Wesley Snipes appears on Zoom in front of a large banner that reads DAYWALKER CLIQUE. His Zoom handle is “OG Daywalker”. I get the impression he is not one of those actors labouring to distance himself from his most famous role. It’s like interviewing Roger Moore in front of a large sign saying Martini Club.
The Daywalker, for any readers who were not 11-year-old boys in 1998, was Blade, the half-vampire, half-human vampire hunter that Snipes played in three blockbuster films in the late Nineties and early 2000s. Blade sliced, staked and silver-bulleted his way through assorted nocturnal miscreants, all the while wearing shades, black vests and an air of rugged insouciance. Blade, not to put too fine a point on it, was cool, especially if you were an 11-year-old boy in 1998. Snipes, as far as can be deduced over the internet, looks basically the same as he did 23 years ago, fit and strong and not remotely like a man who will be 59 in July.
“I’m doing what I can to keep my mind sane and my body tight,” he says, grinning. “With all these young boys out there, I have to show that the old wolves aren’t off the field, you know what I mean?”
He is promoting Coming 2 America, the long-awaited sequel to Coming to America, Eddie Murphy’s 1988 romcom about an African prince who moves to New York to find a queen. But it seems negligent not to get the banner out of the way first.
“The Daywalker Clique is our global community of hyphenated skill masters,” Snipes explains. “People who are capable of doing more than one thing extremely well. Our mission is to bring light to the world in darkness. We focus on technology, art, science. Some of our members are the leading experts and wizards in everything from nuclear fusion to renewable plastics.” I see, I say. How many Daywalkers are there? Can I join?
“There are about 4,000 worldwide, and that depends,” he says, which seems reasonable. It wouldn’t be much of a clique otherwise. “You have to be multitalented. You could be a journalist by day and a jazz musician by night.” Sadly, I don’t think I qualify. What kind of projects are they working on?
“For example, our partnership with Amazon to promote Coming 2 America,” he says. “We want to promote African excellence, and present images contrary to the stereotypical images we’re accustomed to seeing about people of colour and Africa as a whole. We want to promote intellectual excellence, physical excellence, love-making excellence…”
He often refers to “we”, which may be the Daywalkers or a regal first person. It’s hard to tell how serious Snipes is being with the Daywalker stuff. There doesn’t seem to be a website, and the impression I get is that it’s a loose informal grouping of fans. Equally that may just be what the Daywalkers want me to think. There’s obviously a valid point to be made about black representation. Coming to America received mixed reviews on its initial release, but its reputation has steadily grown in the intervening decades.
Murphy played Prince Akeem, who set out from his fictional African nation of Zamunda, to Queens, New York, with his sidekick Semmi (Arsenio Hall), in the hope of finding a bride. They take jobs at McDowell’s, a McDonalds rip-off, where Akeem falls for the owner’s daughter, Lisa (Shari Headley). As a romcom with an all-black cast, Coming to America was a rarity. “Before Wakanda, there was Zamunda,” declared aWashington Post article to mark the film’s 30th anniversary in 2018, in reference to the fictitious African nation in Black Panther. “[Coming to America] provided an alternative representation of blackness and created a space for actors of colour that was anything but standard.”
Paramount planned to show Coming 2 America in cinemas, but sold the rights to Amazon after the pandemic hit. As with The Force Awakens, there is plenty for fans. Almost all of the original cast reprise their roles, and there are constant nods to the first film, like the trademark Murphy bit in a barber’s shop in which he plays several characters, in various levels of disguise. Snipes is General Izzi, the leader of Zamunda’s rival and neighbour, Nextdoria. Dressed in snappy uniforms, he has a ball, entering rooms with dance numbers and putting on his best West African-general voice. It’s a treat to see Snipes in a comic role, which puts his natural timing and physicality to good use. Aside from White Men Can’t Jump, the films with which he made his name in the early Nineties, like New Jack City and Demolition Man, prioritised his action and martial arts credentials over his comic repartee.
“[General Izzi] was fun to do,” he says. “People forget that I come from a stand-up, improvisational comedy background. At high school I did a lot of puppet theatre and street theatre. It was part of my roots, I just haven’t had a chance to do much of it. They made it very seductive to do action movies. People who do drama do not get paid the same kind of money, not even close. Not then and not today.” He says Izzi was inspired by Idris Elba’s warlord in Beasts of No Nation, albeit less abusive. “I decided to make Izzi the kind of guy who, even though he’s terrible, you want to go party with.”
The role is personally satisfying for Snipes, who auditioned unsuccessfully for the first film. He hopes it will help put him in the frame for other work, too. “I think we’ll remind people of my range,” he says. “But don’t just rely on one project. I’m past that. We just keep doing the work, and hope that over time the body of work will reflect the quality of our skills and abilities.” It’s the second film he’s done with Murphy and director Craig Brewer in quick succession, after 2019’s Dolemite is my Name. Coming 2 America is potentially an important profile boost for Snipes, who is still rebuilding his reputation after a three-year imprisonment for tax offences. He was released in 2013. Roles have been thinner on the ground than his heyday. Did he feel Hollywood shunned him?
He goes quiet. “That was 10 years ago,” he says at last. “Most of us don’t even remember it. Trial and tribulation is supposed to give you great insight and help you grow. The measure of a man is not how he handles things when all is cushy, but how he manages misfortune. I’ve had the trials of growing up in 1975 in the Bronx, the heights of working with Spike Lee and Mike Jackson (he starred in the video forBad), to the months on the road, to being taken away from my family [he has five children] for a few months, and then coming back even stronger. When you throw your ass in the fire and don’t learn that it can burn you, that’s your fault.”
After Coming 2 America, Snipes says he has several action franchises in development. Like Coming to America, Blade’s influence has grown with the years. Many forget that it was the first film in the all-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe, a smash hit black superhero film. “If I’d known how that would turn out, I’d have invested differently,” Snipes says with a chuckle. There’s a rebooted Blade in the works, starring Mahershala Ali. At the time of writing, Snipes isn’t involved, but he has said he is “1,000 per cent” behind the project. The Daywalker seems fatalistic about a business that has given him a fair share of surprises.
“The art is the energy,” he says. “It will pull us in the direction we need to go, one way or another. We might go kicking or screaming, but it will pull us there. We must stick around, and stay healthy and wise. If you sit by the river long enough, you’ll see opportunity flowing by.”
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