One of my earliest memories of genuine horror fandom came in the mid-’80s when I popped a VHS tape of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead into my family’s VCR and watched as the character Ben (Duane Jones) led a ragtag group of strangers in their effort to survive a zombie siege, barricaded inside a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse. He was brave. He was take-charge. He was intelligent. He was handsome. He was heroic. And he was black.
It was the latter in particular that drew me to him, because he was somebody who looked like me, and people who looked like me historically didn’t play roles like Ben. Frankly, in the 1960s, apart from Sidney Poitier, there were scarcely any black stars headlining mainstream movies, and within the horror genre, you’d be hard-pressed to find ANY black actors or actresses — stars or otherwise.
While the Blaxploitation era of the ’70s provided greater exposure for black cast members, it was a largely segregated movement, and by the time I sat transfixed by NOTLD in the ’80s, black leading roles were once again scarce in Hollywood. Aside from megastars like Eddie Murphy or Whoopi Goldberg, the best black actors and actresses could hope for was a gig as a sidekick. More likely, they’d be Mugger #2 or Foul-Mouthed Hooker, and in horror, this marginalization manifested itself in an especially drastic manner: death. This was such a common occurrence, in fact, it became a running joke within American pop culture that in horror movies, “the black guy” always dies first.
And so, as I watched this zombie classic, which had so many great things going for it — a legendary director making his debut, edgy gore effects that would signal a shift in genre aesthetics, a redefinition of zombie lore that would serve as a template for the next half century — it was this plucky black man who inspired my awe and showed me how a genre as critically reviled as horror could actually be socially relevant and, dare I say, revolutionary.
It was stunning to me to watch this black-and-white film from the 1960s, populated by actors who looked like they should be in a newsreel about the Civil Rights Movement in the Jim Crow South, but rather than the black man being hosed by policemen or attacked by dogs, he was the one in control. He was the undisputed leader of this group, barking orders at white people and daring to get physical with them if necessary. “Get the hell down in the cellar,” he tells the obstinate Harry. “You can be the boss down there; I’m boss up here.” Even if it had been set in the same era in which I was watching it, this portrayal would’ve been a revelation.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Ben’s role in normalizing black leads in Hollywood movies (granted, that remains a work in progress). Its popularity helped paved the long, circuitous route towards what some have called a new Harlem Renaissance in cinema today, boasting an unprecedented mix of commercial and critical success for movies with black headliners. (In the 70 years the Academy Awards were held during the 20th century, there were 16 nominations and one win for black talent in the Best Actor/Actress categories. In the two decades since 2000, there have been 19 nominations and four wins.)
Because Ben was written as white, NOTLD was one of the first films of any genre starring black actors or actresses that didn’t have a plot specifying their race. Although Romero hired Jones through a color-blind audition process, however, the impact of his color was not lost on Jones, who later stated, “It never occurred to me that I was hired because I was black, but it did occur to me that because I was black, it would give a different historic element to the film.”1
Thus, Ben’s tense interactions with the white characters, the sense of rage he emanates throughout the film and the shocking ending — in which he’s killed by a group of white authorities akin to a lynch mob — all carry racial overtones unprecedented in horror that are still quite potent, regardless of genre. The somber ending in particular helped establish a pessimistic tone for zombie movies to come, while simultaneously reflecting the racial reality of an era in which assassinations and riots had replaced sit-ins and marches (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death having occurred just six months prior to NOTLD‘s premiere).
In fact, when Romero was considering filming an alternate ending in which Ben doesn’t die, Jones lobbied against it. He knew Ben could serve as a symbolic martyr of sorts for African Americans. “I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on.”2
More than 50 years later, as racial unrest once again scorched American soil in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents of police brutality, perhaps there was no better testament to the enduring legacy of Ben’s death than the homage paid to it at the end of Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror hit Get Out. In it, the black hero, having survived the onslaught of the film’s primary antagonists, is approached by the flashing lights of what appears to be a police car — raising anticipation that, like Ben, he will be gunned down by overzealous authorities. Unlike Jones, however, Peele felt that the on-edge nation needed an ending “that gives us a hero, that gives us an escape, that gives us a positive feeling,”3 so he opted for a happy resolution and cause for optimism — an alternative, it could be argued, made possible by the example set by Ben half a century earlier.
1 Joe Kane, Night Of The Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever, 32. 2 Kane, 36. 3 Nigatu, Heben and Tracy Clayton. “Incognegro”. Another Round. Podcast audio, March 1, 2017. https://www.acast.com/anotherround/episode-83-incognegro-with-jordan-peele.
Today, the status of African Americans in horror films is tied intrinsically to the status of African Americans in cinema as a whole. That is, it has come a long way since the wild-eyed tribesmen of King Kong and has even seen notable advances just within the past decade, but there are still significant strides to be made toward a more equitable share of leading roles and roles that aren’t reliant on outdated racial stereotypes.
Because of the unprecedented recent level of recognition and critical acclaim for movies with black leads, the state of 2010s cinema has been compared to the Harlem Renaissance, but such unfettered optimism should be tempered by the reality that the annual number of movies produced overall (and horror movies in particular) has exploded over the past two decades, meaning black-featured genre films have benefited from that upward trend. Thanks largely to the increased viability of independent cinema and affordability of filmmaking technology, more than twice the number of movies were released in 2016 (795, per The-Numbers.com) than in 1995 (310). For horror movies, the increase is similar, with the average number of genre films released in theaters annually in 1995-2003 being 13.3 and the average from 2004-2017 topping 27.
That said, while the number of black-featured genre films has increased, and while there are prominent examples that thrive in the limelight, the bulk of American horror (like other genres) remains an overwhelmingly Caucasian affair. Mirroring the underrepresentation that spawned the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag shortly after announcement of the 2015 Oscar nominees, the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies found that, of the 54 top-earning horror movies from 2011 to 2015, 48 (89%) had casts in which 20% or fewer of the actors and actresses consisted of racial minorities. This came despite the fact that minorities accounted for about 40% of the US population in 2015, and people of color bought 45% of domestic movie tickets that year.
It Follows, for instance, one of the most acclaimed horror movies of 2015, features no major black characters despite taking place in working-class Detroit. Other than half-Iraqi Alia Shawkat (whose ethnicity is never mentioned), the cast of the well-regarded 2016 survival thriller Green Room is devoid of minorities even though the antagonists are neo-Nazi gang members. Other recent prominent genre films, like the colonial-era The Witch and period pieces like Crimson Peak, the Woman in Black films and the Conjuring movies, based on real-life cases of paranormal investigation, have the convenient excuse of historical accuracy to exclude black characters.
The Conjuring movies are part of the current horror trend of the moment: haunted house fare. Beginning with 2009’s Paranormal Activity, the Saw franchise’s “torture porn” era gave way to more traditional ghostly scares, culminating in a slew of hits, including the Conjuring, Insidious, Sinister and Ouija series, plus one-offs like Mama, Lights Out, Oculus, the Poltergeist remake, The Haunting in Connecticut and The Possession. One unexpected bit of collateral damage from this new vogue has been the near-complete exclusion of African-American cast members because, as stereotypically “urban” players, they don’t fit into Hollywood’s vision for suburban (read: Caucasian) domestic bliss turning into a nightmare.
Independent films, however, are not as profit-driven and thus not as concerned with the longstanding fear that black-led films have trouble finding audiences internationally (a belief that was at least partially disproven by the Hollywood Diversity Report, which found that, while movie with casts of greater than 50% minorities haven’t performed well overseas, casts with less than 10% minorities have likewise underperformed; the best performers have had 21-50% minority casts), so indies have proven more amenable to larger, more prominent African-American representation. These smaller, non-studio productions tend to feature roles that don’t fit neatly into the stock Hollywood black character types, which, in horror, tend to include disposable characters like criminals, high school jocks, voodoo practitioners, one-dimensional authority figures and sidekicks willing to sacrifice themselves for the hero.
That said, the typical indie fright flick still falls short of the 40% non-white representation of the US population at large. Movies with black casts that exceed that level tend to fall into the so-called “urban horror” sub-genre. A modern reincarnation of the black-and-white “race films” and later Blaxploitation fare, urban horror is an offshoot of the overall explosion of African-American cinema during the ’90s that spawned from the success of filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Robert Townsend, Mario Van Peebles, Julie Dash and Reginald Hudlin, proving the viability of black films to the major Hollywood studios.
In recent years, major studios have found that black female-led thrillers — Obsessed, When the Bough Breaks, The Perfect Guy, No Good Deed, Breaking In — have struck a chord with moviegoers, although again, they’ve mined other popular movies (in this case, Fatal Attraction and its ilk) for content, leaving African-American genre fare without a defining voice. That is, until Get Out.
Get Out and Beyond
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of 2017’s Get Out to the state of black horror cinema. The Jordan Peele film overcame the odds to earn more than any film on horror mega-producer Jason Blum’s resume, including the long-running Paranormal Activity, Purge and Insidious franchises. It also set a record for the highest domestic gross ($175.4 million) for an African-American-helmed film of any genre — a title it held for just a few weeks until F. Gary Gray’s The Fate of the Furious kicked off the summer blockbuster season (followed by the inevitable Black Panther explosion the next year). If you don’t count spoofs like the largely integrated Scary Movie, which grossed $157 million in 2000, or suspense thrillers like Obsessed ($68.2 million in 2009), the most a horror movie with a largely black cast had earned at the box office until Get Out was Candyman‘s $25.7 million in 1992 (and even that film centered around a white heroine).
Get Out‘s success — both commercially and critically, as it earned an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — not only legitimizes black horror to studios (whose modest $5 million investment in its budget illustrates how little Hollywood is willing to risk on African-American films in general, but especially in unproven genre fare), but it also legitimizes black horror to audiences whose expectations for this sub-genre were understandably low. Finally, it legitimizes black horror for filmmakers interested in the genre and sets a high bar of excellence, while reawakening the possibilities in the genre for allegory, satire and social commentary.
The story of a black man (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting his white girlfriend’s family, only to find them pathologically obsessed with his race, Get Out tackles racial dynamics head-on, taking Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to Stepford Wives extremes in order to hit home the prevalence of racial prejudice in all walks of life and in more guises than people would care to admit.
It’s an in-your-face approach that might not have resonated with non-white audiences five years ago, when many people were insulated in a bubble of self-proclaimed post-racialism, but given highly publicized incidents of racially motivated violence, police brutality and the racially charged 2016 Presidential campaign, it found its mark. It remains to be seen whether horror — a genre known for jumping on trends — will see the release of other similarly pointed black films, but just as it took a string of successful black movies to convince studios that there is a market for African-American cinema as a whole (something that seemingly has to be proven every decade or so), it may take similar convincing to build on Get Out‘s success. In fact, we may need to wait and see how Peele’s follow-up, Us, performs in 2019 before Hollywood truly gives into black horror. In terms of proving the box office potential of black films, Jordan Peele might be horror’s Tyler Perry.
The contemporary horror movies that most closely resemble Get Out‘s approach are the Purge films. Like Get Out, they utilize hyperbole based on the reality of social inequality. While the Purge franchise is more focused on economic schisms, such divisions are inextricably tied with race, and as such, each of the movies in the series has featured major black characters struggling to survive against rich, mostly Caucasian elitists who view them as expendable.
Within the context of social movements like the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the Women’s March, these films (each seemingly more politically charged than the one before it) have struck a chord with audiences, propelling the franchise to sustained success through three entries, with a fourth, the prequel The First Purge, due later this year. Notably, it’s the first in the series with mostly black leads and a black director, Gerard McMurray. In terms of determining the commercial viability of black horror in the minds of Hollywood studios, The First Purge is likely the most important film since Get Out.
But flying under the radar are horror movies with less pointed messages about race that are nonetheless just as vital in advancing the black presence in horror. More than ever before, black actors and actresses are being cast in fright film roles that aren’t race-specific. Whereas a few years ago, the entire premise of the thriller Lakeview Terrace revolved around one man’s (Samuel L. Jackson) contempt for a neighbor’s interracial relationship, the 2017 thriller It Comes At Night revolves around an interracial couple, and yet race is never mentioned. The same goes for 2016’s The Invitation. The title character in the 2017 zombie film The Girl with All the Gifts is black, but she could just as well be Caucasian, Asian, Latina or any other race. Same goes for Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s starring role in The Cloverfield Paradox.
Compared to Get Out‘s blunt approach to race, this integration strategy is more subtle, and it appears to be more common in indie films — although 21st-century genre films like 28 Days Later and Alien vs. Predator pulled it off nicely. While it’s perhaps susceptible to falling into the sort of color-blind mentality that fails to account for any level of racial sensitivity, this sort of gradual assimilation can help normalize the presence of black protagonists as merely a reflection of reality — something for which studies like the Hollywood Diversity Report strive.
Regardless of whether a horror movie’s approach to race is direct or subtle, its impact would be limited if the film itself was not good. The power of Get Out is that it not only educates, but it also entertains, and neither aspect would be wholly successful without the other. It’s this level of quality — not just from Get Out, but from a string of horror films in the past year or two featuring prominent black roles — that could make this a watershed period for black horror. Sure, there is still forgettable, low-brow urban horror fare, but it’s increasingly tempered by more original, more thoughtful, more skillfully put together films. While Get Out, It Comes At Night, The Girl with All The Gifts, The Cloverfield Paradox, Traffik and The Invitation get more publicity, recent low-budget works like The Transfiguration, The Alchemist Cookbook, They Remain, Unsullied, Parasites, The Sickle, Initiation and Soft Matter have similarly helped up the ante for black-led horror. And on the horizon are promising films like the satirical Bad Hair from Dear White People creator Justin Simien and Slice, starring Chance the Rapper and Zazie Beetz, from sizzling hot indie studio A24 (Moonlight, The Witch, Hereditary, Lady Bird, Ex Machina, Room, It Comes at Night).
In the ’90s, black cinema — including urban horror, which dwindled by the early 21st century — was wrung dry, stretched thin and then discarded, as if all aspects of black life had been fully explored. It was a post-racial lie that Hollywood told itself, foreshadowing the post-racial label that was to accompany the Obama presidency — a label that Peele set out to repudiate in Get Out. Now, appropriately, Get Out is part of the next great wave of black cinema, helping to define a voice for black horror that can’t be so easily dismissed or extinguished.
Watching Get Out in the theater in 2017, I couldn’t help but think about the movie The Invitation from the previous year. Both films have a similar setup: an interracial (specifically, black and white) couple heading to a remote get-together whose hosts turn out to have dark ulterior motives. They even share a similar scene early on in which the couple (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in Get Out and Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi in The Invitation) accidentally hits an animal that runs out in front of their vehicle during the journey. From there, the plots diverge, but in this era of heightened, highly publicized racial discord and misunderstanding, it’s interesting to compare them in terms of their approaches to bridging the racial divide.
Get Out, of course, is well known for its blunt commentary on race relations, its central conceit an indictment of racial attitudes that’s so in-your-face, it’s impossible to ignore. Followup conversion is virtually mandatory. But it could be argued that The Invitation‘s hands-off approach — never even mentioning race — could be an equally effective strategy for long-term racial understanding. That is, simply casting a black lead or co-lead (Corinealdi) amongst a mostly white cast — even though race, on the surface, is not an issue in the plot — helps normalize such occurrences (not to mention, in these instances, normalizing interracial relationships).
The power of movies like The Invitation — or, in a much higher-profile genre example, The Force Awakens — is that they don’t make a big deal about race; they present it as just a reflection of reality. And the black characters don’t fit any particular stereotype or easily pegged role that’s reliant on race. They’re people, first and foremost, and aren’t defined by the color of their skin — a message that Get Out likewise delivers, but in a decidedly more pointed manner.
Get Out and The Invitation represent two ways to skin a racist cat. Direct commentary is forceful and unambiguous but runs the risk of coming off as too “on the nose” and preachy. A gradual assimilation approach can prove an effective means of indoctrination but might be too subtle to register and could be perceived as falling into the “color blind” trap that inevitably ends in a tone-deaf misstep that fails to account for any level of racial sensitivity.
The best strategy is no doubt a combination of the two. For every Get Out, we need an Invitation. If Get Out is the protestors on the front line getting their heads bashed in front of national TV cameras, The Invitation is the legal team pushing reform through the courts. Both are necessary for meaningful change to occur.
Ever since 2009’s Paranormal Activity wrested the horror crown away from the Saw franchise, fright films featuring ghosts or demonic entities have ruled the genre, churning out hit after hit — from the Paranormal Activity films to The Haunting in Connecticut, The Devil Inside, Mama, The Last Exorcism and the Conjuring, Insidious, Sinister and Ouija franchises. Take what you will from this trend, but my biggest personal takeaway — and one that should serve me well if I ever suspect the ghost of a scorned chambermaid is living in my attic — is that black people don’t get haunted. Phew.
Well, that’s at least what Hollywood would have you believe. The ghostly/demonic haunted house genre — particularly the run of films that have dominated horror since 2009 — has been an overwhelmingly Caucasian affair, even by the standards of mostly white mainstream horror. The modern supernatural hits from major studios (unlike indie horror movies, which tend to be more racially diverse, in part because the filmmakers have more control) have scarcely featured any people of color — apart from the Latino offshoot Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones — not even the normal token “black guy/gal” roles we’ve come to expect in every slasher movie since the 1980s.
This “black hole” presents an interesting reversal of the days of the old “spook” stereotype, when it was seemingly mandated that haunted house movies have a black comic relief role to react with a bug-eyed skedaddle to the sight — or even the mention — of ghosts. That grotesque caricature has given way to arguably a more pernicious tool of image control — exclusion — creating a vacuum in which the only major ghostly releases with featured black roles are spoofs like Marlon Wayans’ Haunted House films and Scary Movie 5 (all of which, it could be argued, revert back to modern interpretations of the spook archetype for laughs).
So, why has mainstream haunted house fare been so tragically monochromatic? For one, this sub-genre tends to hinge on the concept of a “normal,” typically all-American family that has its life turned upside down by a supernatural disturbance. And as much as some would like to think we’re living in a color-blind society, the term “all-American” still generates in the mostly white public’s mind images that are more in line with Ward and June Cleaver than Lucious and Cookie Lyon. It’s the same reason why a missing upper-middle class white woman can become national news while a missing lower-class black woman is relegated to a flyer on a telephone pole.
Even if such societal concepts are shifting, though, you can’t count on Hollywood to lead the way — especially in a mainstream film with studio money behind it (indies can afford to be more risky) and especially in a genre that studios seem to view as targeting unrefined, unimaginative, narrow-minded tastes. You can always rely on horror hits to beat a winning concept to death with endless sequels, copycats, remakes and reboots, an overly safe approach that not only shows little regard for the intelligence (and a fundamental lack of understanding) of its audience, but also reflects a stagnant, corporate mentality that further ingrains whatever tired genre formulas — including racial casting — have long been established.
And as “post racial” as some people would like to view modern society, Hollywood still has not evolved past a largely segregated mindset that views a movie with two black leads automatically as a “black film,” with limited box office potential.
In movies, haunted houses are almost always rural or suburban, while “black movies” tend to be urban. Annabelle is one of the few of the recent spate of supernatural hits to feature an urban setting — an apartment — and not coincidentally, it’s also one of the few to feature a black actor (Alfre Woodard) in a primary supporting role.
Other contemporary ghost/demon films featuring a black character in the main cast — Evil Dead (with Jessica Lucas), The Lazarus Effect (with Donald Glover) and Blair Witch (TWO of ’em!) — do so under the guise of ensemble films in a specific, non-residential setting (the “cabin in the woods” variety, the “scientists in a lab” variety and the “camping in the woods” variety, respectively). Ensemble movies are more likely to feature a diverse cast because their main characters tend to be unrelated with varied backgrounds whose differences often play into the plot — unlike the single-family home settings of most haunted house features. (It should go without saying that the black characters in Annabelle, Evil Dead, Lazarus Effect and Blair Witch ALL die, because, well, that’s what black people do in horror movies.)
Apart from the standard ensemble casting, black actors’ opportunities for featured roles in supernatural fare like this tends to be limited to stories with voodoo and/or slavery elements, and none of the major horror releases have explored that territory since The Skeleton Key and Venom in 2005. (2014’s Jessabelle and 2013’s The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia did, but despite studio backing via Lionsgate, both failed to get wide theatrical distribution — perhaps in part because the racial overtones were felt to limit the appeal. Jessabelle was certainly good enough to warrant a wide release, and Ghosts of Georgia had enough name recognition to do so.)
Sadly, it’s hard to see any signs of this exclusionary approach changing (however intentional you choose to view it). A quick perusal of the upcoming Annabelle 2 cast reveals no black cast members, and any extension of the based-on-real-life Conjuring franchise can continue to use the convenient excuse of biographical truth to maintain its racial exclusivity. That said, in 2014, Lee Daniels was reportedly attached to direct Demon House, a film based on the supposed demonic encounters of black Gary, Indiana resident Latoya Ammons and her family. Given the lack of updates since that announcement, however, it seems this project might be stuck in Development Hell.
If nothing else, the next horror trend is bound to arise soon, meaning haunted house flicks will fall out of fashion, and the studios will hop on board the next money train. Maybe Jordan Peele’s Get Out will tag racially conscious, African-American horror as the next big thing. Lord knows the next four years in America are primed to feature plenty of racially based horror.