Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Black Women in 21st Century Horror Films: The New Masters

Behind the scenes on Bree Newsome's (right) film, Wake
It is an extremely promising and empowering time for artistic innovation. The essential need to spread new ideas, track permanently relevant historical perspectives and build upon projects that ultimately create communities has been infectious. A space deeply dear to me, being black and female in the horror community is very slowly becoming a fact removed from an anomaly in the shadows. In film in particular, it feels only of late that Black women in horror have truly rippled the tides, igniting screens with their faces, but also their own visions.

We've seen remarkable standouts throughout the decades muddled with stock, ancillary depictions of kooky mystics to be ignored then feared then briefly revered/killed for the white protagonists arc or the 'we need a Black friend' filler player. Horror's trip into the 21st century has in a sense, been demonstrative of the struggle to find some balance. A perfect gumbo of old tropes, active main characters to root for as well as Black writers, directors, and producers searching for ways in which to tell their stories through a supernatural lens. It's a bit of a relief to report that Black women have had their hands in all of these pots. While what is seen as tasteful or displeasurable is the authority of each consumer, these depictions and practices are molding a whole that gives this landscape texture.

The hip hop horror sub-genre in the early 2000's was fertile ground for cheaply produced, direct-to-DVD fare that proved profitable by targeting a demographic that came of age in hip hop's infancy. However, the business model tended to lean towards quantity over quality, sometimes to its detriment. These films were akin to a 'Tyler Perry's Vampires' concept that had a tendency to lack any sophisticated nuance and a technical style that probably keeps many of these films in the vein of obscurity.

Most of these films focus on Black male leads that fall flat with their storytelling while some, presumably about women fail miserably with a rather shallow male gaze (2004's Vampz). However, this market did make room for Black horror films about Black women. Street Tales of Terror (2004) "presents a trilogy of women-centered cautionary morality tales" grappling with vengeance, abortion, and rape. In Zombiez (2005), it's Josephine (Jenicia Gracia) that takes on her antagonists, the hungry undead as well as misogynist co-workers in full force as the film's sole heroine.

Bernice (Mykel Gray) becomes vengeful after her assault
goes unpunished in Street Tales of Terror (2004)
More mainstream fare such as Alien vs. Predator (2004) caught the attention of many for positioning Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan) alongside a Predator to battle aliens and survive a cavernous maze. When we're first introduced to Woods, weathering dangerous altitudes in what appears to be sub-zero temperatures with a zen reserved to those who've mastered adversity. Watching her authoritatively communicate with someone on a mobile device while climbing a mountain should've been the first clue that she may very likely be our 'final girl'. Additionally in Gothika (2003), Halle Berry's Miranda Grey is the driving focus of the film's story, action, and catalyst to the final scenes that wrap the film.

Lesser in significance of what was supposed to be singer Aaliyah's breakthrough role in genre film, Queen Of The Damned (2002) was additionally her title; a role clearly reduced even before her untimely passing. What just plain sucks about this promise was the fact that what fans saw in the young star was the dedication to excellence. Aaliyah loved the horror genre and that combination would've made her an explosively marketable name in it.

Aaliyah in Queen Of The Damned (2002)
With these seeds, one can contend that not all is lost for quality Black horror films and Black female characters in the genre. The emergence of Black women independent filmmakers creating lead roles for Black women and women of color is the natural next step in this history that I plan to keep close watch on.

Filmmaker L.C. Cruell is an accomplished horror filmmaker and creator of 7 Magpies, the first all-black women led horror anthology film, Reagan Gomez' web series Surviving The Dead, Kristina Leath-Malin's My Final Girl, Tiffany Jackson's The Field Trip, Tananarive Due's Danger Word, Rae Shaw with The Repass, Kellee Terrell's Goodnight My Love, R. Shanea Williams' Paralysis as well as additional women directors with horror films on their roster make the case for examining Black women's growing visibility as genre contenders with the hope that their existence will not immediately be akin to a novelty.

R. Shanea Williams (left) on the set of her horror short, Paralysis (2016)
Where we go from here is a sharp look at these exciting projects with a deep joy and care. I am thrilled to be a part of doing my share in showcasing how far these women have come from being bound to strict, narrow Hollywood studio expectations of Black womanhood in horror to being an authority on horror's contemporary defining tenets, exploring discomforts and anxieties from the perspective of women of color. This is our history. And I'm glad we've have our hands in shaping it.

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