Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Love For The Brothers: Duane Jones


October 1968; Night Of The Living Dead was a film that made its debut in theaters. It was the first movie to procure the sub-genre of zombie cinema and its impact on film history. Theaters in Black neighborhoods were known for their pick of exploitation, kung-fu, Black, and horror fare. Something I feel not emphasized enough is the historical significance of horror's Black audience and their participation in making Night a cult classic. In a satisfying yet simultaneously mournful tone, their affinity for Night Of The Living Dead is due to its unflinching hero named Ben (played by Duane Jones), who happened to be Black.

A highly accomplished theater actor/director, executive for multiple theater companies, and an English educator in New York, Africa (Niger specifically), and Ohio, Jones took charge in many aspects of his career. He was an Ebony magazine model, multi-lingual, well educated, world traveler described as "gracious, fiercely intelligent, funny, charming, respectful." In regards to Night Of The Living Dead, a role originally imagined for another actor a then 31 year old Jones auditioned for the role of Ben and changed the minds of producer Russ Streiner and director George Romero. Even after confirming their casting decision, Romero decided to keep the script as is, going against the template of the time of overt demonstrations of a characters race/ethnicity with a Black character on film. Jones played a large role in the way Ben was portrayed by refining his dialogue. Jones even talked with Romero about the iconic moment of Ben's demise saying, "the heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that and the double jolt of the hero figure being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy."

It was just the kind of stark commentary that Black audiences could and did enjoy ironically for its accuracy. It was for everyone to witness a new wave of filmmakers and storytelling. It was how horror was breaking through as a popular genre that was establishing a tradition of poking the populace of an ever turbulent world of social and political strife. Night Of The Living Dead became a part of the canon for questioning who really is the monster? Jones would carry this discourse on with another one of his memorable roles in genre film, Ganja & Hess (1973).


Ganja & Hess is a film I've written about at length. It's a trippy, at times for me difficult oratorical expedition as its subject matter is not linear, and dares audiences to break it a part to find its fascinating preoccupation with class, race, sex, gender, history, the supernatural, and addiction. Jones played Dr. Hess Green, an intentional anthropologist who struggled with his New World, middle/upper class, secluded lifestyle while the echoes of a forgotten past haunts him. His education is what has afforded him a socioeconomic (coded white) comforts while his Blackness is not entirely lost in his own consciousness and magnified by his descent into the study of the African civilization of Myrthia and his unfortunate hunger after an altercation with his loose canon assistant, George Meda (writer/director Bill Gunn). The effect of which, is an insatiable lust for blood that transcends moral order, isolating him more, and I can gather much internal debate that is never spoken, mostly speculated by fans of the film. Jones made Dr. Hess a master class in restraint and substantial range. A character with heart just as messy as us all.

That restraint carried in his life as a professor. He never boasted about his film appearances. Yet and still, Duane Jones managed to enamor many that he crossed paths with. Two of his most memorable roles compliment each other while bathing in lights of contrasting approaches. Where being Black was the matter of Ganja & Hess' legacy, it was arguably coincidental but just as important in Night Of The Living Dead. Both I've seen enrapture genre cinephiles in fun and introspective ways.

Night is so ubiquitous. The metaphor and popular marketing of the reanimated just at an arm's length in my office, that any initial memories of watching it are foggy at best. What has always stood out in recollection and re-watches has always been Ben. The nauseating twist of dread that I felt in the pit of my stomach seeing a Black man make emboldened decisions as the only person on his skin tone spectrum in this 96 minute milestone in the decade it was created is a feeling that has stayed with me since. The inevitable climax leaned eerily too much towards reality. Jones' participation in Night led a brush fire of commentary that has only become a phoenix as I witnessed Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) on a darkened road with his hands up as red and blue lights highlighted his sweaty, defeated face in 2017's Get Out. Leaving a path of fire and white bodies as breadcrumbs to what we fear (and know) to be presumptive authority figures, that their fairytale Black boogeyman is the omega of their truth. The similarities are staggering. It reminded me of Ben at the end so much. The misunderstanding, the hopelessness.

Ben was a reflection of the history that has been weighed on the backs who use it to understand the present and change it. That 'it' is Chris, and the hope despite all hope that we feel to insist that change is on the horizon. Duane Jones was once steeped in the universe of two characters that first taught me about how simple but unnervingly complicated it is a talk about race as a country, individuals, with each other, and a globe. There was rarely a removal of Jones' natural leadership inclinations in his roles. He stands as a force and model, especially for a Black audiences then and now wanting alternative depictions of themselves that erected a template for the foundations of comprehending and assserting our own humanity.



Sources
Dr. Robin Means Coleman's Horror Noire
Additional information provided by The Wrap
New York Times Obituary
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