Icons of the Overlooked #5: Michael Jai White
Action star Michael Jai White should have broken into the mainstream long ago. There are three reasons why I believe this to be the case.
1. He is an actor first and foremost.
Not a great one, but what sets him apart from his contemporary action stars is that rather work his way up through the direct to (then) video market he sought to carve out a career in much the same way as any jobbing actor would. Starting right at the very bottom, Troma level to be exact, White gradually took on bit-parts and guest spots in both film and TV.
Surprisingly for an action star, his first major starring role was in Tyson; a TV biopic of the troubled boxing legend. White went on to secure the leading role in superhero movie Spawn (Mark Dippe, 1997), where he fought his toughest on-screen battle ever; against shocking visual effects and woefully over-egged transitions. His filmography is peppered with actioners yet reveals an eclectic set of parts in films and shows such as 2 Days in the Valley (John Herzfeld, 1996), City of Industry (John Irvin, 1997), Breakfast of Champions (Alan Rudolph, 1999) and Freedom Song (Phil Alden Robinson, 2000). Not all great works, but they show a real commitment to finding parts outside of what would seem an obvious career route for a guy of his size and ability.
White continued this trend while also displaying some taste in directors, taking tiny walk-ons in films such as Kill Bill 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004) and The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) at a time when he was headlining direct to DVD martial arts films.
But it was Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders, 2009) that really showed off his non-action potential displaying charisma, sharp comedic timing and self awareness.
It might also be worth mentioning he co-wrote the film, then going on to co-write and produce the animated series.
2. He's fucking huge.
No really, the man is a giant. Yet rather than this be a barrier for an audience, his charisma allows for them to engage with him rather than see him as a wall of muscle. He dominates every scene he appears in with both his size and his presence, commanding an audiences attention.
Such a large frame also makes for a rich voice so it no surprise that he does a lot of voice work for cartoons, mostly DC superheroes, adding more diversity to his list of credits.
3. He is an amazing martial artist
So the guy is big. I mean really big. But have you ever seen a guy that big move like this:
Surely that just defies all scientific understanding thus far. His characterisation in Blood and Bone (Ben Ramsey, 2009) may only call for stoicism, but it is an energised and acrobatic martial arts performance. Plus, he really knows what he is doing:
It would be easy to think of Michael Jai White as just a mountain of fists and biceps, but he is an actor who every step of the way has fought to be, beyond anything, an actor and who can prove that despite his frame he can move as deftly as any martial artist. Yet he is truly at home as a cinematic badass and as such I leave this scene as proof. Watch it, and tell me this guy shouldn't be a bigger action star than he is.