White, Michael Jai
Actor and martial-arts expert Michael Jai White became the first black superhero in a major motion picture when he starred in 1997's cult hit Spawn. The movie—based on the popular comic-book series of the same name—starred White as a slain government agent who makes a deal with the devil in order to see his family once again. In an interview in Jet, White described the saga as "very Shakespearean," noting that his character's skin color was ultimately of little importance to the story. "People will be able to identify because it's a universal thing; it's not a distinction set for any race," he said. "A hero is defined by what he has to overcome."
White's own saga bears some traces of the heroic. Born in 1967 and raised by a single mother who was a teacher, he never knew his father and spent the first years of his life in a gritty part of Brooklyn known as East New York. The neighborhood's changing racial demographic brought some notorious disturbances between a Italian Americans and African Americans during White's childhood, including a night in June of 1973 when three African-American New York City police officers in plainclothes were attacked; that same night, an African-American woman's apartment was firebombed and groups of teens hurled rocks at one another.
White and his mother escaped the violence of East New York when she took a job in Bridgeport, Connecticut, about the time he started second grade. His new best friend was a neighbor who took karate classes. "I wasn't allowed to go because my mom thought it was too dangerous," White recalled in an interview with Shawn Perine in Muscle & Fitness. "So when they came back from class I'd have them teach me everything they learned." Renel White finally relented and agreed to let her son visit the karate dojo, where his friends told the sensei that he had already learned everything they had taught him. The master asked to see a demonstration and was impressed enough to let White enroll for free.
White had a black belt by the time he reached his teens and began weight training as well. Tensions at home increased, however, and he left home at age fourteen. He fell in with a bad crowd in Bridgeport, and became known as an enforcer for local thugs. At fifteen he was shot twice: one bullet in his arm, and the other in his hip. "It didn't seem like a big deal at the time," he told Perine. "A lot of people I knew had been shot." The incident served as a wake-up call, and White began devoting more time to his schoolwork and sports instead. Before he graduated from Bridgeport Central High School in 1982, he set a school record in the shot put (45 feet 9 inches) that still remained more than twenty-five years later.
In college White switched majors a few times, discarding political science and engineering at the University of Connecticut and Southern Connecticut State University. He eventually became a teacher of emotionally disturbed middle-school students in Bridgeport, but took acting classes and occasionally ventured back to New York City for auditions. After television commercial work and roles in the daytime dramas Loving and All My Children, White made his film debut in The Toxic Avenger, Part II in 1989. Three years later, he quit teaching altogether to pursue acting as a full-time career in Los Angeles.
White's early work included appearances on episodes of Saved by the Bell, Martin, Living Single, and NYPD Blue. His break came when his agent suggested he audition for the title role in a planned HBO biographical movie about world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, who was serving a three-year prison term at the time. "I thought I didn't look or sound anything like Mike, so I didn't even see any point in going," White said in Muscle & Fitness, but White beat out nearly a thousand other contenders for the title role in 1995's Tyson because of his impressive martial arts. Writing in the New York Times, Robert Lipsyte asserted that White's "eerie mimicry of Iron Mike's sweet retreats and dangerous rages offers some humanity to what is basically a fight film," while Ginia Bellafante in Time commended the "eerie emotional vacancy" White brought to the role. Bellafante further noted that White "is not given much dialogue, which serves to emphasize Tyson's position as little more than a pawn of handlers."
White's next starring role came in Spawn in 1997. The movie's plot was based on a popular comic-book series from Todd McFarlane, who had revived the Super-Man franchise in the 1980s, and the Spawn anti-hero was notable as one of the rare African-American crime fighters in the genre. Media reviews were mostly negative, faulting a reliance on dazzling special effects over character and storyline. Roger Ebert did note in the Chicago Sun-Times, however, that the lead actor "makes a powerful Spawn with a presence both menacing and touching."
White went on to appear in several major Hollywood productions, including the Jerry Springer comedy Ringmaster and an Alec Baldwin/Andre Braugher thriller Thick as Thieves, both from 1998. In 1999 he appeared with action star Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier: The Return, and two years later he was cast alongside Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds. Other film appearances include Getting Played and the Tyler Perry comedy Why Did I Get Married? In 2008 White performed in one of the all-time top-grossing films, The Dark Knight, as Gambol, an underworld figure. Later that year the actor took on starring roles in Black Dynamite—a reworking of the 1970s-era blaxploitation-genre films—and Blood and Bone, in which he was cast as a man drawn into an underworld-controlled street-fighting ring.
White holds seven separate black belts in various martial arts, including kyokushin karate, tae kwon do, goju ryu, and tang soo do. His childhood friend from Bridgeport, the neighbor who introduced him to karate, grew up to become professional bodybuilder Troy Alves. Looking back on the path they had each traveled, White was levelheaded about his success in Hollywood. "I never forget that it's all just make-believe," he told Perine. "I enjoy what I do, but I don't pretend for a minute that acting is any more important than teaching or being a doctor. I'm just an adult who's getting paid to pretend."
At a Glance …
Born on November 10, 1967, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Renel (a teacher); married Courtenay Chatman (a physician), August 2005; children: Jai, Devin. Education: Attended the University of Connecticut and Southern Connecticut State University; studied acting in New York City.
Career: Middle school teacher, c. 1989-92; actor.
Addresses: Agent—Writers & Artists Agency, 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 550, Beverly Hills, CA 90211.
The Toxic Avenger, Part II, 1989.
True Identity, 1991.
Full Contact, 1993.
Lion Strike, 1995.
City of Industry, 1997.
The Bus Stop, 1998.
Thick as Thieves, 1998.
Breakfast of Champions, 1999.
Universal Soldier: The Return, 1999.
Exit Wounds, 2001.
Honor among Thieves, 2002.
Pandora's Box, 2002.
Getting Played, 2005.
Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, 2006.
Why Did I Get Married?, 2007.
Black Dynamite, 2008.
Blood and Bone, 2008.
The Dark Knight, 2008.
The Slammin' Salmon, 2008.
Chicago Sun-Times, August 1, 1997.
Jet, September 22, 1997, p. 35.
Muscle & Fitness, July 2006, p. 186.
New York Times, April 30, 1995.
Time, May 8, 1995, p. 98.
"Boys' Track Records," Central High School (Bridgeport, CT), http://bridgeport.ct.schoolwebpages.com/education/components/scrapbook/default.php?sectiondetailid=5121 (accessed October 12, 2008).
White, Michael Jai 1967- (Michael White, Michael J. White)
White, Michael Jai 1967- (Michael White, Michael J. White)
Born November 10, 1967, in Brooklyn, NY. Education: Studied acting at H. B. Studio, Yale University, and Brown University. Avocational Interests: Black belts in seven karate styles and other martial arts.
Agent—Agency for the Performing Arts, 405 South Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Actor. Appeared in a Japanese soup commercial. Twenty-six karate titles, including U.S. Open, North American Open, and New England Grand Champion; previously worked as a teacher of emotionally disturbed children.
Blockbuster Entertainment Award nomination, favorite male newcomer, 1998, for Spawn.
(As Michael White) Apocalypse Inc. executive, The Toxic Avenger, Part II, 1989.
(As Michael White) Apocalypse Inc. executive, The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie, 1989.
(Uncredited) Audience man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, 1991.
(As Michael White) Alley guy number one, True Identity, 1991.
Ring of Fire, 1991.
Soldier, Universal Soldier, TriStar, 1993.
(As Michael White) Full Contact, 1993.
Silvio, Lion Strike (also known as Ring of Fire 3: Lion Strike), 1995.
(As Michael White) Quint, Ballistic (also known as Fist of Justice), 1995.
Buck, 2 Days in the Valley, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1996.
Odell Williams, City of Industry, Orion, 1997.
Al Simmons/Spawn, Spawn, New Line Cinema, 1997.
Pointy Williams, Thick as Thieves, 1998.
Demond, Ringmaster, Artisan, 1998.
Howell, Breakfast of Champions, Buena Vista, 1999.
S.E.T.H., Universal Soldier: The Return (also known as Universal Soldier IV), TriStar, 1999.
(As Michael J. White) The Bus Stop, 2000.
Lewis Strutt, Exit Wounds, Warner Bros., 2001.
Hampton Hines, Pandora's Box (also known as Trois 2: Pandora's Box), Columbia TriStar, 2002.
Tre, Justice, 2003.
Morris, Fei ying (also known as Silver Hawk), Screen Media Films, 2004.
Himself, UnConventional (documentary), 2004.
Actor, Getting Played, New Line Home Video, 2005.
George Chambers, Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (also known as Undisputed 2), New Line Home Video, 2006.
Marcus, Why Did I Get Married? (also known as Tyler Perry's "Why Did I Get Married?"), Lionsgate, 2007.
Title role, Black Dynamite, 2008.
Gamble, The Dark Knight, Warner Bros., 2008.
(As Michael White) Assistant wrestling coordinator, The Toxic Avenger, Part II, 1989.
(As Michael White) Assistant wrestling coordinator, The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie, 1989.
(As Michael White) Stunts, Prototype (also known as Prototype X29A), 1992.
(As Michael White) Stunts, On Deadly Ground, 1994.
(Uncredited) Boxing coach: Scott Adkins, Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, 2006.
Television Appearances; Series:
Ellis Hayes, Clubhouse, CBS, 2004.
Ali, The Legend of Bruce Lee, 2008.
Voice of Barabbas, Spawn: The Animation (animated), 2008.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Mike Tyson, Tyson, HBO, 1995.
Carpenter, Shaughnessy (also known as Louis L'Amour's "Shaughnessy" and Louis L'Amour's "Shaughnessy the Iron Marshal"), 1996.
Elroy, Captive Heart: The James Mink Story, CBS, 1996.
Ben Cooper, Mutiny, NBC, 1999.
Coleman Vaughnes, Freedom Song, TNT, 2000.
Television Appearances; Pilots:
Dr. Derrick Hatcher, Wonderland, ABC, 2000.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Himself, The Making of "Spawn," 1997.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
(Uncredited) Military police man number two, "Wrestling with a Future," Saved by the Bell, 1992.
"Vanished," Renegade, 1993.
Valdez, "Arms Are for Hugging," Martin, Fox, 1994.
Steve, "Hot Fun in the Wintertime," Living Single (also known as My Girls), Fox, 1994.
Officer Reginald "Reggie" Fancy, "Innuendo," NYPD Blue, ABC, 1995.
Officer Reginald "Reggie" Fancy, "A.D.A. Sipowicz," NYPD Blue, ABC, 1995.
Petty Officer Peter Quinn, "Brig Break," JAG, CBS, 1995.
The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, 1997.
Dr. Derrick Hatcher, "20/20 Hindsight," Wonderland, ABC, 2000.
Dr. Derrick Hatcher, "Hello Goodbye: Finale," Wonderland, ABC, 2000.
Darren Schofield, "Chapter Eighteen," Boston Public, Fox, 2001.
Russell Banks, "Who Do You Know?," Soul Food, Showtime, 2001.
Himself, "Making ‘Exit Wounds,’" HBO First Look, HBO, 2001.
Officer Roy Bailey, "Hard Time," CSI: Miami, CBS, 2003.
Voice of Doomsday, "A Better World: Parts 1 & 2," Justice League (animated; also known as JL), Cartoon Network, 2003.
Voice of Osebo, "Static in Africa," Static Shock, The WB, 2004.
Voice of Osebo, "Out of Africa," Static Shock (animated), The WB, 2004.
E! News Daily (also known as E! News Live and E! News Live Weekend), E! Entertainment Television, 2004.
Voice of Doomsday, "The Doomsday Sanction," Justice League (animated; also known as JL), Cartoon Network, 2005.
Michael, "Priceless," Windfall, NBC, 2006.
Bryan, Tyler Perry's "House of Payne," TBS, 2006.
Appeared in Raisin in the Sun, Off-Broadway production; To Kill a Mockingbird, Off-Broadway production.
Voice of Green Lantern, Justice League Heroes (also known as Justice League Heroes: The Flash), Eidos, 2006.
Hatch, The Underground Bounty Hunter, 2007.
Black Dynamite, 2008.
Michael Jai White Website,http://www.michaeljaiwhtie.com, April 28, 2008.