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<i>Horror Noire</i> author Robin R. Means Coleman gives us a crash course in black horror history

Horror Noire author Robin R. Means Coleman gives us a crash course in black horror history

Photo: Robin R. Means Coleman (Shudder), Def By Temptation (Vinegar Syndrome), Blacula (Getty Images), Night Of The Living Dead (Shudder), Screenshot: Get Out (YouTube)

This week marks the debut of Horror Noire, a new documentary premiering on Shudder that sheds much-needed light on a subject that’s often joked about, but rarely discussed in a comprehensive way: the relationship between African-Americans and horror movies. The documentary features writers, actors, directors, critics, and scholars talking about their experiences with the genre, but the genesis of the project comes from the mind of one woman: Texas A&M Vice President and professor Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman.

Coleman grew up in Pittsburgh and spent her preteen years wandering the Monroeville Mall, famous among horror fans as the location of George Romero’s 1978 zombie classic Dawn Of The Dead. As she tells The A.V. Club, “horror is just kind of in Pittsburghers’ DNA.” In the preface to her book Horror Noire: Blacks In American Horror Films From The 1890s To Present, she writes about the excitement of going to see Dawn Of The Dead with her mother and grandmother at the Greater Pittsburgh Drive-In Theatre: “We, two women and a kid, rode out to that drive-in to see if Romero’s Dawn would again deliver to us another non-shuffling, anti-exploitation, empowered Black hero. Romero did not let us down.”

As is pointed out again and again in Horror Noire, that sort of satisfaction has always been elusive for black horror fans. As one interview subject says in Shudder’s documentary, “We’ve always loved horror. It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us.” At best, for most of horror history, black characters have been sidekicks, serving as mystical advisors (the “magical Negro” trope) or selfless best friends (the “sacrificial Negro” trope) whose only purpose is to support the white leads. At worst, black viewers have seen themselves as racist caricatures whose murders are cheered on by white audiences—or, as Coleman puts it, “some don’t understand Birth Of A Nation as a horror film, but African Americans absolutely do.”

There’s an important distinction to be made between the idea of blacks in horror versus black horror: Black faces have been present in horror movies from the very beginning, but were sidelined as “savage” set dressing or exoticized as monstrous manifestations of the supernatural Other throughout most of the 20th century. That being said, the “blacks in horror” label isn’t inherently negative; for example, Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead and Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs are films from white directors that star black actors and engage at least tangentially with black issues. But for a deeper understanding of the black horror imagination, we must turn to the black horror subgenre, which Coleman describes as films that are “typically created and written by African-Americans, and really focus on blackness and black life and culture.”

To better grasp the difference between these two subcategories of horror movies, as well as how they’ve evolved over the past century of film, we asked Coleman for her recommendations of the highlights (and lowlights) of black horror history. Note that spoilers, including the endings of several of these films, abound in our discussion. So if you’ve never seen The Shining, Night Of The Living Dead, Get Out, or Def By Temptation and want to go in fresh, scroll past those parts and come back to them later, after you’ve seen the films.

The Blood Of Jesus (1941)

For the beginnings of black horror as a genre, Coleman points to Spencer Williams, who, although he’s best remembered as Andy on The Amos ’N Andy Show, was also a prolific writer and director of so-called “race films”—films with all-black casts made for black audiences—in the 1940s. Williams wrote the first-ever horror film with an all-black cast, 1940s Son Of Ingagi, and went on to direct a series of horror/fantasy films beginning with The Blood Of Jesus (1941), whose themes are deeply rooted in the black church. Of Williams and his groundbreaking contemporary Oscar Micheaux, Coleman says:

Spencer Williams takes up themes of religiosity and the devil. There’s hell, there’s a crossroads. It’s one of those kinds of more supernatural horror films where if you get on the wrong side of God, bad things are going happen. There are scenes of purgatory. Those early Spencer Williams films of the 40s are particularly important. Oscar Micheaux takes up these same kinds of themes as well. So those are our originators. You don’t have a Get Out, and you certainly don’t have an Us, without Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams.

[The Blood Of Jesus is streaming in full on YouTube.]

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Night Of The Living Dead captivated Coleman as a girl growing up in Pittsburgh, but she wasn’t the only one: Thanks to an early example of what’s now referred to as colorblind casting—director George Romero always claimed that star Duane Jones was simply the best actor to audition for the part—the film was the first (non-“race film”) horror movie to feature an African-American lead. But its resonance goes even deeper than that, as Coleman explains:

One year before I was born, in 1968, George Romero has Night Of The Living Dead in the trunk of his car. He’s driving the film to New York when Martin Luther King is assassinated, and he hears [about] it on the radio. I cannot imagine what’s going through his mind, except that he has to know what he has. Night Of The Living Dead is so seminal, and I often say I actually forget it’s a zombie film because of the casting of Duane Jones as the hero, Ben. Well, sometimes he’s an antihero, and sometimes a hero in the film.

What was so impactful to me watching Night and then Dawn [Of The Dead], but particularly Night, is that Romero set it in and around my hometown. And he cast real-life members of the community, particularly law enforcement, as the sheriff’s militia hunting zombies. So Ben survives the zombie apocalypse, and he’s been trapped in this house—which is this tight moment of what happens when communities come together who are very different, there’s some infighting, there’s a little bit of toxic masculinity going on in there—and he survives all of this to come out on the porch and be shot in the head by police.

It was so reflective of what was going on. [It’s] he same thing that essentially happened to King with his assassination, but really continues to reflect on the tensions between black communities and law enforcement. It’s still a seminal message about things like Black Lives Matter today.

[Night Of The Living Dead is streaming on Shudder, and can be downloaded for free on the Internet Archive.]

Blacula (1972)

The first horror film to feature a black vampire, Blacula is also notable because it was helmed by a black director, William Crain. This turned out to make all the difference, as Blacula is a more thematically sophisticated and historically aware film than many of the blaxploitation horror films that came in its wake. Star William Marshall is the epitome of regal poise as Mamuwalde, an 18th-century African prince who’s turned into a vampire by Count Dracula after seeking the evil Count’s help in stopping the slave trade. Of the film, Coleman says:

This is a perfect example of what happens when African-Americans get to tell their own story. Now, admittedly this era of black films—both horror and outside of horror—are low budget, but these are extraordinary stories to tell. Blacula re-centers us in black history, and critiques the slave trade. It makes us confront the long-lasting ramifications of that.

One of the things that’s powerful about Blacula is that people today will say, “Well, I didn’t do it. That was a hundred years ago, that has nothing to do with me.” So Blacula is very good, because what happens is that Mamuwalde is entombed in a casket. He stays there for a century, he makes a belated trek across the middle passage, ends up in the U.S., and in lands in Watts, which is being decimated at when the movie comes out. [It’s suffering] from a lack of investment, from insidious loan practices, from a police that is completely out of control in black communities. Guns are starting to be brought into the community. Drugs are being brought into the community. And so Crain is showing in this film the enduring outcomes in this country of slavery. Slavery doesn’t end, and suddenly overnight everything is great.

Crain shows Jim Crow, he shows the institutional racism, he shows the carceral state. Then Mamuwalde shows up, and essentially what Blacula says is that just as where discrimination starts, it’s still going on in this urban area today. That’s what’s important in the power of horror. Horror confronts themes in a way that no other genre does. It takes it head on, it can be daring, it can be innovative, and its solutions are just so darn imaginative.

[Blacula is available for digital rental.]

Sugar Hill (1974)

Although it’s definitely more of a blacks in horror movie than a black horror movie (the film’s writer and director were both white), Coleman points to Sugar Hill, a 1974 blaxploitation horror film starring Marki Bey as a photographer who uses voodoo to get revenge on the men who killed her boyfriend, as a great example of the “enduring woman” character in black horror, and how it differs from the concept of the “final girl.” She says:

Black women are not final girls. They are what I call enduring women. There’s a really big difference there. The final girl is like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or Alien—they ride off into the sunset [at the end of the film] and they’re done, right? Franchises and sequels not withstanding, they vanquish the monster, they’re heroic, and they’re like, “yay, I did it.” And it’s over.

In horror films—just as, in many cases, in black communities—black women still have to go on to fight ongoing circumstances of oppression and discrimination. So they may vanquish the monster—which is often the police, or monsters, or gangsters, who are not black, who come into the community to exploit them—but they know that at the end of the movie, the next one is coming. They never get to do that sigh of relief. They have to endure.

Sugar Hill is a good example of the enduring woman. Her motivation is that these white mobsters have come in to her community and destroyed it, and particularly they have murdered her boyfriend. And this starts off as a kind of “enough is enough,” revenge motivated kind of film. But with this movie, just as about anything with Pam Grier in it, what we know is that there’s a lot more to come. And so you’ll see them going off into the sunset armed either with a supernatural spirit, like the incarnation of Baron Samedi in this film, or with a shotgun over their shoulder. Because they’re walking away and knowing that more racism and more discrimination has come and their battle is just beginning.

AVC: So the monster surrounds them their entire lives, as opposed to just one monster that needs to be killed.

Robin R. Means Coleman: Exactly. Because in black horror, the monster is often the things that tear black communities apart. And that doesn’t go away. The same thing we see with a discourse about the slave trade in Blacula is the same thing we see throughout the 70s with out-of-control police and drug infestation. It’s the same thing we see in Get Out, and it very much carries through to today.

[Sugar Hill is available for digital rental.]

Ganja & Hess (1973)

Recut and repackaged on VHS as Blood Couple by producers looking to make a quick buck, it took decades for Ganja & Hess to be recognized in the U.S. as the masterful arthouse horror film that it is. Now safely ensconced in the permanent collection of the Museum Of Modern Art, black playwright William Gunn’s experimental vampire-ish feature is a complex metaphor for—well, for a lot of things, as Coleman explains:

Ganja & Hess history is complicated. The simple story [behind the recut] is that the production company wanted more. Jaws was coming out, and they wanted it to be like a black Jaws. That was the era within which Bill Gunn makes Ganja & Hess. [Studios] still weren’t investing—Ganja & Hess wasn’t getting Jaws money, or Jaws promotion, or Jaws distribution, but that’s what they wanted.

Gunn had always been very smart, highly—when I say literate, I mean quite literally in the literary tradition. He was a poet, he was an artist. This is an aside, but when you go on Google Maps and you look at the house where Gunn grew up in Philadelphia, the community looks a bit run down, but if you look on the blog, you’ll be able to go, oh that’s the house he lived in. You see the love and care that his family put into this home, because at that time it was a vibrant middle-class community.

And so Gunn takes on Ganja & Hess, and there are great stories of him trying to hide that it’s not going to be just another exploitation film. And in part because the production company wanted something a little bit more clichéd, there was some financial stuff where the people behind the film were losing money, and selling it, and shelving it. It’s a complicated story about the inner workings of the industry.

The film did really well in Europe, really well in France, where it was understood as being something very gorgeous, and not a vampire film. It’s about bloodlust and our own—I don’t want to interpret it too simply because it’s a complex film, but it’s about history. It’s about cleansing and purity, about reconciliation with one’s spirit, about losing control, about addiction. So that’s what the film is about. And they get it.

And it isn’t just that we didn’t get it, it’s also that things around distribution fell apart here. And then they try to cut it up and turn it into a classic horror film and make it a double feature, and it gets renamed and rebranded. It’s a mess by then. But American cinema, particularly around black films, and especially around black horror, had always been a mess. It’s always been messy, and more about quick profit than about quality. And that’s on the production and distribution side.

[Ganja & Hess is streaming on Shudder.]

The Shining (1980)

Coleman points to Stanley Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s The Shining as an instructive example of both the “magical Negro” trope that’s still in use today, and the “Indian burial ground” trope that was ubiquitous throughout the 80s. She explains this trope, as well as how the concept fits into the 80s cultural trends of white flight and Reaganomics, like so:

The 80s are very much about invisibility, because the 80s is really about fleeing black people. There’s an intentional invisibility. And it mirrors what’s happening around that era, the era of Reaganomics. Suddenly the urban is marked as black, and it’s marked as deficient. And when that happens, white people packed their bags and moved to the suburbs, right? So if you have white people completely away from the urban—which is one thing that’s really smart about Get Out, right, it kind of picks up where you leave off in the 80s in that way—if white people flee the urban, that also means they flee the monsters. Then, you start to get white people as monstrous. Then you get The Amityville Horror, you get Friday The 13th, you get The Evil Dead, Halloween, Poltergeist, Critters—they’re all set rural or suburban spaces, where generally, there are no black people. So that explains the invisibility.

But it doesn’t mean that those movies let black folks off the hook. So both black and brown people, indigenous or First Nations people—even though they’re left out of the film, they’re implicated in white people’s evil. So at first you’re like, “Oh, Poltergeist is really about these weird plans that are cookie cutter and it’s going to be an indictment on the McMansions we’re starting to build.” And then nope—it was built on an Indian burial ground.

It’s their history. It’s their abhorrent, odd religiosity that’s infected whiteness and given birth to evil. The Shining—it seems like this is about whiteness, but then they implicate Native Americans, as the Overlook Hotel is built on a Native American burial ground. Wolfen—we moved the black people way out in Brooklyn, and we’re in downtown Manhattan. But nope, there are voodoo practitioners and Native Americans whose weird religiosity has infected the soil and given rise to this mysticism. Even though they don’t show us, they blame us.

AVC: So [people of color] manage to be the villain, and not even be in the film at all.

RRMC: Right. Except for The Shining, which has the magical Negro in Scatman Crothers.

[The Shining is available for digital rental.]

Def By Temptation (1990)

Written, produced, and directed by James Bond III—yup, that’s his real name—with Ernest Dickerson serving as cinematographer, early-90s indie horror flick Def By Temptation beautifully showcases one of the most exciting things about the horror genre: the way it allows creativity to transcend the limitations of even the smallest budget. Coleman describes it as a continuation of the Spencer Williams and Oscar Micheaux tradition, both in its all-black cast and in its religious themes:

This movie has an all-star cast. Samuel L. Jackson is in it. The director, James Bond is in it; we recognize him from Spike Lee’s movie School Daze. Kadeem Hardison is in it, who was in School Daze and the sitcom A Different World. The jazz artist Najee and singer Melba Moore are in it.

Def By Temptation points directly back to those times of Spencer Williams and Oscar Micheaux with its religiosity. And it’s funny! Everyone’s been interviewing me all seriously about horror, and I’m like, “it’s a funny genre!” But anyway, the film’s about a young man named Joel who’s going to go into the ministry and follow the footsteps of his father, played by Samuel L. Jackson. He has a crisis of faith which he thinks is his own, but really he’s been marked by this evil entity because he’s so powerful as a good person. It’s a story about moving from the south to the north; the south being more religious and pure, and the north being more corruptible. So it’s about space, and travel.

But he reunites with his brother, who’s played by Kadeem Hardison and who’s rejected the calling. He’s got a job and everything, but he’s just hanging out and living life in New York. Then this evil entity assumes a female form—she’s called Temptation—and tries to destroy Joel.

AVC: That’s pretty biblical.

RRMC: It’s extraordinarily biblical. So there are these people that Temptation encounters along the way as she’s trying to get at Joel, and she does away with them, and each of them has their own quote, unquote “sin.” One of them is an adulterer, and so she gets him. A lot of it is about cheating. But one scene is especially problematic because she’s vanquishes a guy who’s gay, and this is one of the most violent, the most bloody scenes—like that is somehow the ultimate sin. So I have a critique of this film, and that troubles me deeply.

But in the end, what’s interesting about the film, and what also points back to Spencer Williams is—and this is a spoiler alert—Joe and his grandmother take on evil together. So here comes the enduring woman again, and together they vanquish the demon, and they get to walk off into the sunset. And you know that they’re going to be enduring, because that’s the story of Christianity. There’s always evil. At the end of the movie they show that temptation has taken on a new form, and it’s going to be still trying to spread evil, but they’re ready for it.

So it’s grandma who shows up, she gets on a Greyhound bus because she senses something’s wrong. And she fights. I mean, she really fights! It’s really an amazing kind of black womanist story, a story about how black women can be heroes.

AVC: You mentioned The Shining earlier ... in The Shining, Halloran [Scatman Crothers] shows up to help Danny at the end of the film, and gets killed immediately. But in this case, it’s more triumphant.

RRMC: I think that’s the difference between black stories written by black people, and white stories written by white people, and how blacks are treated in horror. That’s why people think that black characters always die first in horror movies. They actually don’t. But they often die so senselessly, it pisses you off.

AVC: So, because of that anger, it becomes “black people die first” through a cultural game of telephone?

RRMC: Right, especially when they’re the only black character [in the movie].

[Def By Temptation is out on Blu-ray, via cult label Vinegar Syndrome.]

Get Out (2017)

Coleman’s book Horror Noire was published in 2011, six years before Get Out became a critical and box-office phenomenon and seven years before writer-director Jordan Peele became the first black writer to win a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. But while that particular milestone was reached after Coleman’s original book, it’s discussed at length in the documentary version of Horror Noire. In the film, as part of a larger discussion of its alternate endings, Coleman eloquently compares the ending of Get Out to the ending of Night Of The Living Dead:

When Rod (Lil Rel Howery) shows up and saves him, that lets you know that there will be no Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) being speared by meat hooks, or being burned on a pyre. There will be no lynching today. That’s the power of Get Out.

[Get Out is available for digital rental.]

Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Asked what she’d like to see more of as black horror movies move into the mainstream, Coleman points to writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 film Eve’s Bayou, about a 10-year-old girl (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who seeks supernatural solace after discovering her father’s (Samuel L. Jackson) serial infidelity. The film is usually categorized as a drama, but arguably fits the definition of the horror genre, as Coleman explains:

That is a really interesting movie. I count that as horror. I want to see more of that, where the stories are really smart, are not oversimplified, and really come out of black culture and black experience. I love Get Out, but what Kasi Lemmons does here is really different. What Jordan Peele does is he transports us into whiteness, and that’s an important critique. But what Kasi Lemmons does, is she takes us deep, deep into the history and lived experience of blackness. That’s the difference between black horror and blacks in horror. And so I would love to see more women behind the camera telling our story, and directing it. My big wish is to see some of Tananarive Due’s books, like My Soul To Keep and Blood Colony, turned into features.

She adds:

The 2000s is when you start to really see black women showing up in horror. You’ve got Sanaa Lathan in Alien Vs. Predator. You’ve got The Descent. You’ve got The Girl With All The Gifts. You’ve got The Purge movies. You’ve got Escape Room, which is in theaters now. Jordan Peele gets a lot of attention, and he should. He won the Academy Award. But there’s tons of really interesting stories out there about what’s happening in horror today, and black women and black girls are leading the genre. These are black stories, and they’re going mainstream. And I think that’s important.

[Eve’s Bayou is streaming on Starz.]

Horror Noire, which also features interviews with Jordan Peele, Rachel True, Tony Todd, Keith David, Ken Foree, Loretta Devine, Paula Jai Parker, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., and many, many more, is now streaming on Shudder.

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