Dr. Karen Jenson, Hematologist: How 1998's "Blade" Set the Stage for Black Women Scientists on Screen
Blade debuted in theaters in 1998, becoming the first Marvel Studios film and kicking off what would become the juggernaut Marvel Cinematic Universe. At that time, superhero movies were rare. Few comics were adapted to film, and even then, 1997’s Spawn was the only one that had featured a black lead. Twenty years later, the overwhelming success of the MCU’s Black Panther proved definitively what many have insisted for decades: That a film with a majority-black cast can have mainstream appeal and box office success, just as majority-white films do, if given the same opportunity.
Discussions of representation on screen have renewed interest in Blade, the ethnically diverse film that sat at the forefront of the comic book movie revolution. Its titular protagonist is a vampire hunter with all the strengths of vampires and none of their weaknesses. But although he is not the sole hero of the film, retrospectives largely omit or drastically undervalue his partner, Dr. Karen Jenson.
Certainly, Blade focuses on its eponymous lead and provides his backstory, while Dr. Jenson doesn't get much of one. We know that a vampire bit Eric Brooks’ mother as she went into labor, the event that made Eric into Blade. He is neither fully human nor fully vampire, but a “daywalker” that must rely on a serum to sate his thirst while he discovers and kills as many vampires as possible. We learn all that we know about Dr. Jenson when we meet her in the lab. She's an astute hematologist batting off the advances of a colleague who shows her a mysterious blood sample. Shortly after her introduction, the body from which the blood was drawn — now revealed to be a vampire — attacks and critically wounds her, a bite that would have been fatal but for Blade’s intervention.
In some ways, Blade absolutely treats vampirism as a metaphor for race: The main villain is white and espouses vampire supremacism and genocide. But it nonetheless still acknowledges the actual races and ethnicities of its characters. Dr. Jenson and Blade are black, and you’re reminded of this again and again. When police respond to the incident in the lab by shooting Blade repeatedly, they ignore the visibly sinister revenant he is fighting and disregard the lab-coated employee he is shielding. And again when Dr. Jenson dissuades Blade from opening fire on a white lackey in uniform, instantly communicating that the optics would have been as grave as the threat.
Dr. Jenson is attractive and smart. She is also recently single, and as a result, the pieces that discuss her too often erroneously categorize her as Blade’s obligatory love interest. (A flashback shows the opposite; he was drawn to help her because she reminded him of his dying mother, a solitary postpartum image burned into supernatural memory.) Another, more common take is that Dr. Jenson is Blade’s sidekick. And indeed, once rehabilitated, she does join Blade in fighting and investigating the underground order. But what’s significant is how she recovers, and how she participates.
At every point in the story, she is where she is because she knows what she is doing. Like all humans, she is initially unaware that vampires exist, but her first exposure is in a scientific context, analyzing their blood. When she is bitten, Blade and his mentor bring her back from the brink and delay her from turning. But from the moment she regains consciousness, she takes the reins and showcases her competence.
The threat propelling many action/adventure films and thrillers often requires a suspension of disbelief with regard to simple solutions. We wonder, if our heroes have such great resources, why didn’t they just apply them more appropriately or use them sooner? Why didn’t our team share new information or speak up about the options available? Once Dr. Jenson enters the narrative, everything falls into place.
Realizing she can’t go back to the life she had before knowing of the threat, she adapts and joins the resistance. She is an excellent teammate, a brilliant mind, and tougher than expected. She brings her expertise to a problem the two men had tried to solve for years. And when it becomes clear that the remedy she had been given would not actually prevent her from turning, she develops a true cure for herself. She splits her time between the streets and the lab, where she collaborates with and builds on the research of Blade’s mentor with extraordinary results.
Over the course of the film, she is able to: 1) cure her infection, 2) help Blade understand the vampirism he contracted and make an informed decision as to whether he would like to be cured of it as well, and 3) develop vampire-specific biological weapons to avert doomsday. As when we first met her, she is enforcing boundaries and taking her work seriously.
This can’t be overstated. Even 20 years later, in the age of the past-due Hidden Figures and Black Panther’s Shuri, it remains so rare to see black women scientists on screen. In 1998, it was tremendous that a black woman was cast as Blade’s co-lead, that her character survived the film, and that she was an intellectual — let alone the main intellectual problem-solver and hero of the story. (If you know of another black woman scientist, other than Lt. Uhura of Star Trek, in a feature film prior to 1998, share it with us!). And what’s more, she was neither hypersexualized nor diminished by the typical tropes of an angry black woman, a sassy black friend, or the comic relief.
Blade was the first film in a trilogy, and there is no Dr. Karen Jenson in either of the later installments. As the franchise must continue, Blade of course declines the cure she developed and brings her provisions to another continent where the threat remains. We can presume that after eliminating the domestic arm of an ancient evil, fully curing herself, and equipping the superhero with the weapons he needs to fight effectively, Dr. Jenson returned to her human life — perhaps again patiently fielding interruptions and expertly dodging coworkers’ advances while trying to focus on her research.