Tracing The Evolution of Black Representation in Horror Films

Tracing The Evolution of Black Representation in Horror Films

With 'Get Out' nominated for four Oscars, Dianca London Potts reveals its cultural significance and charts the history of black representation in film.

With 'Get Out' nominated for four Oscars, Dianca London Potts reveals its cultural significance and charts the history of black representation in film.

Text: Joshua Lyon

With Jordan Peele’s Get Out nominated for four Academy Awards, writer Dianca London Potts’s recent lecture “Black Horror: The Revolutionary Act of Subverting the White Gaze” for the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies could not have been more timely.

The teacher and online editor of Well Read Black Girl led a three-hour class last week that traced the evolution of black representation in horror films, and pointed out all the ways in which black characters are written under the white gaze—the default assumption that a viewer is white, and that depictions of black characters are in service to white audiences.

Historically, black characters in horror films (and many mainstream ones, for that matter) fall into three categories: a source of malevolence (I Walked With a Zombie), the magical savior (Ghost), or the friend willing to sacrifice his or her life to save others. That last trope saw a sharp spike in the 1990s and 2000s, likely as a limp attempt at inclusiveness at the dawn of political correctness. A black character dying to save white ones happens at least twice in later entries of two massively successful horror franchises, Alien and Friday the 13th, as well as in Event Horizon, Mimic, Resident Evil: Extinction, and many others. Potts points out that this depiction, as well as that of the magical savior, assumes that black audiences will be duped into dismissing racist behavior by seeing the inclusion as allyship. It’s the filmmakers proudly patting themselves on the back and saying, See? We do value black people, because we know you’ll die for us!

It’s not all awful, though—Potts showed some great examples of horror that allow the black experience to shift out of the white gaze so characters are able to examine identity on their own terms. While George Romero has claimed that race never factored into his casting Duane Jones as lead character Ben in Night of the Living Dead, seeing a black hero successfully beat back hordes of brain-dead white guys on the big screen in 1968 was nothing short of revolutionary.

Several years later, the art house film Ganja & Hess (also starring Duane Jones) was meant to be a vampire flick that would piggyback on the commercial success of Blacula, but director Bill Gunn instead crafted a dreamlike meditation on addiction and isolation that featured a wealthy black couple. It received a standing ovation in Cannes in 1973, but after being panned by white American critics, it was hastily recut and re-released under schlocky titles like Blood Couple and Black Evil. (Thankfully it has since been mostly restored to its original vision.) In 1983, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” brought black horror directly into millions of American households, and advanced the entire genre itself. As Robin Coleman points out in her book “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1980s to the Present,” it “effectively moved the horror film out of the multiplex…and placed it squarely onto daytime cable television.”

For Potts, who was drawn from a young age to fun-scary kids’ fare like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, seeing Rachel True as Rochelle in the beloved 1996 teen witch film, The Craft, was invaluable. As she wrote for Lenny Letter last year, “I was the only black girl in my private suburban religious school. I connected with Rachel’s iconic role as Rochelle, because, like me, she was bullied by racist classmates and teased for having ‘nappy hair.’ In an era where onscreen depictions of black adolescence were few and far between, her character’s story validated my own narrative and made me feel less alone.”

As important as that validation was, Potts points out that after the girls realize the potential of their magical powers, Rochelle was unfairly punished for using her abilities to hex her racist bully. “Bonnie wants her scars to go away so she can be beautiful, and Nancy wants power,” Potts explains of the other girls’ uses of magic. “I think it sucks that Rachel’s character still has to be seen as guilty in the eyes of Sarah, who sees them all as out of control. Rochelle didn’t use her powers for beauty or money—she did it for survival.”

As The Craft was preparing for its release, only three of the four lead actresses—the white witches, as it were—were invited on the road to promote it. Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, and Neve Campbell protested, and True was finally invited to a junket. She has said that, “times were different then,” which is pretty forgiving. I’m not entirely convinced that something like that wouldn’t still happen today though if it weren’t for the fact that most studios and PR departments are now savvy enough to know how bad the optics would be—they know it would affect their bottom line.

For white audiences, using the phrase “times were different then” should never be an excuse to avoid a conversation. I’ve said it to friends when screening horror movies that are clearly in service to the white gaze, and by doing so I was just giving the film a pass by cementing it in its time period, as if similar problems no longer exist. It’s just as blind as trying to explain character depictions as “problematic,” a pathetically vague word that embarrassingly sometimes still slips out of my own mouth when watching something that is in fact nothing short of overtly racist.

Potts points to pop culture examples from the present that illustrate how the white gaze is as prevalent as ever. “There was a time when having a fat ass wasn’t cool, but now that’s cool,” she says. “So people pay money to make their butts look bigger and their lips bigger and to tan themselves.” She recalls being at a recent concert and seeing many white women with “not just extensions and weaves, but box braids and Marley twists—particularly black cultural hairstyles. People can say ‘Oh, it’s part of a trend, it’s part of America, hip-hop is mainstream.’ That’s true, but when they go home, they can take that off. When I go home, I can’t take off my skin. I can’t take off my connection to blackness.”

This is why the mainstream success of a deeply insightful horror film like Get Out is so important, and Potts summed it up excellently by quoting from an article she wrote for The Establishment: “Peele’s film is an emotionally accurate depiction of what it means to resist and survive in a culture that never anticipated we would survive or fight back in defense.” Here’s hoping it wins all four Oscars.

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