Unmasking Hollywood Horror’s Racial Stereotypes
‘Black people don’t fear the dead, it’s the living we worry about’
‘Black people don’t fear the dead, it’s the living we worry about’
Horror was my first cinematic love. As a child growing up in Sudan, dreaming of one day swapping playing with dollhouses for directing movies, my too-young eyes goggled at zombies, aliens, axe-wielding maniacs, ghosts, cannibals, vampires, mad scientists, vengeful demons, giant animals, sadists, masochists and hillbillies. Horror seemed egalitarian: it didn’t care who you were or what experience you had; it just wanted to make sure you never slept again, terrified of what might be under the bed.
When I moved to the UK as a teenager, and my nascent racial identity kicked in, those notions were quickly debunked. The black people of horror films were pale imitations of real characters – sidekicks devoid of wants and needs, serving the white protagonists by feeding off their misery and paying in self-sacrifice. I despaired of them all: the sassy black friends (Brandy in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, 1998), the idiot police officers (Loretta Devine in Urban Legend, 1998), the ones who disappear before the title card (Omar Epps in Scream 2, 1997), the ones with terrible plans (Mekhi Phifer in Dawn of the Dead, 2004), the badass killing machines (Keith David in They Live, 1988) and, worst of all, the Sacrificial Negroes (Laurence Fishburne in Event Horizon, 1997; Alfre Woodard in Annabelle, 2014; Carl Weathers in Predator, 1987). All these characters meet sticky ends: it’s horror, after all. The cinema offered no solace to the everyday struggles of black people. The idea that on-screen representation is automatically a victory is sadly misguided and the cinematic appetite for black pain is seemingly bottomless. Every time a film like Crash (2004), The Help (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013), The Birth of a Nation (2016) and, most recently, Green Book (2018) gains critical success, I balk at seeing another subjugated black body on screen being applauded by white people.
So, have there ever been any sweeter words heard than: ‘And the Oscar goes to … Jordan Peele for Get Out ’? To watch Peele ascend those stairs, in 2018, and take his place as the first black writer to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay made me glad to be alive. It gave me hope. Here was a man who had reclaimed the very genre that fetishized us and, moreover, had truly terrified white people by showing them that black people can not only make horror films, but that we do not need to centre the white experience in order to do so. I was suddenly scared that Peele – like Lakeith Stanfield, walking through white suburbia in the opening sequence of Get Out – was not going to survive his assimilation into the all-white echelons of filmmaking. They would chew him up and spit him out, like so many black filmmakers before him.
Many of those filmmakers feature in the new documentary Horror Noire (2019), based on the 2011 book of the same name by the academic Robin Coleman. The documentary takes Peele’s victory as its beginning point, before leading us through the greatest hits of black horror – starting with The Birth of a Nation (1915). Launching blackness as the monstrous Other in cinema, D.W. Griffith’s film lead to an onslaught of movies in which the black man is presented as superhuman and debased, rubber-lipped and virile, his lust for white women repellent. The first moment of relief from this stereotype is the 1968 appearance of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead. For the first time, black audiences of horror are shown that a black man can be a hero – admittedly, one protecting white people, but also getting to kick some white ass! Watching the beautiful Jones dispatch wave after wave of white zombies is second in my mind only to the slap that Sidney Poitier’s detective unleashes on Larry Gates’s plantation owner in In the Heat of the Night (1967). But, of course, Jones is killed in the film’s final moments by a mob of white men, his body tossed on a pyre. Black people don’t fear the dead: it’s the living we worry about.
Horror Noire speeds through the 1970s and ’80s as a mostly forgettable list of cheap and shoddy blacksploitation movies. There are a couple of exceptions: Blacula (1972; wherein the eponymous vampire tries to shut down the transatlantic slave trade) and Ganja & Hess (1973; Bill Gunn’s strange, dreamlike horror, a Cannes hit, in which Jones pops up again). But, when we get to Candyman (1992), the documentary almost explodes with glee. Who can forget the quiet integrity of Tony Todd, whose performance is so good that he transforms the film’s frankly silly premise into a legitimate milestone in the horror canon. Candyman moved away from the popular white suburbia horrors (Halloween, 1978; The Amityville Horror, 1979; Poltergeist, 1982) and focused on the urban black areas, full of their own monsters of poverty and addiction, which had long been neglected. It is a film full of uncanniness and double consciousness, and has one of the best horror scores ever written, by Philip Glass.
Candyman is a film about an urban legend and the film itself became an urban legend. The parallels with Get Out are clear. Candyman is an artist who falls in love with the white woman he is painting. The angry white mob punish him by cutting off his hands. Get Out’s protagonist, Chris, is a photographer and the rich white mob likewise destroy him by literally auctioning his tools: his eyes. There is no doubt that Candyman is a triumph of visibility. But, 20 years after I first saw it, I feel very differently about the film. Candyman terrorizes the black community in the projects because he is a weapon of white consciousness, which finds solace in the idea of black people turning on each other. Candyman continues to lust after white women uncontrollably and, in the end, it is the white woman who emerges victorious as an avenging angel, while he is burned alive by his own people. So, you can only imagine my excitement at the news that Peele is going to tackle the Candyman reboot. And, best of all, a black woman, Nia DaCosta, will direct it.
I end here by speaking to women: Hey, ladies, horror has maligned us all. White women, as ever, are privileged. You make it to the end of the movie; you get to be the Final Girl. But rarely do we see beyond your fragility as white women to what might lie beneath. Throughout the history of black horror, black men have been demonized as lustful animals, their undoing always in their inability to control themselves around white women. But what of white women’s monstrousness? When I saw Get Out for the first time, Allison Williams – who plays Chris’s perfect white girlfriend, Rose – had been on screen for about ten seconds when the black woman behind me shouted out: ‘Don’t trust her!’
My hope is that horror can become a genre in which black women, too, can take centre stage – as survivors, monsters or makers. There have been small glimpses of our brilliance – Rachel True’s character in The Craft (1996) is allowed to wreak her revenge on a white woman’s micro aggressions. Her body and hair move from being her weakness to a weapon, her arenas are the sites of our everyday terrors: the classroom, the locker room, the house party. More recently, Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) posited that a young black girl could represent the future of the planet. The film’s final image is of a white woman trapped in a glass box, cursed to spend the rest of her days caring for the very children she helped imprison. A future created for black women. New, strange and wholly ours, because, as the young black protagonist puts it: ‘Why should we have to die for you?’.
Main image: Jordan Peele, Get Out, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Universal Pictures