For Black History Month, I wanted to write something about the current state of horror films in the Black community. I quickly found out that current meant 2007 in North America. I am still wondering why there is not more minority representation in horror of late, and I don’t mean supporting characters or background. I’m talking main characters and a multi-racial cast. On T.V., thankfully, there are a lot of new shows that represent people of all backgrounds like the runaway hit Sleepy Hollow starring Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison, and the futurist vision of Almost Human starring Michael Ealy and Karl Urban, as well as the scads of teen fantasy and horror series happening now. I’m not talking about that, because the small screen has Hollywood movie makers beat for sure. I’m talking the big screen. As a result of this, I am going to create a wish list for Hollywood big screen horror.
My number one issue that I would love to have addressed is casting. First and foremost, it is the main thing that irks me every time I dig into my proverbial pockets to buy a ticket or download a film. Why on God’s green earth are there not more people of colour in leading roles in horror and sci-fi big budget films? With a few exceptions like the latest Star Trek installment or Pacific Rim, it is a rarity. I’m not even talking just African-Americans/Canadians either. Give me an Asian, or a South Asian lead, a First Nations person; a person of Latin descent…someone, please! Even the great Danny Trejo’s feature-length horrors are sent directly to DVD.
We (people of colour) buy DVDs, go to movies, and oh yeah, are an integral part of society in general. So why are we seen as peripheral in film? I’ve heard the blanket statement that a minority lead actor may not sell as many tickets, and the film industry is a money game, but this is 2014 for crying out loud! Does Hollywood forget that there are some minorities that have a lot of money and may invest in a film that is diverse? Horror is fast becoming an accepted genre and a money-maker (like The Conjuring that grossed over $137, 000,000), and there are a lot of fans that are visible minorities. Just look at people at the various comic/horror conventions. And I’m surprised with the indie film makers out there. With the exception of a few, like James Cullen Bressack who cast an African-American lead in his film 13/13/13, I’m a little disappointed that minorities haven’t been cast as more than criminals or background, if at all. I mean, if you are truly indie and cutting edge, prove it and go against the grain. So get with the program Hollywood movers and shakers, and represent the world as it truly is.
My second wish is that if there are visible minorities finally cast, please, for the love of Pete, stop calling it an “urban” film. The word can be used to describe anything relating to a city, but it is most used to describe anything Black oriented, and to me, takes the ownership away by generalizing. Why not just say Black, or African-American/Canadian? They are not bad words. In fact ,why do we have to call it anything other than a film? I understand the distinction for something to be owned by a certain group so that it doesn’t lose its validity, but at the same time, I would love for a film to just be a film, good or bad, with a diverse cast, good or bad. If there is something directly related to an area, like the “‘hood”, then of course, make it known, such as the iconic 1995 film Tales from the Hood, which has more of a cult status, but otherwise, I don’t think it’s necessary, and it shouldn’t define us as a people.
And speaking of the “‘hood”, is that the only mythology we have for Black communities these days? Yes, it is a huge part of the Black experience, as a large part of the demographic had very little choice but to live there due to historical socio-economic wrongs, but film (in general) has negatively depicted these neighbourhoods for a long, long time. Some of them are certainly crime-filled, but people live there and make the best of it, and many communities have tried to reclaimed and better these neighbourhoods to create rich cultural signifiers. For those of us who haven’t had that experience though, we are expected to adopt the trappings of the ‘hood or ghetto; lumped into a one-dimensional group and misrepresenting a valid existence.
J.D.’s Revenge, a 1976 horror film, gives us another reality for Blacks while staying true to the Blaxploitation tradition. The story of a law student possessed by an angry spirit seeking revenge is filled with problems like misogyny, abuse and a questionable motivation by the female lead character Christella, but the film had great performances and showed Blacks existing beyond the ghettos. The 1973 film Ganja and Hess also stands out because writer and director Bill Gunn wanted to do a film that challenged the Blaxploitation genre and he succeeded. It was a trippy, art house vampire film that show Blacks in a different light: educated, well-off and capable of complex emotions. Another film that worked for me was the 2004 AVP: Alien vs. Predator starring Sanaa Lathan. She played the role of a seasoned expedition guide that could have gone to many other actresses. Yes, lots of people thought it wasn’t the greatest film, but I loved that fact that she was cast as what may be perceived as an atypical character for a Black woman, and you know what? I liked that movie. So see dear Hollywood, it can be done with dimension and finesse.
My next wish is for the Black production companies to take a risk and back horror films. There are plenty of stories, folklore legends and modern-day occurrences pertaining to the Black experience that can be creatively represented on film without diminishing the story to mockery, or what the general public would perceive as the Black experience. Take for example, Storage 24, a 2012 British horror film written and produced by Noel Clarke, most known for his Dr. Who role as Mickey Smith. Clarke played Charlie, a regular guy who deals with heartache and an alien in a storage facility. While it was widely panned, Clarke created a film that stepped out of the stereotype of what a Black man should be, not the typical hard-core tough guy that can be found in the heavily stereotyped but well received Attack the Block, another British alien invasion film that cast Black main characters. I applaud Clarke for taking a risk and going beyond stereotype.
Things need to be updated because the old version is no longer valid. I’m not sure if the religious, old school values or the preconceived notion that Black people don’t like horror motivates production companies away from the genre, but things need to change. Why? Because change is good. It might be an uphill battle as some communities may not relate immediately, but I think it’s worth a try to eliminate some stereotypes of what a Black person wants. And if it comes from a Black run production company, it just may help eradicate some of these roadblocks.
I could just be dreaming my pixie Utopian dream, but I think this wish list has legs. I love horror. I would love it even more if there was proper representation of all people on this planet. We need to see ourselves up on the big screen so there is more fodder for dreams and aspirations; so that kids can see that there is more out there for them because they are validated in a way that will glean respect just like their White counterparts. And if Hollywood won’t do it, well, at least for now we have the small screen which is putting Tinsel Town to shame.