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Jurnee Smollett-Bell Talks Bringing Black Canary to Life and Who She’d Like to See the Birds of Prey Go up Against Next

Jurnee Smollett-Bell in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

(image: Warner Bros.)

Jurnee Smollett-Bell will be the first big-screen version of the DC Comics character Black Canary, and with that comes with the burden of carrying decades of history, but the pleasure of setting the mold. At Build NYC, the actress spoke about getting to play the role of Dinah Lance in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). 

According to Smollett-Bell, she heard about the casting for Black Canary while filming the pilot for the upcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country, based on the book by Matt Ruff. Initially, they didn’t want to test her because they thought it would conflict with the filming for the show, but she got the confirmation that she wouldn’t be needed for a while was told to go for it. She went through several rounds of screen tests, chemistry tests, and reads for DC, where she mixed and matched with different actresses over 30 times until she won out on the role of Dinah Laurel Lance.

Being in this time of franchise film isn’t the usual path for Jurnee Smollett-Bell. I was first introduced to her as a child actress through the classic Black film Eve’s Bayou, as well as television series like Friday Night Lights, Full House, True Blood, and Parenthood. For a certain demographic, she is already famous, but as she admitted on Build, “I don’t do these things,” referring to the comic book movie genre, saying that there wouldn’t be “many roles I’d be up for” and not wanting to be relegated to just “the girlfriend or wife.”

Whereas, in BOP, she gets to be involved in the fun.

That made her commit to possessing the physical fighting confidence that a fighter like Dinah would have. “You can’t phone it in,” she said. Her goal was to “change her strength” and translate that strength into confidence. She went through 5 months of training and trained during the three months of shooting, working with 87eleven Action (the stunt team behind John Wick) to get her body to a place where she could do most, if not all, of the stunts—something that 87eleven Action and director Cathy Yen worked to do, in order to get long shots of the women fighting. Smollett-Bell says they succeeded, and most of the fighting in the movie was indeed them.

Working with Margot Robbie, both as a costar and a producer, Smollett-Bell praised her for being accessible and an ally to the cast and crew.

“In pre-production when we were creating the look, for the hair, for me it was very important to bring a woman of color on in the hair depart to create the look for Black Canary,” Smollett-Bell said. “My hair, my texture, the kind of blonde we were going for […] it’s just different.”  Robbie and the other producer, Sue Kroll, listened and brought on the person Smollett-Bell wanted.

I really enjoyed hearing that, because as much as we hear about “inclusion riders,” for that to be more than a buzz word, you need to actually listen to your team and the women of color there so that they can feel as appreciated as their white costars.

A fan asked if she took from any other version of Black Canary for the role, and Smollett-Bell stated that she pulled from Injustice 2 and the Gail Simone comics mostly, rather than pulling from something like Arrow. In hearing her speak about the character of Dinah, it seems they are really bringing an emotional story that ties in a lot of the comic book lore (her mother being a crime fighter too, for example), while allowing the flexibility to create this newer version.

When asked which female DC villain she would like to see up against the Birds of Prey if (and quite possibly when) they get a sequel, Bell clarified that she has her “fantasy football” wishlist, which includes both Poison Ivy and a personal favorite of mine: Lady Shiva.

I 100% think that Lady Shiva should be a part of any sequel. Not only is Shiva the mother of Cassandra Cain, but she is one of the people who can actually go toe to toe with the likes of Black Canary and Batman. She’s exceptionally skilled as a fighter, and I think, considering how few Asian characters we get adapted, especially interesting villains, it would be amazing to have her onscreen.

We still don’t know who Ali Wong is playing in the film (what a fun and out-of-the-box fit for Shiva she’d be), but I think that if it’s not going to be her, since Cassandra is so young, we could even get someone like Jamie Chung in the role.

But one person Smollett-Bell said needed to be in the next film was Oracle, and we agree with that 100%.

Birds of Prey will be in theaters on February 7th, and it’s already breaking records, so thank u, next to the haters.

thee canary cry


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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.