire attacks, can be read first as a sexual assault, forced penetration of fangs. Additionally though, Frost enslaves Blade’s mother. In the finale of the film, Blade finally discovers his mother is not dead, but rather undead, a vampire thrall of Frost. This discovery takes place in a jarringly white room while his mother is dressed as well in white clothing. She is not just trapped in a vampire world, but is enslaved in a white one. Frost even gloats, “She belongs to me.” Frost is then a slave-master who regularly rapes his slaves. This explains his desire to possess Blade as well, as slaves were often raped and impregnated to produce children who would become new slaves. Appropriately, Frost positions himself as the patriarch of a mock family reunion when he says, “I thought you’d be happy, you’re finally being reunited with your mother.”
While Frost’s lust for domination is obvious, ironically, it comes from a place of lesser privilege as well. Frost was born human and later turned vampire, meaning that by the standards of this film’s vampire society, he is not a “pure blood.” He is classified by AV Club film critic, John Krewson, as “a lowly working-class vampire who wants to move up in the world,” and this world, also according to Krewson, is one of “ever-multiplying vampires [who] are preparing to take over the earth by solidifying their financial holdings, buying lots of urban real estate, and opening trendy vampires-only dance clubs.” 4 So Frost, being lowly in this, pardon the pun, cutthroat world of powerful vampires, is enamoured with the idea of elevating his own status at the expense of social superiors and perceived inferiors. As Blade himself says of Frost, “Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill.” Frost even sacrifices the pure blood vampire elders who persecute him as part of his seemingly impossible climb. He clearly has the same resentment as Blade toward those with more privilege, but unlike Blade, Frost has no empathy for those lower on the totem pole. His view of humans is one of harsh, Darwinian superiority. He says, “We should be ruling the humans, not running around making back alley treaties with them. For fucks sake, these people are our food, not our allies.”
Vampires and Privilege
But while Frost himself is crucial to understanding the levels of vampire privilege in the film, it is also important to look closer at the scale of power and influence the vampire society has in the world of Blade. The film’s metaphor of vampire privilege isn’t just embodied in their immortality, or their superior speed and strength, but is clearly a social structure as it is in our world. Vampires have a deep influence all throughout the government and culture, and like with any privilege, the depth of their influence is often too subtle for many to notice. For example, when Karen Jenson has the vampire world explained to her by Blade, her experience is akin to our current perception of someone becoming “woke.”
Blade says, “You better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it: the real world.” Blade goes on to explain that, “They’ve got their claws into everything—politics, finance, real estate. They already own half of downtown.” After having her eyes opened to this vampire privilege, she sees the world differently. In her apartment, as she stands outside of the elevator with several others, we see from her point of view as the camera zooms in on the tattooed glyphs that brand humans as vampire familiars. This zoom shows us how she sees more clearly, sees with more focus. She understands now the hidden power structure that is around her every day, and even more so, she understands her vulnerability to it.
So what we are left with here is the conclusion that Jenson does not possess the liminal privilege that Blade has, the liminal privilege that gives Blade the power to exert himself against oppression. From a metaphorical standpoint though, this isn’t just about humans and vampires, but black and white, man and woman. The white police officer that Blade dominates had been attempting to kill Jenson in her apartment. He entered under false pretenses, a clear abuse of power from the start, and Jenson failed to defend herself against him. Blade appears to make the save, easily besting the outmatched policeman with a severe beating. Blade’s violence against the man is so thorough and over-the-top that it is basically played for laughs. Jenson even makes a seemingly winking comment when she says of the extensive beatdown, “Is all that necessary?” Blade, the black man, subdued the white officer instantly, but relishes in the opportunity to flip the script from what was seen in the Rodney King case. This time, it is Blade who gets to indulge in unnecessary force.
Blade, as a black man, has a kind of privilege that Jenson and his own mother do not possess. As Robyn Wiegman says, “the African American male is stranded between the competing […] logics of race and gender. Denied full admittance to the patriarchal province of the masculine through the social scripting of blackness as innate depravity, and occupying an enhanced status through masculine privilege in relation to black women.” 5 In the same way that Blade can use his vampire privilege to help lesser-privileged humans, there is an implication that the male privilege of black men can be used to help black women. Blade is essentially a call for black men to use their position between two identities, one with privilege and one without, to fight on behalf of not just themselves, but the entire black community.
- Kakoudaki, Despina. “Spectacles of History: Race Relations, Melodrama, and the Science Fiction/Disaster Film.” Camera Obscura, Duke University Press, 17.2, 2002, pp. 109-153. ↩
- Taylor, Charles. “I’m Gonna Git You, Suckhead.” Salon, Aug. 20, 1998. ↩
- Gateward, Frances. “Daywalkin’ Night Stalkin’ Bloodsuckas: Black Vampires in Contemporary Film.” Scared of the Dark: Race, Gender and the Horror Film, 40, July 2, 2004. ↩
- Krewson, John. “Blade.” AV Club, April 10, 2002. ↩
- Wiegman, Robyn. “Feminism, ‘The Boyz,’ and Other Matters Regarding the Male.” Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, ed. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, Routledge, pp. 173-93. ↩
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