Black History Month

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Crazyhead’s Raquel: Susan Wokoma, Women in Horror and the Next Generation of Slayers

Published February 20, 2017 by rmpixie

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Crazyhead (Netflix, 2016)

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) was a phenomenon that continues to live on. A TV series spawned from the 1992 cult film, the fandom for a spunky high school student and her crew of friends as they battled vampires, demons and other supernatural fare while dealing with real issues knew no bounds, and new fans of her quest to save the world from creepy crawlies spring up even to this day.

Enter a new generation of shows that have found a home on Netflix. Here, writers and directors have the free reign to offer more than your local cable provider with shows like smash hits Stranger Things (2016), Luke Cage (2016), and Daredevil (2015). There’s also room and the desire for many international contributions as well, including the 2016 comedy horror from E4, Crazyhead.

Crazyhead is the story of Amy (Cara Theobold) and Raquel (Susan Wokoma), two young women who suffer from what doctors think is a mental illness. They see things – people with demonic faces – and are continually told that it’s all in their heads. When they meet one night after a frightening attack and realize they both see the same thing, they join forces to destroy these demons on earth. Raquel also has a special lineage that makes her of interest to the devilish clan, and along with Amy’s perverse puppy-dog of a friend Jake (Lewis Reeves), they go through some crazy hijinks to find answers and not get killed.

With this being Women in Horror and Black History Month, I must focus on British-Nigerian Susan Wokoma, the woman behind the off-the-hook Raquel. I first noticed her in hysterically funny and outrageous Chewing Gum (2015-2017) as the main character’s religious and fearful sister Cynthia. Her performance kept me laughing and cringing, and I was thrilled when I saw her in Crazyhead. Here, she once again kills with one liners and holds her own as the sharp-tongued and zero-filtered but vulnerable Raquel, who just wants to kick some demon ass and figure out life as a young woman with this unbelievable vocation. Wokoma breathes a vibrancy into the character that allows her to take up space and be present, even declaring at one point that she deserves better from Amy since she is a “strong, powerful black woman.” Even though Raquel has issues connecting with people and making friends, she has a great relationship with her patient brother Tyler (Arinzé Kene), full of playful jabs, sibling rivalry and lots of love. I also applaud the writer Howard Overman for making her confident in the way she looks and her space as an attractive black woman. Raquel gets “hers”, she is sexual, she is attractive and doesn’t look to others for validation, even though she may be looking for love. It is refreshing to see a black female character in a leading role own her sexuality in a healthy, non-stereotypical way like it was meant to be treated; like it always had a place at the table. North America should take note of this representation of female sexuality in general.

 

Her counterpart Amy is the perfect foil for her zany observations and plans with Amy’s voice of reason as a helpful, if ignored, counter argument for Raquel’s actions. Together they are a believable representation of young women in today’s world trying to carve out a space for themselves while dealing with the trials of being “normal”. This brings to light a couple of things: it shows how as a woman, your mental health is sometimes glossed over with medications and misunderstanding, and how once they found each other, Amy and Raquel’s bond strengthened their courage and belief in themselves. Although they have some rocky moments in their relationship, it is a real sisterhood.  In terms of mental illness, the title is a touch misleading as they are not actually mentally ill but battling supernatural forces.  They are however, at the mercy of either indifferent mental health professionals or ones that have an agenda.  Either way, this brings out how those living with mental illness may go mismanaged or pushed out of the medical system without much thought to their situation.

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Crazyhead is a comparable British counterpart to Buffy. It holds it’s own as a show, but it wouldn’t be here if Buffy hadn’t blazed a trail, and that’s ok. Joss Whedon paved the way for shows to push the envelope and have fun doing it.  Like Whedon, Crazyhead’s  writer and producer Howard Overman ensures that the dialogue is sharp and funny with a good amount of raunch, and thanks to the cast members, the delivery is on point.  He’s worn the same hats and worked his magic for The Adventures of Merlin (2008-2012), as well as being the creator for The Misfits (2009-2013), Atlantis (2013-2015), and the UK Dirk Gently (2010-2012). Each of these series has come in with a bang, created a huge following and left before they overstayed their welcome. I have complete confidence that Crazyhead will do the same and make a lasting memory in the world of #BlackGirlMagic as well as in the minds of horror comedy fans for years to come.

Crazyhead is streaming on Netflix now, so do yourself a favour and watch!

Women In Horror 2015: An Interview with Ashlee Blackwell, Our Graveyard Shift Sister

Published February 12, 2015 by rmpixie

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When I first started this blog, I did it because I loved horror and had something to say about it.  That was my first intention, just to write about what I loved, but I always wondered if there was anyone else like me out there, a Black woman who had been immersed in horror from an early age. I would soon learn that I was not alone.

I still have the email my best friend sent me in 2013, asking me if I had heard of a blog called Graveyard Shift Sisters.  When I looked it up I was floored!  Another Black woman thoroughly obsessed with horror?  Can it be?  I sent the creator and founder of the site, Ashlee Blackwell, a quick message telling her how happy I was to find the site, whose apt tagline is “Purging The Black Female Horror Fan From The Margins”, and that started my fan girl following of a blog that has truly strengthened and transformed the way I see horror and women of color.

Based in Philadelphia, Blackwell has had a passion for horror from a young age, incorporating that love into her professional life with a thesis focused on women filmmakers and feminism in horror that earned her a M.A. in Media and Cultural Studies.  She is a writer, an “avid media consumer”, and has been a panelist and speaker at several conferences on women in horror such as Geek Girl Con 2014 and the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture and American Culture Association Conference.  For this double whammy Black History Month and Women in Horror Month, I wanted to get some of her insights on women of color in horror, and I was lucky enough to have this busy horror academic and brand new editor of Ax Wound Zine answer a few questions.

 

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The lovely Ashlee Blackwell!

 

1.  What is your first memory of horror?

I remember watching Beetlejuice for the first time on VHS in my apartment living room on N. 39th street in West Philadelphia. Maybe it was a trailer, I don’t entirely remember fine details but I do remember standing in the middle of the living room mesmerized by the images on one of those huge wooden-paneled televisions that was all the rage back in the 80s. First thing I remember thinking was that I was “weird” which, sounds sad I suppose, but I guess more accurately, ‘”different”[…]because it was already programmed in my brain that girls aren’t supposed to like “stuff like this” so much. I think I was about five then.

But I loved all the talk of ghosts, this pale chick wearing all black, sandworms, and the wildly inappropriate Michael Keaton title character. From there I just kept my eye out for any fringe TV or cinema that dealt with these themes. I didn’t have a way to express my love for a genre I wasn’t quite sure how to label back then, I just knew I loved the fantastic.

 

2.  What were your expectations for the Graveyard Shift Sisters site, and how have you seen it grow?

Graveyard Shift Sisters started with a question: Am I the only Black female horror fan? Answering myself, I said that this question is ridiculous, so let me start this blog as a clarion call and also tell people I’m sick of feeling invisible in this genre, and do a thoughtful job of showcasing all of the Black women who have appeared in horror films over time.

I let my creative expand from there, giving other women the opportunity to have their say. Everything you see on the blog now was not planned or intended, it just happened. If anything, it’s been an exercise in really challenging my imagination to produce ways of serving online content that’s fairly unique. I think and hope I’ve been successful at doing so.

 

3.  You approach discussions about horror in an accessible but highly academic manner, which I love, and present a place where you showcase other women who do the same.  Why is that important, especially with the specific subject matter of women of color in horror?

Horror in general struggles for respect in academia. You won’t (or can) believe how many prefaces or introductions I read in books about horror where the author and/or editor laments about reactions of their critical work. How many have had to stop looking for “approval” and really believe that the work they’re doing matters.

Women of color are an important subject matter to discuss in horror simply because they’re a part of the genre. They’ve played the roles of voodoo conjurers and maids all the way up to a heroine here and there with a plethora of authors, bloggers, etc. in between. And it’s taking quite a bit of work to do the digging to prove that Black women have a rich history here.

I have a grad degree in the humanities so I’ve been trained through-the-mud to do this kind of work, and come from a university where it’s emphasized to ‘stay grounded’ in a sense, when it comes to our work. I don’t “try” I just “do”, so it makes me thankful that particular lesson translated well so that readers of the blog didn’t feel isolated but affirmed and enlightened.

 

4.  You are now the Editor for Ax Wound Zine, so congratulations!  What do you hope to bring to the table?

We’re still in the phases of giving it order. Since Hannah Neurotica, its founder and genius, decided to embark upon its revamp as a blog, she is also looking towards a future for the zine to gain its stride again as physical media. There’s a lot of planning that needs to happen and I’m just lucky we work so well together.

Ultimately, I’m looking forward to shining a light on fresh and well-established voices from both the arts and academic communities who have invested an immense amount of effort into the horror genre and feminism, both men and women. The discourse on the two has only magnified since, for example, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film and Feminist Film Theory have been published.

Additionally, I want this demographic to be as culturally and ethnically diverse as possible. With artists and academics of color, they tend to bring forth concepts of intersectionality in their texts and as horror moves forward; this is a terrain that has not been well trekked and feels to me like an evolution where we look at how horror looks at matters of race and culture in the 21st century, more importantly from creators of color.

 

 5.  This may be difficult, but if you could narrow it down, what are your top 5 favorite horror movies?

I never in good confidence can answer this question without feeling like I’m betraying the other 1000 horror films that fall into a “favorite” category. There are particular films I love for very specific reasons. It’s difficult because it’s impossible for someone like me who is a self- confessed neurotic about horror. It’s my favorite film genre because it’s the only one where I have much more open mind and willing to watch anything under the moniker. Anything. That’s probably scary in and of itself.

 

Although Blackwell works tirelessly to have the horror genre seen in a more serious, academic way, she is always up for some fun!  Honouring the nostalgic feeling of watching a late-night horror film, she started #FridayNightHorror, a way to connect with other horror movie fans and share a discourse via Twitter and the ever popular hashtag.  Followers comment in real time, like they are at one giant sleepover, while watching some favourite classic titles like Lamberto Brava’s Demons.  It’s a great way of building community, and you can read about its genesis here.  Be sure to join in this Friday February 13th for a live tweet of none other than Friday the 13th Part 1 at 10 p.m. E.S.T.

A big thank you to Ashlee for her efforts to bring horror fans and women of color enlightenment and a place to flourish, and for her time!  Be sure to check out her site:

 

http://www.graveyardshiftsisters.com

 

and follow all the action on Twitter:

 

https://twitter.com/GraveyardSister

https://twitter.com/AxWoundZine

 

 

 

Afrofuturism Artist Talk 2014

Published February 13, 2014 by rmpixie

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This Black History Month, I attended an interesting panel discussion with some talented artists.  The subject:  Afrofuturism.  What is it, you ask?  In a nutshell, it is a futuristic sci-fi vision of Afrocentricity.  It includes many mediums, from the written word to visual arts to music.  Think of the novels of Octavia Butler and the music of Funkadelic.  The panel was part of Black Future Month:  Toronto’s First Afrofuturism Group Art Exhibition-A Collective Look Into Our Distant Future.  The exhibit was held at the Daniels Spectrum, a new building that is part of the revitalization of Regent Park, a well-known low-income neighbourhood in Toronto that has had a peppered past.

The artists were asked by curator and artist Danilo M. McCallum to create a vision coming from the distant future of 3014.  These artists to him, had unique takes on the subject, were already in an “outside of the box” futuristic mindset, and represented the essence of Afrofuturism.  He asked them to create “optimistic images of a Black future not tied into the slave narrative and the weight of all the cruelty”.  He wanted them to be free of that heaviness; to create positive possibilities and a Utopian vision.   Their contributions were thought-provoking, beautiful and otherworldly.  Mediated by Hillina Seife, a diasporic historian, the artists touched on many subjects, but the major themes were identity and acceptance.  The panel consisted of the following artists:

Danilo M. McCallum:  www.danilommccallum.com  afrofuturist portrait painter

Komi Olaf:  www.komiolaf.com multimedia artist

Soteeoh:  www.soteeoh.com a futuristic vision captured by photography

Javid Jah:  www.javidjah.com  artist and architect

Quentin Vercetty:  www.vercetty.com spoken word and multimedia artist

Chanel Kennebrew:  www.junkprints.com  multimedia artist (via Skype)

Samson Brown:  actor and playwright of the one-person show Futur-log

Chris Ak:  www.iamchrisak.com musical artist and producer

Ola-ife Ojo:  www.atelierozero.net architect and graphic artist

Each artist had their own take on Afrofuturism.  Soteeoh felt there was very little representation of Blacks in the future, so to him, it meant us writing ourselves back into the script.  He admitted to having identity issues and recounted how his shoot in the financial district of Toronto made his model feel unwelcome, like she didn’t belong there.  He called for a reclaiming of spaces where we don’t feel welcome in an attempt to eradicate subversive racism. Quentin Vercetty felt it was “realism, not surrealism, it’s idealism”, that it was projecting towards the future with an unrelenting creativity.  Samson Brown’s Afrofuturism meant conversations between himself and his future descendants and what the world would be like for them if they weren’t caught up in “endless cycles of nothingness”, or things that didn’t matter.  Komi Olaf thought that it manifested itself in music, theatre, imagery and dance, not looking towards the future, but seeing it happen now in this generation.

Almost every artist on the panel spoke about identity, or the “we” that referred to the Black population.  Olaf felt that hip hop laid a platform for Afrofuturism because it brought all races together, and agreed with Brown’s description of the “we” as including all races and every generation.  Ak’s take on identity was smaller, unique groups working toward a larger purpose in the community, and Kennebrew also felt that the “we” had to be all-inclusive in order to unite humanity.  What stood out for me was how even though Afrofuturism is essentially Black-centric, all the artists called for a unity from all races, creating an inclusive distant future.  They all said that their identity was inevitable in their work.  They all expressed a struggle at some point with who they were, and they all agreed that their identities were in a constant flux with their past, present and the future.  Olaf summed the answer up nicely: we all need to celebrate where we are from and where we are going to.

Acceptance was a huge point during the discussion.  I asked about their identities as artists revolving around this notion of claiming their Black identity and moving through non-Black spaces and how they placed themselves in society; how they have been accepted outside of their communities since we are not in 3014 just yet and have a long way to go.  I likened it to my experience as a Black woman at horror film festivals and very often being the only woman of colour in attendance.  Vercetty expressed that taking up space and ownership of your vision is paramount to create an inclusive environment.  In terms of his art, he called for limitless creativity that is seen by all, opening doors for others.  To me this meant that these afrofuturistic artists see people as pioneers for inclusiveness.

When asked about their thoughts on the changing face of Toronto and their role in the revitalization (or what some might call gentrification) of the Regent Park area and other low-income neighbourhoods in the city, Vercetty stated that the artist’s job is to promote creative thinking to educate society.  He felt that Toronto should be accessible to all and that projecting creative ideas into reality would get people thinking.  Soteeoh had a more political slant and called for artists to encourage people to be more civically engaged and get involved in their community.  Voting to promote change and rebuild our communities was key for him.  Olaf expanded that by stating that everyone is an artist in their own right, and creativity should be encouraged in every field so that it shifts people’s thinking to create change.

Another attendee asked the panel as Black people specifically, when dealing with historical trauma as a Black person, and a skewed vision of progress and improvement, as well as holding on to some semblance of community, what the narrative in their minds was as they created this future vision, speaking specifically to McCallum’s Dream Guardians portraits.  McCallum explained that these Dream Guardians travelled through and manipulated time.  It was his duty to bring them to us through art so they can nurture dreams, allowing the dreamers to follow them.  His hope was to open up the science fiction world to more Black youth, but also for everyone to see the universal story behind his work first, and race second.  Kennbrew’s view of 3014 was abstract, or a “Jackson Pollack vision of the future”.  She felt it was difficult to tap into our full potential because it is so obscure:  to her it will be what we make it.  As humans, as long as we can continue to live individually, in communities and nations alike, it will be the best and the worst of what we are currently living.  Soteeoh used pop culture to look to the future; how we will, as a race, continue to innovate, support and build together to create new culturally significant movements.

Olaf and Brown both referred to “Ubuntu”, which, defined by both artists, means “a person is a person through others”.  In other words, we need to work as a collective force to address and change the negative effects the present may have on the future.  Olaf saw the future as a post nuclear war environment in enclosed spaces with a melding of advanced spirituality and technology.  Brown was adamant that positivity and love was essential to overcome negativity for future generations.  He stressed that we need to give ourselves, as Black people, permission to dream and encourage our own creative potential; to say “yes” when we hear “no”.  To him, this will lead to a future abundant with love.

After doing extensive research on writers Octavia Butler and Sophia Stewart (of The Matrix and Terminator controversy), conspiracy theories, NASA, and listening to Sun Ra and Andre 3000, Vercetty’s vision of the future was really interesting.  He saw the elimination of time because it limits our productivity.  Instead we will control time, using untapped areas of our brains.  Occupying other planets and galaxies will be a reality because of a population explosion, and societies will follow a more holistic Rastafarian movement living without capitalism.

An attendee left us with the final word.  With wild black hair, bright makeup and colourful dress, this self-proclaimed “64-year-old Jewish lady” was blown away by the panel.  Her entire life, she had felt misunderstood by her family and felt she didn’t belong on this planet.  Brown’s message touched her deeply and she wanted to also give love.  She felt that for the first time she could go to bed feeling optimistic about the future because of what was said. Her message for the future was to change inner consciousness, reconnect with our own inner beings, and stop seeing each other as the enemy. She finished by giving them all a heartfelt thanks for being on the planet right now.  What a fitting ending for the discussion, showing that these futurist artists have already made an impact.

Some may think that the above discussion was full of flight and fancy, but to those in attendance, it had so much substance.  To be in a room with all that forward thinking artistic talent was overwhelming, and to know that they shared my vision of a future with a multi-racial, harmonious environment was comforting.  Who is to say what the future will bring?  I just think this discussion was extremely important to promote dreaming and futuristic possibilities so people of colour can get their heads out of preconceived notions, unfettered by what we are supposed to do and tap into what we can do…and if we let ourselves, that is limitless.

Black History Month Horror Wishlist for Hollywood

Published February 10, 2014 by rmpixie

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.

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