Michael Jai White is a consummate workaholic. Between acting, directing and earning his 8th black belt, the brother is defining the phrase, “Renaissance Man.” Listen to my candid and whimsical conversation with the Brooklyn native.
Now back as the lead actor and director of his newest movie, “Never Back Down: No Surrender,” part 3 in the NBD series, White delves into the world of mixed martial arts for this newest cinematic incantation.
“As we left off in part 2, Case Walker’s now stepping back into the MMA ring,” said White. “He's learning a lot about the fact that its not about how good of a fighter you are, it's about politics as well.”
Walker’s friend, played by former MMA champion Josh Barnett, seeks his help in training for an upcoming fight. That journey takes the duo on extreme twists and turns in the film that echo a slice of real life for the former UFC Heavyweight champion.
“I see a lot of movies and I like authenticity, I like the truth, I like a movie to bring me somewhere,” siad White. “Typically with MMA movies, the expectation is low. All they’re thinking about is the action. The way I like to operate is that if you take the action out of the movie, it would be a good movie by itself.”
Barnett and White, who have worked out together before, had strenuous fight scenes in Thailand that pushed them well beyond their limits.
“It was brutal," said White. "There’d be days that it’s 120 (degrees) outside, then we go inside under hot lights and that makes it 130 (degrees). We did a fight scene that almost killed us. Between takes a producer wrapped us in towels just to keep our body temperature down.”
With the newfound buzz swirling around Marvel’s Black Panther and its cast of black superheroes, White was the first African-American to play a superhero in 1997 as Spawn. Since then, Wesley Snipes played Blade and Will Smith played Hancock, but White as the on-screen progenitor is a throwback that set the path for the future.
“To me, its commensurate with what’s going on," White said. "At the time that I did Spawn, it wasn’t like there was a dearth of superhero movies. There really was a handful, therefore there wasn’t a big scream-out like, 'When are we going to get a black one?' Now that there’s more superhero movies there’s more color as well.”