I am a fan of many things. At the top of my list is the horror genre. From the first scary story my late mother told me when I was a kid to the last horror film festival I attended, I’m all in. I am also a fan of my country. I love Canada. Being born in the States and relocating here at an early age, I consider myself a bred Canadian. I love our way of living here, the at times maddening weather, and our culture of easy-going politeness, tolerance and multiculturalism that is world-renowned. When the two combine, however, I am sorely disappointed because the obvious mixture of culture that we experience day in and day out is lacking in the indie horror film industry here.
Last year, my best friend and I went to a screening of The Dirties. Heavily endorsed by indie giant Kevin Smith, this Canadian independent film documents 2 high school students as they make a film about killing their bullies which becomes a deadly obsession for one of them. I was an outsider as a child, with very strict parents and not a lot of money. I had a small group of nerdy friends and we were all tormented by bullies at some point, so I was really interested in the subject matter. Both my friend and I were enjoying the dark, quirky humour until one scene in particular. The boys recreate a scene from Pulp Fiction, and one of them is in blackface as he portrays Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Jules Winnfield. I’m not sure if this was intended to show how much of an idiot the main character Matt was, as his friend let him know that his characterization was inappropriate, but I was let down. Let down because the significance of that historical offence was somehow beyond the filmmaker’s radar. Let down because that historical offence was made light of. After the film, my friend also pointed out that even though the cast was diverse, the bullies were people of colour. The filmmaker failed on two points. He not only stereotyped the Black bully, but himself as White and ignorant of other cultures. We approached another movie-goer after the film, another Black woman, who also notice the scene and was also disappointed. Having discussed it at length with my friend, I let it sit with the other things in my mental file called “Really People?!!”, but stayed silent, like a good Canadian.
Just recently I attended a horror film festival featuring only Canadian horror. I really love this festival, and enjoy all the chatty fans and great independent films made right here on my doorstep. Many of the films were great, and I don’t take issue with the festival itself, but there were two movies that really stuck in my craw, and overwhelmed by disappointment as a rabid horror fan, I can stay silent no longer.
The first was Bloody Knuckles. It was getting quite a lot of buzz as being offensive but really funny, and had a premise similar to Idle Hands. The creator of an offensive comic, Travis, angers a local Asian mob boss and is punished by losing his hand. The dismembered hand is reanimated and wreaks havoc in Travis’ life and aims to get revenge. One of the programmers of the event forewarned the audience that the movie was offensive. Note taken. The comic book covers depicting the Asian mob boss in an act of sodomy and an African military officer as a cannibal were vulgar and ignorant, yes, but it illustrated the character’s mindset. What I couldn’t understand was why Travis says the “N” word to show that he has no boundaries when he is questioned about the inappropriateness of his work. It was just unnecessary, since the point was already proven: the character was obnoxious and had no filters. There was no need to utter that word, which unfortunately carries so much weight to this very day, and immediately alienated me as an audience member. Yes, I have been called the “N” word, and yes, it stings regardless of the context. Apparently, the director did the film to, among other things, speak out against censorship, but when that word comes out of any mouth, White or otherwise, it is never appropriate. And the portrayal of a gay character, the Asian thugs and mob boss were no better. Aside from the great special effects of the reanimated hand, there was no real redemption here. Travis didn’t seem to learn any real lessons about his character, so this film was a cultural fail. To my surprise, it won as best film in the festival. I am disturbed by this because it makes me wonder if I saw the same film as the festival jury, and it makes me wonder why something so blatantly offensive would charm an audience.
The icing on the alienation cake was the film Kingdom Come. Nine strangers wake up in an abandoned hospital with no memory of how they got there and no way of getting out. They must work together to escape and deal with demons, both in their hearts and in the halls of the hospital. This film had so much potential with its large ensemble cast and interesting premise, but I was underwhelmed by the glaring racial stereotypes presented. A character named Roger was a rapist. He just happened to be Black, aggressive, and loud. Then there was a Middle Eastern or South Asian man, Nadir, who was portrayed as weasely and hated Blacks, especially Roger. Nadir accidentally kills his daughter when he finds out she had been dating a Black man, who is framed for her death. She comes back to haunt her father, and in her rage, and to shame him, uses the “N” word. Yet again, it rears its ugly head. It made me wonder what the motivation for the actors who took these roles was, because I am still baffled. The only redeeming factors for this film? The production value including the great opening credits, the hospital setting which was really effective, and the stand-out performance by Jason Martorino as Daniel, whom I wished I had seen in something other than this film.
A note to Canadian writers and directors: DO NOT USE THE “N” WORD. EVER. It is vulgar and ugly and lazy. Even if it comes out of a visible minority’s mouth. Another note: STOP USING ONE-DIMENSIONAL RACIAL STEREOTYPES. I wonder if these images and roles are perpetuated because the White majority is tired of being politically correct and is just angry that they have to be sensitive to “The Other”; that we are here and no longer want to be silenced or parodied. Or maybe in order to be provocative, minorities become casualties at the expense of the majority’s creative process, if we are considered for roles at all. Please realize that horror has nothing to do with race. It is an entertaining genre that many are drawn to because we love to be scared, and you will find a scary story in every culture, so when these very images, these words, these slurs for any cultural group are uttered or perpetuated, they are hurtful and immediately excludes and divides us. I am by no means asking for a gag order, but rather to open your eyes to fans who are outside of your 14-30 year old White male demographic and get creative instead of regurgitating racial tropes from bygone eras that offend, alienate and disappoint.
I am a horror fan through and through. And I am a woman of colour, a Canadian woman of colour, and I no longer want to feel invisible. I am surrounded by diversity, which is what I think this country excels at in real life, but on the indie screen, it lacks in representation and scope. Step outside your door, and you will see teachers, artists, writers, doctors and business owners of many hues. The black rapists, racist minorities and stereotypes are not our absolutes. Go to comic and horror conventions and you will see racially diverse horror fans with dollars that support your craft, not to mention the huge amount of women, and women of colour, who live for the genre, but that is another post altogether. I therefore challenge all independent horror film makers out there, indeed any film maker, to think outside of the box, because you are Canadian, you can do better, and I expect more from you.
See Canada for what it is in 2014: cast some people of colour in roles because they can act or represent the character fully, not because of your laziness and what old school racial rules dictate. They don’t apply anymore. Network television is beating you by leaps and bounds with shows like Sleepy Hollow, Falling Skies, and Grimm with their racially diverse casts. Take a cue from your crew, because when I read the credits to your films, I see a lot of diversity there. Give me an Asian final girl, a Black hero/heroine outside of “the ‘hood”, a South Asian family that battles a creature, or, and stay with me here, Native-Canadian cast members. Why? Because when you finally take your blinders off, you’ll see we’ve been here all along, supporting you.