“Could horror create a Black monster without indicting the entire race as monstrous, and perhaps image a Black character as brave or as a savior?”
This question, asked in the third chapter of Robin R. Means Coleman’s book Horror Noire, is a good indication of why her book is needed in the first place. With recent studies from Nielsen and Movio indicating that African-Americans make up a larger percentage of the horror movie audience than white folks, and the smash success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), one yearns for more horror films about the Black experience, not to mention films focusing on Black characters.
In the introduction to Horror Noire, Coleman – a horror film fan since the age of five – distinguishes between two categories of horror: “Blacks in horror” and “Black horror.” While the former presents “Blacks and Blackness in the context of horror, even if the film is not wholly or substantially focused on either one” the latter offers “some of the most important images in understanding how Blackness is represented.”
After establishing her guidelines, as well as her long-standing interest in the genre, Coleman sets about tracing both categories, including the earliest known horror films to the talkies, blaxploitation films, and the home video boom of the 1990s.
Coleman describes at length the sad fact that early cinema didn’t feature Black actors and actresses, but instead, showcased white actors in blackface. If that weren’t awful enough, many of these movies have offensive names like 1897’s Hallowe’en in Coontown, which, as Coleman notes, was just one of “dozens” of “coon films” of the time period. There are also “ethnographic” films which depict “Blacks as Others… as if Blacks were animals in a zoo” as well as one film showing four white soldiers executing four Black men (1898’s Shooting Captured Insurgents, from directors Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming, working for Edison Manufacturing Company).
This kind of stereotyping continued well into the 1940s and ‘50s, with the rise of the “minstrel” character, a source of (questionable) comic relief who was frequently afraid of ghosts and monsters, and who would bug out his eyes, speak in a crude approximation of African-American Vernacular English, and generally serve as the recipient of all levels (both implied and explicit) of racist humor.
Although D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) isn’t a horror film per se, it is also discussed in great detail, as it is responsible for promoting the image of Black folks as monsters through presenting Blackness as a horror of its own. Coleman also analyzes films in which the monsters presented are proxies for Blackness, such as Frankenstein (1931), The Creature from The Black Lagoon (1954), and King Kong (1933). There is much deconstruction of films which depict Black folks as savages (Ingagi, a 1930 film that was presented as a documentary) or the evils of voodoo (1932’s White Zombie).
Despite the pernicious racism that existed during the post-Civil War Jim Crow period, some African-American directors, such as Oscar Micheaux (the first Black American to make a feature-length film) and later, Spencer Williams (who would make several morality-themed films in the 1940s) did find success. Coleman also speaks of the husband and wife duo Eloyce and James Gist, who made two similarly religious-themed morality films in the 1930s.
Seminal films with black characters, such as George A. Romero’s landmark The Night of the Living Dead from 1968 (and its sequels) also receive a thorough and thoughtful examination, as do movies like Blacula (1972) and Sugar Hill (1974). Oddly, Coleman focuses more on blaxploitation films of the period, even those that are not specifically horror, although it does provide a good opportunity for her to elucidate on the “enduring woman” trope that she posits as a response to the “final girl” trope.
Despite her frequent descriptions of how voodoo was portrayed negatively in horror films, it is strange that Coleman does not spend more time scrutinizing the role that African tribal “collective conscisouness” plays in 1973’s Ganja & Hess, the way the film was essentially ruined to capitalize on the blaxploitation trend, or Bill Gunn’s remarkable response to the destruction of his film in the New York Times (“To Be A Black Artist”). This was disappointing as I was looking forward to reading her in-depth consideration of the film. Similarly disappointing is Coleman’s lack of discourse on the Scary Movie (2000 to 2013) franchise and the complete omission of either Night of the Demons (1988) or 28 Days Later (2002).
Regardless of these admittedly minor quibbles, Horror Noire is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the horror genre, particularly those who want a thought-provoking breakdown on the role race plays within the genre. Coleman’s writing style is sharp, observant, and not bogged down by academic jargon. Perhaps she will write a sequel to the book with more in-depth treatment of some of the films she gave short shrift to, along with analysis of more recent Black horror films such as The Transfiguration (2016), The Alchemist Cookbook (2016), and Get Out.
Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present was published by Routledge Press in 2011 and is available to purchase on Amazon.com or Routledge.com.