Blaxploitation Horror Films: Backlash & Concerns

Blacula (1972) is the easiest example to draw from and one Benshoff uses throughout his article. Once an African prince, Mamuwalde makes a case for the eradication of the slave trade with Count Dracula in the 1700's. At the Count's refusal, a bitter combat ensues and Mamuwalde is transformed into 'Blacula', cursed for eternity. Blacula is both monstrous and a solemn victim of institutionalized practices that work against African people, 'enslaved' by a 'curse' that could be interpreted as a loss of racial identity and pride for the likeness of the oppressor.

What is blaxploitation horror?

"...a horror film made in the early 1970s that had some degree of African American input, not necessarily through the director but perhaps through a screenwriter, producer, and/or even an actor" that explored "race and race consciousness as core structuring principles." Additionally, these films looked at "how the concept of African American agency historically negotiated the generic structure of the horror film during the years of the blaxploitation film craze" between 1969 and 1976.

This definition is important in understanding the tale of two sides when it comes to the question, are blaxploitation horror films good or bad for an audience? How does anyone even answer that question?  It feels absurd reading as much as typing it. But this is the exhausting, cyclical nature of our cultural climate. All things marginal, not fully, or at all in the control of policy makers is a pure threat to their positions of power. Every minor cultural offense must be suppressed. This sub-genre received treatment no different than the likes of metal music in the 1980s.

Harry Benshoff in his article, "Blaxploitation horror films: Generic reappropriation or reinscription?" lays a solid foundation for understanding the sub-genre culturally, politically, and economically. Set a part from simply being a Blaxploitation film, the horror element invites audiences to engage with everyday constructs that implement symbolism: "the ethnic monsters that these texts represent clearly stand as allegories of the wider African-American experience." Benshoff challenges that we should broaden concepts of the Black/monster dichotomy to embrace structurally why these monsters exist.

But race, identity, and media representation are, by their very nature, messy and unfixed spaces where discourse is limitless. Benshoff points out the difficulties of "constructing and casting monsters in a politically sensitive era, as well as the wide variety of responses in black communities to the question of what constitutes a 'positive' media image, an aspect of blaxploitation film reception that was widely and passionately debated."

As explained above, I feel these monsters have merit for a wider discussion and should not be dismissed, but it is good to see the other side of the frame. The Committee Against Blaxploitation (CAB) was created to address this committee's problems with representation in this body of films and how it would impact generations of African American youth. From an article published on October 10, 1973 titled, "Black Movies: A New Wave of Exploitation" author Henry W. McGee III waves verbage of dismissal over blaxploitation films:

"Black community organizations, from the militant CORE to the integrationist NAACP have called the films exploitative, but their objections have not yet been heeded. Feeling a need for further action, several civil rights groups last summer announced the formation of a 'Coalition Against Blaxploitation' and a Film Rating Committee that will classify black movies as Superior, Good, Acceptable. Objectionable, or Thoroughly Objectionable.

'We will not tolerate the continued warping of our children's minds with the filth, violence, and cultural lies that are all-pervasive in current productions of so-called black movies,' explained Junius Griffin former president of the Hollywood branch of the NAACP and a founder of the new coalition. 'The transformation from the stereotyped Stepin Fetchit to Super Nigger on the screen is just another form of cultural genocide.'"

Benshoff mentions that "middle-class black audiences and the champions of 'respectable' cinema" were the loudest groups against what was labeled as pure exploitation with no significant value. This argument only magnifies the problematic ethos of respectability politics that looms over the African American community to this very day. There are so many well-written pieces on this broader topic of media representation policing within marginalized communities, I won't go into the abstract details here. Similarly, my perspective remains unwavering.

With backlash and narrow, organized thought around a cult phenomena, I wonder how much time was spent reaching out to both creators and fans? The fans, the ones that are 'doomed for depravity' if these films are allowed to be created and exist are never taken into consideration when committee's such as CAB are established. For many, "tying into the Afrocentric culture of the late 1960s/early 1970s, many blaxploitation horror films reappropriated the mainstream cinema's monstrous figures for black goals, turning vampires, Frankenstein monsters, and transformation monsters into agents of black pride and black power." What is visceral, real to the fears of the oppressed, ignored, and patronized are often symbols of empowerment, showing true courage in the face of what's on the screen and everyday circumstances to see a character figure who takes on the world. Whether that attempt is successful or not, Pandora's Box of possibilities can flourish.

Black men, women, and our youth are constantly told "we can't" and "we don't". Blaxploitation horror spoke to some of our elders in a language that made them agents in their own destiny without denying the struggle, courage, and freedom that comes about to actually declare and feel and dare to be visible, human beings.

*Harry Benshoff's article can be found in The Cult Film Reader.

*Additionally, a concerned shift away from female agency and empowerment in place of a negro machismo that leans heavily toward male concerns disguised many times as community upliftment, Blaxploitation films offered entertaining narratives of the Black superhero and heroine (Coffy, Foxy Brown, Sugar Hill) fighting against white, institutionalized racism.

All this to say that Blaxploitation horror is not without its disturbing executions and explanations of African American lives and gender politics. Much time has been spent here briefing the subgenre's historical significance and highlighting the too often forgotten women that gave some of the most memorable performances in horror cinema. It's critical to know that opposition exists and how to counter it.

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