Michael Jai White has a vision; he seeks to change the film industry. And the sort of change he ultimately wants to achieve comes from transforming the types of films audiences see and the selection of people telling those stories. And his first plan of action to tackle this multi-faceted mission (White revealed that he’s been hard at work on several different projects) is Never Back Down: No Surrender, an action thriller in which he directed, produced, and starred in.
In the film, White reprises the role of former MMA fighter, Case Walker, who wishes to get back into the ring after a lengthy hiatus. On Case’s journey to the championship held in Thailand, he runs into long time friend and former opponent, Brody James, who currently holds the title. Together they train and fight their way back into top-notch shape, all the while experiencing obstacles in love (the love interest is played by his wife, Gillian Iliana Waters) and rivalry. The display of sheer athleticism offers a unique perspective, which White says, the industry doesn’t always get enough of.
“I think a movie should expose a world that you would never know about if you hadn’t seen it. So that’s my aim – to bring truth to this particular story,” White told VIBE during a phone conversation. Although mixed martial arts has undoubtedly been exhibited in films over the years, a certain truth shines through in this particular one.
White isn’t an actor who becomes a martial artist, or even a martial artist who becomes an actor. He is both. “I’ve made my living as primarily an actor and as a martial artist,” he said. And while many recognize him as an actor first, playing in the action/adventure film, Falcon Rising or the fantasy thriller, Spawn, he also has an extensive background in MMA, which reiterates his motive to bring truth to filmmaking. White admitted he was a martial artist before the term MMA was ever pegged. And as certification for this declaration, he holds black belts in eight different forms of the sport, including Taekwondo and Jiu Jitsu. That expertise is demonstrated in the film.
As White discusses the extraordinary amount of energy it took to put authenticity into every scene, he speaks of one in particular, where he’s depicted sparring with co-star, and real MMA icon, Josh Barnett. Instead of going through stunts, the two engaged in an unscripted dual, which admittedly brought challenges to being both a director and starring actor. “Had the producers really understood how crazy that was for the director to actually be sparring one of the most dangerous heavyweights in MMA history,” Michael recalls, laughing, “they might have stopped that from happening. But trusting me and letting me do something that crazy was part of the attraction.”
He’s the first to star, produce, and direct in a film where the lead actor and romantic couple are African American. “If you look at every movie there’s a dominate, alpha, white man and woman in every damn thing you see. It’s not so for black characters. Most of the time we are written off as the buddy or somebody of little significance.” But for him, the ‘buddy’ role is dead.
“It’s a double edge sword; people want to limit you as much as they can,” he says of breaking this seemingly perpetual cycle. “That’s why the majority of the roles I’ve played, I’ve had some hand in developing them.” And with the release of his latest film, as well his next ventures into the industry, he continues to bring change, while paving his own way in.
Check out what White told VIBE about Never Back Down: No Surrender, taking on multiple responsibilities, and acting while black.
What moved you to direct, star, and produce the film?
MJW: I think what I wanted to do was put quality into the genre. Considering an action film, I wanted to make sure it has a balance of humor and reality, and offers teaching about the MMA lifestyle, like we’re finding a real inside glimpse into it. And I have a unique perspective and I don’t think there’s a lot of opportunities to have [one] like mine. That’s why I felt like I would be the rightful director of it.
Since you have a unique background in acting in addition to directing and producing, what do you think those different roles brought to the table? How do you think your vision, coming from behind the camera and in front of the camera helped shape this movie?
MJW: I’ve made my living as primarily an actor and as a martial artist. So there are two realms that I fully understand. Even though it’s an action movie, my knowledge of the subject matter and also acting and trying to convey reality, is a unique perspective. I think a movie should expose a world that you would never know about if you hadn’t seen it. So that’s my aim – to bring truth to this particular story.
What were the challenges of directing?
MJW: There’s a lot of physical and mental challenges. It’s probably the busiest job that one could ever have because you’re one of the first people on set and one of the last people to leave. And you have to control every aspect. When you look at the end of a movie and you see all those names that go up, the director has had constant connection with every name in the credit list. So it’s an amazing amount of work. But I feel like in life, you have to live to your potential or you’re never going to be satisfied. So I welcomed it. I think it’s one of the most fulfilling things I could ever do.
There’s this idea of what acting and directing all in one looks like: you’re in front of the camera one second, but you’re also yelling cut and then jumping behind the camera to make sure everything is going well. What does it look like on set wearing multiple hats or responsibilities?
MJW: One important thing is that you hire a crew that knows what they’re doing. Everybody’s there to complete your vision. So of course I have to be a great communicator because I’m educating people about a lifestyle they don’t know about. And you have to garner trust from your producing partners because they’re going to have a limited understanding, but have to trust your vision, despite what they think of the lifestyle and genre… For me, it’s kind of natural. Even when I was just an actor, I look at things from a producer and director standpoint as well; I’ve always done that. It’s actually quite comfortable because I have been the actor toiling over if the director remembered certain aspects [of the film] while I’m in my trailer. I’m worried about other things that have nothing to do with my character. Your creative juices are constantly flowing, and there’s constant ways of bettering the piece that will be exposed to you as you go on. And as a director, you can take advantage of those things and it’s exciting realizing how you can make your movie better every single day.
Can you talk a little bit about your background in MMA?
MJW: I’ve been doing it before it was called MMA. I did wrestling in high school and college. I did extensive boxing for years, training with some world champions. And then of course, martial arts, karate, and Taekwondo. And actually, I started with Jiu Jitsu. So my success in fighting was attributed to the fact that I did several styles. As a black belt holder in eight styles, that mix of martial arts is something I lived by.
How was it working with MMA icon, Josh Barnett?
MJW: It was great! Not only is Josh the most decorated heavyweight in the history of MMA, he’s one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known. We’re both jock nerds; we’re cut from the same cloth. It’s quite staggering how many similarities we have. It was really easy to communicate to somebody with his type of intelligence.
How would you describe acting through the high energy moves and stunts on camera?
MJW: The hard part was working in the heat. Josh Barnett and I did a fight scene, where we were in 125-degree heat while doing this. It was 110 [degrees] outside and it was hotter inside under the lights. I wanted to make sure the fighting was very close to real. In fact, there were scenes where Josh and I are sparring and it’s not choreographed. That’s one of those things where had the producers really understood how crazy that was for the director to actually be sparring one of the most dangerous heavyweights in MMA history, they might have stopped that from happening. But trusting me and letting me do something that crazy was part of the attraction. Sometimes my detriment, I always believe I can do anything. And I believe I could shoot this movie in 18 days and wound up doing it, but damn near killing myself. So by the third day, I knew I was in a little bit of trouble; it was rough. If anything that martial arts teaches you is that it teaches you to overcome obstacles, and you can do that through your will and discipline. And so I had no doubt that I would succeed, but it was not easy. I don’t think this has ever been done before – a movie like this in 18 days with the physical stuff I had to do.
How was that dynamic of working and starring alongside your wife?
MJW: She’s my best friend, and she’s super intelligent, which is the greatest thing. She’s that twin soul, soulmate, best partner I could probably have. She made it far better. And the fact that she’s playing my romantic lead, no acting was involved. This is the first time that a married black couple has ever done a movie as romantic leads.
You mention that this film is the first of many – showing this glimpse into the world of MMA, and the first time a black actor and couple have starred in such a film. Why do you think there is such an underrepresentation of this in these sorts of films?
MJW: I wouldn’t say it’s an underrepresentation. [MMA] is so specific. There’s not a lot of white roles in MMA movies [as well]. So it really has nothing to do with color I think. A lot of my roles I play in don’t have anything to do with my ethnicity, whether it be Blood and Bone, Falcon Rising, or Never Back Down. A lot of these are just leading characters.
There’s been an increasing inclusion of black actors in super hero and action films, with leading roles in Black Panther, Captain America, and X-Men. What do you think is the significance of putting black actors in the forefront, in what have traditionally been white roles, instead of the people who get killed first in thrillers or the friends, etc?
MJW: If you look at every movie there’s a dominate, alpha, white man and woman in every damn thing you see. It’s not so for black characters. Most of the time we are written off as the buddy or somebody of little significance. And when there’s ensembles, the black guy is basically patted on the head. I really haven’t seen [a film] in the last eight years, I said I wish I played. It’s really sad. That’s why the majority of the roles I’ve played, I’ve had some hand in developing them. Whether I’m writing Black Dynamite, producing in Blood and Bone, Falcon Rising, or writing directing, and producing Never Back Down 2 and 3 – these things are not something that’s been written for me. And as far as something written for an alpha, black male, I can’t tell you how little of that I’ve seen. And you have a few once in 10 years, like a Black Panther, but I don’t know how they are going to be handled.
So how does this perpetual cycle finally break?
MJW: Denzel Washington gave me some great advice, and I believe he got that advice from Sidney Poitier. He said that your career is shaped by the roles that you reject and the roles that you take. And I believe that’s true because the majority of my career has been legitimate acting. But as soon as I did anything with martial arts in it, there was a tendency to label me as just a martial arts actor. But there’s a reason why I didn’t want to do any martial arts movies until I was established as an actor first. However, people tend to forget that I’m a legitimate actor, and I fuse those worlds together when I’m producing things. It’s a double edge sword; people want to limit you as much as they can.
What’s next in terms of producing, directing, and acting?
MJW: I have another entity into the Black Dynamite era. I always intended doing three different movies that existed in that blaxploitation universe. One of them is a Western that would harken back to a Buck and a Preacher meets Blazing Saddle.