American actor Wesley Snipes rose to fame with iconic performances in films like Blade and White Men Can’t Jump which granted him unprecedented critical as well as financial success. Although his career came to a halt when he was sentenced to prison for tax evasion, Snipes has made a quasi-comeback in recent years with projects like Dolemite Is My Name and Coming 2 America.
In an interview, Snipes reflected: “When I started doing film, there wasn’t a school that taught artists how to deal with their success. You learned things by trial and error. You might say: ‘Well, this used to be the bodyguard for Muhammad Ali or Larry Flynt, and these cats are the baddest of the bad.’ You rock with that, because there’s nobody there to tell you otherwise.”
While looking back on his time in prison, he said: “I’ve gained so much more. I understand so much more. And if two and a half years of my life were in meditation and isolation up at that camp out of the 100 I plan on living, good deal… I hope I came out a better person. I came out a clearer person. Clearer on my values, clearer on my purpose, clearer about my relationship with my ancestors and the great god and the great goddess above, and clearer on what I was going to do once I had my freedom back.”
On his 59th birthday, we take a look at some of the finest performances by Wesley Snipes as a celebration of his contribution to the world of cinema.
Wesley Snipes’ 10 best film performances:
10. Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla – 1993)
Starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, this 1993 sci-fi action thriller features the former as a reckless cop and the latter as a psychopathic criminal mastermind. Demolition Man imagines a distant future with different socioeconomic characteristics in which these two awake to begin their antics again.
Brambilla recalled, “David Fincher actually got me my first film. Because we were friends and he wasn’t available to make a project with the producer Joel Silver, he recommended me. The films I was making when I was in my early teens were all experimental tone films and visual things, so when I was seduced by Hollywood it was an interesting way to work on a big scale with a lot of resources.”
9. Passenger 57 (Kevin Hooks – 1992)
The film that contained Snipes’ iconic line – “Always bet on black”, Passenger 57 casts Snipes as a former law enforcement officer who suffers from PTSD who returns to the scene in order to foil the plans of an international terrorist (Bruce Payne). Although the film was critically panned, Passenger 57 was a commercial success and made Snipes a household name.
“We found a way to maintain a sense of creative camaraderie,” Hooks said. “The dialogue is not going to keep you nailed to your seat. It’s the interplay between what the characters see and don’t see, and keeping the frame filled with faces, that keeps the tension.”
8. Blade II (Guillermo del Toro – 2002)
In Guillermo del Toro‘s sequel to the 1998 original, Snipes reprises his famous role as he enters a new battle against mutant vampires who thirst for destruction. The film received mixed reviews at the time of its release but since then, critical re-evaluations have correctly identified that del Toro’s cinematic mastery is on display here as well.
“When I went in to pitch the movie, I already had a design for vampires that I’d wanted to do for a while but no project would accommodate it. It was the fact that the bottom half of the Reaper’s [vampire] head would split open like a fan. The whole lower jaw would fan out,” the filmmaker revealed.
He added: “I thought that was a relatively cheap effect to do, but one that would be incredibly shocking. And no one had ever seen a vampire like that. The moment we saw the dailies of the first Reaper bite [with] digital effects and makeup effects, everything had come together. That was a eureka moment when we went, ‘Oh, my God, that’s amazing.’ We really loved it.”
7. Major League (David S. Ward – 1989)
David S. Ward’s 1989 hit sports comedy follows the adventures of a poorly assembled baseball team that starts winning games to piss off the owner who wanted them to lose. The success of the original spawned two further sequels and contributed to Snipes’ growing stardom.
“It was one of the most difficult movies to make that I ever had been associated with,” said Ward. “When we started we had one of the hottest summers in 75 years in Milwaukee where we shot the movie. We started out with six weeks of night shooting because we had to work around the (Milwaukee) Brewers schedule at the time, and staying up all night for six weeks just kills you. It was an independent movie at the time, and we didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of anything.”
6. Jungle Fever (Spike Lee – 1991)
Spike Lee’s dated romantic drama focuses on a Black architect (Snipes) who has an extramarital affair with an Italian-American woman (Annabella Sciorra). According to Lee, Jungle Fever was dedicated to Yusuf Hawkins who was killed in a racist attack.
Samuel L. Jackson commented, “I was the crackhead in Jungle Fever. I was two weeks out of rehab. I’d been smoking cocaine for a year and a half, two years, and I understood the nature of the disease. I had done the research. So when I started talking to Spike about it, I said, ‘You don’t see him high that much. You always see him when he needs something. He’s on a mission to get some shit. That’s what I wanna do.’ And that was my breakthrough. That got me into Hollywood. It was the perfect marriage of experience and opportunity.”
5. To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (Beeban Kidron – 1995)
This 1995 road comedy stars Snipes as a drag queen who wins a golden opportunity to visit Hollywood with friends. Kidron’s work was inspired by an Australian film called The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which had identical themes and dealt with similar subjects.
Kidron recalled: “When I first started there women were few, and generally in traditional female areas, make-up, costume, script supervisor etc, there were few above the line and absolutely none in so-called technical grades. The crews I worked with in the early days had, almost without exception, never worked with a female director.”
Adding, “I always found it funny when they would sidle up after a couple of weeks and call me ‘governor’. Giving me the mantle of a traditional male title was a sign of respect and acceptance I was one of them. Now I hope women are numerous enough to be accepted with no reference to their gender.”
4. New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles – 1991)
In Mario Van Peebles’ directorial debut, Snipes features as the ruler of a drug empire in New York while detective Ice-T tries to end his reign. Warner Bros announced in 2019 that the film is scheduled for a reboot but potential plans were probably put on hold due to the pandemic.
“When I cast New Jack City, for the cops, I mixed it up. I took Russell Wong, who’s Asian, and Judd Nelson, who’s Jewish, and made the prosecutor a Black woman. I like to paint with all the colours of humanity,” director Mario Van Peebles stated in an interview with Decider.
3. White Men Can’t Jump (Ron Shelton – 1992)
Ron Shelton’s cult classic follows a white basketball player (Woody Harrelson) who challenges other hustlers, tricking them into thinking that he cannot play streetball just because he is white. One such disbeliever is Sidney (played by Snipes) who takes him on but ends up as his teammate.
Shelton explained: “Well, most sports movies are from the fans’ point of view — this is why I don’t like most sports movies. I was trying to make ‘em from an athlete’s point of view, because the player’s almost always concerned with something different from, and seeing something different than, the fan. The player counts his victories and losses differently than the fan does. That’s all I’ve done.”
2. Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer – 2019)
Starring Eddy Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, Brewer’s 2019 biographical comedy follows Moore’s adventures and the creation of the character called Dolemite. Snipes also puts in a memorable performance as an American actor and filmmaker D’Urville Martin.
When asked about the actor’s approach to his art, Brewer said: “It’s not annoying method. It’s fun method. The joy that I have had working with Wesley is that he shows up about an hour before call and he hangs out on the set and he’s making everybody feel great. It’s been one of the joyous things in my life working with Wesley Snipes. I’ve been fascinated to see people’s response in that because they’re like, ‘Really?'”
1. Blade (Stephen Norrington – 1998)
It’s no surprise that Blade tops this list because, after all these years, it still remains Snipes’ most iconic work. Based on the Marvel superhero, Snipes stars as a human-vampire hybrid who employs his exceptional martial arts skills in order to protect humanity from evil vampires.
“Wesley was Blade! It wasn’t that he was like Blade, or that he played like Blade. He was Blade,” cinematographer Theo van de Sande said. “When he came onto the set he had his posse around him and they’d stride onto the set. They flowed into the space. I dealt with him a lot and liked him a lot. We had a good time together. He was also a co-producer on the film.