The Chicago Journal

Black horror: from silent props to leading a new wave

Black horror
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Black horror — For many years, the gruesome and often expected death of Black people in horror films has been a recurrent motif, either at the start of the film or at the conclusion. People may be put off by the genre’s resurgence, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Viewers will be surprised to learn how many celebrities have been drawn to the darker side of cinema and television in the 2019 documentary feature Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

“We’ve always loved horror,” Robin R. Mean Coleman, an author and educator, said to begin the film. “It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us.”

Read also: American Jesus to hit Netflix, the first look

Impact of Get Out

Get Out, Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror movie, left an everlasting imprint on the landscape of horror films portraying Black protagonists and minor characters, ushering in a new age of “Black horror.”

Peele crafted a terrifying picture that masterfully combined social commentary with horror traditions to illustrate the evils of racism in America. This seminal picture not only enthralled audiences, but it also inspired a renaissance of Black voices in horror filmmaking.

Get Out inspired filmmakers to address racial issues and emphasize points of views in their work, boosting Black artists and offering much-needed representation in a genre that had previously excluded Black characters.

Representation through the century

The present Black horror film scenario has gone a long way since the silent era, when the majority of Black characters were White people dressed in blackface. The Birth of a Nation, one of the most iconic films, presented African-Americans in a racist light, while the Ku Klux Klan was shown as a heroic organization.

Previous films depicted African-Americans as mute slaves, barbaric barbarians, brainless comedic reliefs, or voodoo and witchcraft practitioners, if not in blackface. Even if some advances were made, such as more on-screen appearance and lines, African-Americans would continue to portray such stereotypes.

In 1940, however, African-American actor and director Spencer Williams translated one of his fiction novels for the big screen, ushering in a new age of Black horror.

Son of Ingagi would be remembered as the first all-black sci-fi horror film. It was one of the first films, if not the first, to depict African-Americans in unconventional roles. Son of Ingagi portrayed a Black middle-class lifestyle as well as a Black female scientist.

The film was notable in that it demonstrated the potential for depicting African-Americans in genres other than Black horror. When horror gave place to science fiction, however, Black characters and actors had little to no possibilities.

Instead, the genre gave a new platform for racism, with antagonists in films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, King Kong (despite its release years before Son of Ingagi), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon mimicking racist commercials from the time. Not only were African-Americans avatars based on damaging stereotypes, but they were also completely absent from the pictures.

For many years to come, black horror would be a scarce commodity in entertainment.

A night to remember

A 27-year-old George A. Romero drastically transformed the milieu of Black horror in the 1960s.

Romero set a pattern for many directors to follow by using abandoned structures, low-cost props, a 35 mm black-and-white film camera, and an unknown cast. One of his chosen performers, Duane Jones, would forever alter the course of Black horror and the entertainment business as a whole.

One of the first Black protagonists in the 1968 picture took command of the situation, smashing every cinematic cliché. Millions of African-Americans who aspired to be entertainers were inspired by Jones’ performance. His debut signaled the start of a new era in Black horror, portraying African-Americans as heroes and guardians rather than monsters or servants. Jones would dominate the most of the film, but the shocking climax harkened back to a time of social upheaval, with his assailants dressed as the crowds responsible for mass lynchings.

Introduction to blaxploitation

People would seek an escape from the pains of reality as a result of this particular political setting. Many people turned to entertainment (which was much cheaper at the time), expecting to see themselves in their screens’ reflections.

While viewers were thrilled to see greater variety, there was also concern over African-American depiction, which became known as blaxploitation, a combination of the phrases “Black” and “exploitation.” This new movie genre was first aimed at urban African-American audiences. While it was popular, Hollywood regarded it as a possible source of revenue, encouraging producers to produce it for all it was worth in the hopes of gaining a huge competitive edge.

Blaxploitation swiftly found its way into Black horror, setting off a chain reaction that can still be felt today. Some viewers chastised the films for depicting negative stereotypes, while others praised them for depicting African American culture. Whatever one’s feelings, William Crain’s 1972 opus Blacula, which will be addressed extensively in a future article, will catapult Black horror to new heights over the next 10 years.