Friday, December 27, 2013

The Enduring Women in Blaxploitation Horror

Pam Grier in Scream, Blacula Scream
I thoroughly enjoyed Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Dr. Robin R Means Coleman. The title is self explanatory as she offers a rich, historical frame for Black artistic participation in the American horror film genre. With a 'know your facts' approach, the chapter that gave me considerable insight into Blaxploitation, "Scream, Whitey, Scream -- Retribution, Enduring Women, and Carnality: 1970s" extends to the reader a phrase I've never entertained that is found in the title; the Enduring Women.

In contrast to Clover's Final Girl, Coleman argues that "1970s horror films featuring Black women handled the Final Girl with noteworthy variation" with characters who were multiplicitous; "highly sexualized" and fought back, not "up against some boogeyman; rather, often their battle is with racism and corruption" which Coleman insists is a never ending battle. They are "resilient" and "fight on behalf of men" implying the black unity ideologies that were prevalent in 70s Black Power Movement consciousness. This "fight" was commonly in the name of justified vengeance due to the death at the hand of a literal and symbolic (white) oppressor found in a horror films like Sugar Hill (1974) and non-horror such as Foxy Brown (1974).

Legendary Pam Grier, known as the starlet of Foxy Brown and scores of other films was the center of 1973's Scream, Blacula, Scream, the sequel to Blacula (1972). She played Lisa, a prodigal "Voodoo" priestess approached by Blacula to save his tormented soul. Described as "smart" and "heroic", Lisa made the case for Scream, Blacula, Scream to be one of the few films during its time to have a depiction of "a Black woman's tensions or aspirations or to examine the dynamics of sexual politics within the Black community." However, I can imagine both positive and negative critical reactions to female sexual politics in Blaxploitation films. Means Coleman notes:

Though sexual readiness does not immediately exclude a "feminist edge," the treatment of [Pam] Grier and other Blaxploitation starlets was distinctly hypersexual-- ever available for sex, no matter how horrifically violent.

With the sensitive, intertwining history of Black women, sexuality, and ownership, female stars in many variations of Blaxploitation during the 70s walked the tightrope of progressive politics and regressive characterizations. But, a revisionist approach could be considered. Black female sexuality does not have to be marred by a past not authored by its agents. The Black Power Movement indeed sought a self determination attitude that translated easily to self definition for Black bodies. And this is not to say that self definitions cannot be problematic or separated from their histories. It's vastly convoluted.

What these films offer are a variety of women not simply defined by their sexual prowess and physical attributes but by their resourceful thoughtfulness and additional qualities that make for rich characters in general. I believe this is why Coleman brings up the Final Girl during this section of her chapter.

Needless to say, these films are dated. But they do let an inquiring audience gain insight into burgeoning and complex roles for (Black) women in film. If you're teaching a Black American Cinema course or some variation, you owe it to your students to put this on the 'Suggested Reading' list if not make it an assignment. It's a simple, yet solid read for those interested in the subject matter.

Who is your favorite enduring woman in Blaxploitation horror?
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