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30th October 2022

Black Horror on-screen: The evolution of race within horror films

As Halloween approaches The Mancunion looks into Black representation in horror films, from its tokenistic origins to the pioneers of ‘Black Horror’ today
Black Horror on-screen: The evolution of race within horror films
Photo: Fotomek @ Pixabay

Words by Rhea Assomull

In light of it being Black History Month and the approach of Halloween, it is important to reflect on how race representations within horror films have progressed.

Black roles have historically been portrayed unfavourably within the film industry, if at all. However, horror films in particular lead this misrepresentation, enabling portrayals of blackness as evil, damaged, or ‘the Other’.

Initially, black roles depicted evils through the likes of zombies, vampires, ghouls – practically anything to contrast the white ‘standard.’ Consider films such as Blacula (1972), which mimicked the original Dracula but instead- you guessed it – he’s black. Blacula was a product of the blaxploitation era, and an attempt to reclaim blackness through representation. Today, however, this film is questionable as it still falls into the black villain trope.

Additionally, the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead depicts one of the first few black heroic roles within a horror film. Ben (Duane Jones) is the protagonist of the film but – spoiler alert –  ends up getting shot at the end as the mob mistakes him for a threat . The scene is set during a threatening zombie uprising but Hollywood reveals their racist backbone the moment audiences are gaining some hope for positive diversity.

 

Later decades evidence a growth in racial diversity, yet unfortunately for horror films, these representations were arguably more destructive than empowering. Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is a prime example of this destructive representation, perpetuating the ‘magical negro’ character that helps the white lead, yet ultimately gets killed off in the movie.

A similar example can be found in Scream 2 (1997). Not only does this film endorse tokenism, showing only two black characters within a whitewashed cast, but both these characters are killed off before the audience can even grab their popcorn.

In addition to this, we must not forget the timeless Scary Movie (2000-2013) franchise, which shamelessly mocked these stereotypes by feeding into them, drawing on black tokenism with the majority of the cast being white actors. Scary Movie employs stereotypes like the ‘comedy relief’ character Shorty Meeks and the ‘black best friend’ role (Brenda Meeks). This crafts an otherness towards black identities whilst amplifying the white protagonist’s growth, because God forbid a black character has any depth in a horror film.

Within our current social climate, viewers don’t often turn a blind eye to the standard token character like they once had. Rather, these cinema-savvy audiences have led us into enter an era of transition within the film industry, where black people in horror films have paved the way for a new, niche genre to emerge: ‘Black Horror’.

The recent remake of Candyman (2021) effectively echoes this transition. Through exposing the societal racism that led Daniel Robitaille to his brutal death, and consequently becoming the “monster” that is Candyman, we, the audience, thus embrace racial politics as a catalyst for change. Nia DaCosta flawlessly unveils the humanity behind Candyman’s horror, by utilizing racism and white supremacy to educate viewers, potentially leaving them sympathetic to the black villain.

Another remarkable director who has become a game-changer for contemporary horror films is, of course, Jordan Peele. While you may be tired of hearing Peele’s name and his infamous psychological thriller/ horror debut Get Out (2017), regardless, his works have heavily contributed to the origin of ‘Black Horror’.

Peele’s Get Out, depicts an African American man meeting his white girlfriend’s family who appear rather peculiar and, progressively we find out the reason why: they’re racist. Ironically, as Peele embraces colonial racism through the family’s ideology of white superiority, the film gradually transforms into satire rather than horror. Here, we begin to decipher white supremacy as the true evil, while the black lead escapes from his girlfriend’s racially motivated, murderous family… it’s safe to say he got out of that relationship.

There is no denying that the relationship between race and horror films will always have a foundation in historical conflict. The historical implications of film in the past presented black roles as evil, through a binary construction of two races: black and white, rather than simply the human race. Later depictions adapted to this divide, leaving us with little to no black characters in horror films and, when occasionally represented, would submit to stereotypical black roles.

However, contemporary ‘Black Horror’ such as Get Out and Candyman have shifted this film category away from its racist roots and towards black stories that educate and empower. With that said, I doubt this shift would have occurred without the presence of black creatives such as DaCosta and Peele. Therefore, if the face of race is to continue evolving within horror films today, then representation behind the camera is crucial,


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