Why Are There So Few Action Franchises Led By Black Actors?

Quick, what's your favorite action franchise (two films or more) starring a black lead? Without knowing your exact pick, I'm going to do a little prognosticating and guess that you've gone with an action/comedy. If I'm wrong, it's either because you're old and have chosen something from the '70s or you've picked Blade.This week's biggest new release sees the return of Denzel Washington's Robert McCall in The Equalizer 2, and not only is that good news for action fans – the movie's a solid character piece punctuated with thrilling action beats – it's also something of a milestone for black-led action franchises. While there's no rarity of action movies with black leads, even a cursory look at the ones that spawned sequels over the past 30 years reveals something odd.They're all action/comedies.From Beverly Hills Cop (1984) to Ride Along (2014) – it's not an issue of quality as many of them are fun pieces of entertainment, but down to the last one, they're films focused on the comedy as much or more than they are the action. Again, not in and of itself a problem, but white-led action franchises, by contrast, can go either way with comedic series like The Kingsman (2017) or 21 Jump Street (2012) and more serious fare like Jason Bourne (2016) or The Transporter (2002).

Director Antoine Fuqua returns for The Equalizer 2 alongside Washington, and it's the first sequel for both of them. More than that, though, it's also the first serious action franchise with a black lead in decades. Decades! Sure the Blade trilogy is an exception, but while they're not comedies, the films are fantastical by nature and therefore don't really fit here. (Superhero and most comic book adaptations are skipped for similar reasons.) That leaves us with Eddie Murphy's turn in 48 Hrs (1982) and old-ass Danny Glover in the first two Lethal Weapon films in the late '80s, but even if you accept Glover as an action lead in the latter (I don't as he's very much second-fiddle comedy relief to Mel Gibson's testosterone-filled madness), both series dipped heavily into comedy with their '90s entries.And that's it for the exceptions. (Are there ones I've missed? Probably... and I fully expect people to point them out politely in the comments below.)Those aside, you have to go all the way back to the '70s to find action franchises that put black actors at the head of serious films. One of the earliest actually started the decade before with 1967's In the Heat of the Night. You'd be forgiven for not remembering, but Sidney Poitier's Virgil Tibbs returned twice more to fight crime and kick ass in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971). The follow-ups never achieved the cultural status of the original as they were more specific in their plot focus, but the racial element still comes into play as Poitier exerts his authority over certain people who'd rather he not.

The '70s also gave us Shaft (1971), Shaft's Big Score (1972), and Shaft in Africa (1973); Slaughter (1972) and Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973); Black Caesar (1973) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973); and on a technicality ,you could include Foxy Brown (1974) which was originally meant as a sequel to Coffy (1973). Quality varies and there are occasional moments exaggerated for humor, but they're typically brutal affairs when it comes to the violence, emotion, and social issues.Most of these films fall under the blaxploitation subgenre, and a cynical read on the situation would suggest that film studios and America at large preferred their serious black action leads also acknowledge a criminal element. The films sprouted up to fill a gap in the cultural marketplace of hard-hitting action films with serious black heroes (or anti-heroes), but once blaxploitation ran its course that gap reappeared with a vengeance.This isn't to say there haven't been plenty of standalone movies, including more than a few that were either meant as clear franchise starters or films that simply deserved a sequel. This year saw two hopefuls in Proud Mary and Super Fly, but neither character will be returning to theaters any time soon. To be fair, they're not good movies, but past attempts with far better flicks include Action Jackson (1988), Passenger 57 (1992), Original Gangstas (1996), Shaft (2000), Miami Vice (2006), Traitor (2008), Redbelt (2008), Colombiana (2011), and Alex Cross (2012). Any and all of these feature franchise-ready lead characters, but that didn't happen.

What did happen in that same time frame? The Exterminator (1980), Escape from NY (1981), Missing in Action (1984), Die Hard (1988), Kickboxer (1989), Universal Soldier (1992), Sniper (1993), Mission: Impossible (1996), Behind Enemy Lines (2001), The Bourne Identity (2002), The Transporter (2002), The Marine (2006), Taken (2008), 12 Rounds (2009), The Mechanic (2011), Jack Reacher (2012), Olympus Has Fallen (2013), John Wick (2014), plus the ongoing adventures of James Bond, John Rambo, Mad Max, Dirty Harry, and the Death Wish films.So what's the deal?Apologies in advance, but the issue isn't exactly black and white. Half of those black-led movies mentioned above failed to set the box office ablaze, leaving the lack of a follow-up a financial decision, but the others earned two to three times their budget, which was more than enough to warrant sequels to some of the white-led films. In a better world, Action Jackson would have become an entire series for Carl Weathers, and we should have been betting on Wesley Snipes many times over since Passenger 57. A follow-up to Zoe Saldana's Colombiana has been rumored for years, but there's been no concrete movement on it yet.While serious white heroes multiplied like gun-toting rabbits across the multiplexes, their black counterparts were forced to find the funny in their own pursuit of franchise glory. 48 Hrs.' success moved Murphy into three Beverly Hills Cop films, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence shared Bad Boys (1995) while finding individual series success with Men in Black (1997) and Big Momma's House (2000), respectively. Kevin Hart has a third Ride Along coming – and I wouldn't bet against a second Central Intelligence (2016) – and Chris Tucker smartly financed his entire future with the Rush Hour (1998) movies. They didn't happen, but sequels to The Last Boy Scout (1991), Hancock (2008), Black Dynamite (2009), Cop Out (2010), and 2 Guns (2013) would have been welcome too. (And yes, I only included Cop Out to see if you were paying attention.)

Again, this isn't a knock on action/comedies, as most of the ones mentioned above are fantastic fun that I'm happy to see continue, but the lack of black-led action movies with a serious bent is notable and strange. The audience is there, so why aren't the sequels? The Equalizer 2 is a terrific movie, and while there are humorous moments, it remains true to the original by focusing on serious issues and a no-nonsense performance by Washington. It deserves to do well at the box office, and hopefully that success will turn this franchise anomaly around.