Black Horror (Film Subgenre) – Biography Points

Black horror

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Black horror is a subgenre of horror that highlights the experiences of Black Americans, primarily through films featuring Black characters and created by Black writers and directors. Although it is mainly known as a film genre, Black horror also encompasses literature and visual art. This genre addresses issues such as racism, including systemic racism, and misogynoir—the specific discrimination faced by Black women. It provides social and political commentary on the various horrors experienced by Black Americans, including slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, sundown towns, police violence, marginalization, and the psychological trauma of being perceived as a threat because of one’s skin color.

Country : American

History is Black Horror

Older horror films often reinforced negative stereotypes about Black people, used Black characters as expendable, or portrayed them as literal monsters. In contrast, Black horror films, literature, and art challenge these stereotypes, depicting Black people as resilient and defiant survivors. Black horror, also known as racial horror or horror noir, focuses on African-American characters and stories, typically created by Black artists. This genre often includes social and political themes, comparing the racism and lived experiences of Black Americans to common horror elements.

Early examples of Black horror include the 1940 film “Son of Ingagi” by Spencer Williams Jr. and the 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” by George Romero, which featured Black actor Duane Jones in a lead role. The 1970s saw the rise of Blaxploitation horror films like “Blacula” (1972) and “Ganja & Hess” (1973). The genre continued to grow in the 1990s with films such as “Candyman” (1992) and “Tales from the Hood” (1995), directed by Rusty Cundieff and regarded as a cornerstone of Black horror.

The genre gained significant popularity with the release of “Get Out” in 2017, directed by Jordan Peele. This film, which explores racism, was a commercial and critical success, earning Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Peele continued to contribute to the genre with “Us” (2019), “Nope” (2022), and the production of “Candyman” (2021) and the HBO series “Lovecraft Country” (2021). Critics have described the period following “Get Out” as the Golden Age of Black horror, though some have criticized newer projects for being overtly exploitative of Black trauma. Notable Black horror authors include Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler, Linda Addison, Jewelle Gomez, and Victor LaValle.

Definition

Tananarive Due, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and a historian of Black horror, defines the genre as one featuring Black protagonists telling Black stories. Robin R. Means Coleman, a professor at Texas A&M University and author of “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present,” explains that Black horror films are created by Black people, star Black actors, or focus on Black life and culture. Due, who teaches Black horror classes at UCLA, emphasizes that while Black horror doesn’t have to be made by Black creators, it often is. The genre typically features Black protagonists who have significant roles and agency, often surviving the narrative, unlike the stereotypical sidelined or victimized characters in traditional horror films. Due has drawn parallels between African-American history and Black horror, suggesting that “Black history is Black horror.” Ryan Poll, writing for the Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, argues that for African Americans, horror is a fundamental aspect of reality, unlike how it is perceived by White people.

Themes and Context

Black horror films frequently depict the real-life horrors experienced by Black Americans, such as racism, police brutality, the Atlantic slave trade, lynching, discrimination, and transgenerational trauma, by weaving these themes into horror narratives. Jenna Benchretrit of CBC describes Black horror as reclaiming the Black community’s place in a film tradition where they are often the first to die or are portrayed as the monster. Mark Harris notes that the trope of killing off Black characters first symbolizes their marginalization and expendability. Robert Daniels of Vulture and Stephanie Holland of The Root both highlight that Black horror films are directed by and star Black individuals, and they often feature prominent Black stories and heroes, despite the genre’s historical lack of inclusivity.

Social and Cultural Commentary

Tonja Renée Stidhum of The Root states that racial and social commentary are central to the genre of Black horror. Laura Bradley of The Daily Beast observes that these films often explore themes of moral corruption related to proximity to White people and institutions, with frequent references to Christianity. Ineye Komonibo of Refinery29 adds that Black horror films typically impart moral lessons or highlight political struggles within society. This genre is also known as racial horror, horror noir, or horror noire.

History of Black horror

Son of Ingagi (1940) is an early example of a Black horror film. It features an all-Black cast and revolves around a newlywed couple threatened by a creature named N’Gina. The film was written by Spencer Williams, Jr., who was a Black actor, director, producer, and screenwriter. Williams also created another early Black horror film, The Blood of Jesus (1941), which he wrote, directed, and starred in. This film tells the story of a newlywed woman who is accidentally shot by her husband and must resist the devil’s influence after her death. In 1991, The Blood of Jesus was inducted into the National Film Registry by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation.

Night of the Living Dead (1968), the first of George A. Romero’s zombie films, tackles racial discrimination. The film stars Duane Jones as Ben, the Black protagonist who leads a group of people trapped in a farmhouse by zombies. In the film’s conclusion, white vigilantes mistakenly kill Ben, assuming he is a zombie, and dispose of his body in a manner reminiscent of a lynching. This movie was added to the National Film Registry in 1999 and is listed among the American Film Institute’s 100 most thrilling American films.

The 1970s saw several Blaxploitation films that also fall under the Black horror genre. Blacula (1972), directed by William Crain, features an African prince turned into a vampire by Dracula after seeking help to end the slave trade. Other notable Blaxploitation horror films from this era include Scream Blacula Scream (1973), Blackenstein (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976).

While Black horror films continued to be made in the 1980s and beyond, the genre received widespread attention with the release of  Get Out in 2017. Written and directed by Jordan Peele, founder of Monkeypaw Productions, the film follows Chris, a Black photographer, who visits his white girlfriend Rose’s family and discovers a disturbing secret. 

Notable Black Horror Films

Several noteworthy Black horror films have left indelible marks on the genre. “Ganja & Hess” (1973) presents a surreal exploration of addiction and spirituality, following Dr. Hess Green’s transformation into a blood-craving vampire after an ancient dagger attack. The film garnered acclaim at the 1973 Cannes festival and received a 2014 remake titled “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” helmed by Spike Lee.

In “Candyman” (1992), set in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, Tony Todd embodies the titular character haunting urban legends. Virginia Madsen’s portrayal of a graduate student delving into this myth uncovers deeper societal issues, including economic disparity and racial violence. “Tales from the Hood” (1995) weaves a tapestry of narratives addressing police brutality, domestic abuse, and racism through the lens of horror, narrated by a funeral-home director to drug dealers.

“Us” (2019), crafted by Jordan Peele, follows a mother’s struggle to protect her family from menacing doppelgangers, exploring themes of identity and societal shadows. “Antebellum” (2020) starkly contrasts the horrors of the past with contemporary racism, as it juxtaposes the brutality of Confederate soldiers with modern-day racial prejudices. “Bad Hair” (2020) blends comedy and horror, depicting societal discrimination against Black natural hairstyles through a tale of a murderous weave. “Lovecraft Country” (2020) merges Lovecraftian horror with the racism of 1950s America, delving into both cosmic and societal horrors.

“Them” (2021–) unfolds as a television anthology series, with its first season portraying the terrors faced by a Black family in 1950s Los Angeles, while its second season delves into a homicide investigation in 1991. “Horror Noire” (2021) showcases six short films by Black creators, exploring a range of horror themes and narratives. The sequel “Candyman” (2021), directed by Nia DaCosta, revisits the urban legend in a gentrified neighborhood, drawing in a young artist with its chilling tale. “Nope” (2022), another creation from Jordan Peele, follows siblings who uncover a sinister force while training horses for Hollywood, delving into themes of dread and mystery. “The Blackening” (2022) injects humor into horror as a group of friends face unexpected perils during a cabin retreat. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” “The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster” (2023) explores the consequences of reanimation in the face of street violence, unraveling the bonds between science and humanity.

The Future of Black Horror

The success of recent Black horror films has paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers to explore this rich and evolving subgenre. With an increasing number of platforms willing to support diverse voices, the future of Black horror looks promising. These films will continue to challenge audiences, provoke thought, and contribute to a more inclusive cinematic landscape.

Literature and Art

Gabrielle Bellot explores the roots of Black horror, drawing on influences from African-American folklore figures like Br’er Rabbit and Charles W. Chesnutt’s 1899 collection, The Conjure Woman. She highlights the artistic contributions of Kara Walker and Betye Saar, along with the literary works of Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler, and Jewelle Gomez as foundational to the genre. Additionally, Faith Ringgold’s 1967 painting, The American People Series 20: Die, is recognized as a significant piece of Black horror in visual art.

Black horror author Linda Addison (pictured) was the first Black author to win the Bram Stoker Award.Black horror author Linda Addison (pictured) was the first Black author to win the Bram Stoker Award.
Black horror author Linda Addison (pictured) was the first Black author to win the Bram Stoker Award.

A range of Black horror novels further enriches the genre, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom. Notable anthologies, such as Jordan Peele’s Out There Screaming and the comics collection Shook! A Black Horror Anthology, provide platforms for emerging voices. Linda Addison’s groundbreaking achievements, including being the first Black author to win the Bram Stoker Award in 2001 and receiving the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, underscore the growing recognition of Black horror authors. Following the success of films like Get Out, authors like Addison, LaValle, and Steven Van Patten, who confront racism through horror, have gained broader audiences and acclaim.

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