In the sophisticated current age of genre fare, black characters are getting meatier and more significant roles in horror feature films. It hasn’t always been that way though. In Episode 90, The Scariest Things discusses the pioneers of black horror cinema, as well as some of the new faces looking to move the genre forward.
The black experience in horror movies not surprisingly reflects the culture of the moment, and for the first forty years of Hollywood, there were no leading roles for black actors within the genre. In 1968, the Jackie Robinson moment in horror films happened, when Duane Jones became the first leading African American actor in a major horror production. That movie, being, of course, Night of the Living Dead. That movie had a profound effect upon the horror landscape, and in movies in general.
George Romero is rightfully given a lot of credit for casting Jones, but it has to be recognized that Jones’ performance was so compelling that it was the first door to get knocked down, and to this day he is revered by black actors and actresses who have followed in his footsteps. It also should be noted that in the year previous, the trope of “The black guy always gets killed first” was started with Hollywood veteran Mantan Moreland playing a delivery driver who gets killed by the degenerate kids in Spider Baby.
The Blacksploitation movies of the ’70s most importantly gave us the stately William Marshall who played Blacula. Despite the campiness of the title, that movie is one of the best of the era, much of it having to do with how seriously Marshall took the role of Blacula. From this point forward, roles were now given to black actors and actresses, but many of them in supporting roles, and leading roles didn’t really become available for mainstream releases until Candyman, and Tony Todd’s signature role in 1992.
Fast forward to today, and the landscape has changed significantly. Jordan Peele’s impact on film history with the Oscar nominated and hugely successful Get Out serves as a benchmark film for black cinema. It was widely seen, well regarded, and also provided the caustic and introspective social commentary so successfully introduced from the works of George Romero, but now in the hands of an African American writer and director. Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson will be providing their take on the Saw franchise (Who saw that coming?). Antebellum looks to be one of the headier properties being released this year, and a reboot of Candyman with Jordan Peele producing all portend to the broadening of the horror canvas.
For the real insight of black horror movie history, TST highly recommends you check out Horror Noire from Shudder. That documentary really lays it out for you, and provides a much more nuanced analysis of the history of black horror cinema, with interviews of many of the most influential film makers and actors in Black Horror.
That hasn’t stopped us for paying our tributes during Black History Month. And to honor the actors and actresses who have provided us the great thrills and chills, here is a list of notable performers, and the films that you may want to check out with them in it.
For the second Episode in a row, we are happy to have Gwen Callahan, of The Portland Horror Film Festival and the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival joining us for our recording!