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From Blacula to Get Out: the documentary examining black horror

The film-makers behind Horror Noire discuss the progress of black characters from being portrayed as something to fear to leading genre hitsGet Out starts with a familiar trope – the audience sees Lakeith Stanfield’s character walking through a bland suburb before being thrown into a car and driven away. At first glance, a black man is the first to die. The twist, we find out later on, if that at least part of him survives. Related: From Beyoncé to Sorry to Bother You: the new age of Afro-surrealism Continue reading...

Get Out starts with a familiar trope – the audience sees Lakeith Stanfield’s character walking through a bland suburb before being thrown into a car and driven away. At first glance, a black man is the first to die. The twist, we find out later on, if that at least part of him survives.

One of the surprises of Horror Noire, a new documentary examining how black characters fare in horror cinema, is that the cliche Jordan Peele subverts in his Oscar-winning commercial smash is not as common as we believe. In a decade-spanning documentary, director Xavier Burgin upends a number of myths in a project that owes an inevitable debt to the 2017 hit.

“Get Out was a game changer for so many of us,” says Tananarive Due, a horror writer, academic and executive producer. “People didn’t understand that black horror was a thing. It wasn’t the first black-themed horror film, but it started a conversation about the history of blacks in horror cinema.”

Horror Noire begins by covering the depiction of black people as criminals and monsters in the 30s. Birth of a Nation, of course, is the prime example of this mentality – the white lost causers “save” white women from the hands of rapacious black men. Academic and writer Robin R Means Coleman, whose book the film is based on, argues that this was a way that Hollywood “use[d] its messaging to create fear around black people, especially fear around black men”. Burgin says that “for white people, Birth of a Nation is beautiful and prideful, and it was shown at the White House” – but “for black people, it is a horror movie”.

Yet some of the examples that the academics and actors bring up are far less expected. The observation that King Kong is a metaphor for the black experience is such a common one that it can be found in everything from Academy Award-winning monologues to magazine covers, yet racial overtones could also be found in other major studio horrors in the years that followed. Coleman critiques the particular racialized appearance of 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon; the physicality of monsters like the titular creature could be compared to the way “black facial features were misrepresented and caricatured back in the 40s”, says Due.

Judith O’Dea, Duane Jones and Keith Wayne in Night of the Living Dead
Judith O’Dea, Duane Jones and Keith Wayne in Night of the Living Dead. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The 1960s saw a notable exception with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Black filmgoers finally experienced a protagonist who is not only black but is also able to fight those who would oppress him: white zombies. Troubling ambiguities remained, however. For example, according to Peele: “You can never quite tell if the white woman who Duane Jones is essentially saving is more creeped out by the fact that there are zombies outside, or that there is a black man inside the house.” White fear seems almost an obstacle to black protection. This radical message impressed Due.

“They are shooting this film in 1967, so I have to believe that George Romero, who must have been progressive-minded to even consider Duane Jones for the part, had to see through this lens what these images were,” she says. “It must have been a shock for viewers in 1968.”

Blaxploitation was treated with ambivalence – the films brought more black faces to the screen, yet continued to prop up certain stereotypes about black men and black women. “Black characters were put in these boxes, and the roles were so stereotypical,” Due says. “However, to see Blacula stand up to the police to was empowering. What blaxploitation gave us was visibility, the blaxploitation films were for us, and sometimes, they were by us.”

Blacula is praised for allowing black characters to discuss matters of state and morality and anti-racism and its director, William Cain, insisted that dancing be integrated with interracial couples on the floor.

By the 1980s, black characters were mainly cast as the sidekicks of white leads. One prominent example is Scatman Crothers, who appears in The Shining as a mystical black man who provides information and protection to a white family; his existence or non-existence seems contingent on what he can do for them, and he is promptly killed once he is considered non-essential. Due makes the point that the character Crothers played does not die in the book, and the film makes him into a “sacrificial negro”. This character, according to writer Ashlee Blackwell, “must put themselves in the face of danger and must die in order to help the white character to survive”.

The ensuing decades are portrayed as a more positive era in black horror film-making – even though similar stereotypes still remain. Burgin provided a contemporaneous example of the sacrifical negro with a reference to Lil Rel Howery’s character in Bird Box. “A black man sacrifices himself for the white women and two kids,” he says. “In 2018, we are still seeing some of the same tropes that we are talking about in the film.”

Bernard Rose’s Candyman, Rusty Cundieff’s Tales From the Hood, Wes Craven’s People Under the Stairs, Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou and, of course, Jordan Peele’s Get Out are provided as examples of progress. Cundieff and Craven are praised for not only providing roles for black protagonists, but also for commenting on the dual horrors of police brutality and suburban racism as discriminatory societal forces. Get Out reckons with the complicated legacy of the Obama era when people routinely proffered the idea that America was post-race. Eve’s Bayou, though not considered a typical horror film per se, contains fearful elements of America’s history and was a rare film directed by a black woman.

Y’lan Noel in The First Purge.
Y’lan Noel in The First Purge. Photograph: Annette Brown/AP

By showing a visual history of black characters in cinema and on television – including clips from the civil rights movement and Rodney King’s beating – the film makes it clear how far is yet to go. If it seems there are now roles and positions for black artists in the film industry, then this film shows how recent these developments are. One of the more recent examples, Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You, though promoted as a comedy, hints at the past and present horror of experimentation and exploitation on black workers. “The beautiful thing about horror is that it is an emotion as much as a genre,” Due says. “It is horror on a work-day level, and it is horror on the level of body horror.”

Perhaps, now that these opportunities exist, viewers should expect more films that utilize genre to examine a society that has excluded and caricatured them. Films such as last year’s The First Purge, directed by Gerard McMurray, had room for comment on the inequalities of contemporary American life along with a chance for black characters to seek retribution. Horror projects by Dee Rees and Justin Simien are in the works; Jordan Peele’s Us has already provoked wild anticipation and speculation. These new voices creating subversive work confirm Burgin’s assertion that to see representations in horror that go against the dominant narrative, opportunities need to be provided. “There is no genre that a black person can’t do and isn’t interested in doing,” he says. “It’s just getting the chance to do it in the first place.”

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