Is Respectability Politics Killing Black Horror?

By Tarik R. Davis (@tarikrdavis)

Still from Welcome To My Parlor 2 featuring my character Abel Worthy

For the past 7 years I’ve been trying to make a horror film. Along the way I’ve met a few potential producers and the conversations usually go something like this: First, they’re impressed because I’m articulate and passionate about the art of filmmaking. Then they finally ask me what my film is about and become immediately turned off when I say, “horror”. Plus I usually make the double taboo of adding “comedy” onto the end of the phrase. “Horror comedy!?” they say with a face like that of someone who stepped into the empty subway car on a crowded train. I then explain that this horror-comedy will ultimately be a commentary of my own personal experiences with racism and violence. They tell me to think about writing a biopic or a civil rights story instead.

Sometimes this explicit “advice” verges on an expression of fear that black genre films aren’t ‘good’ enough or ‘worthy’ of support, and that feels a lot like the respectability politics argument to me. Unfortunately, I see a majority of people (white, black, etc.) using this against lots of art made by people of color. There are tons of shitty genre films out there, made by white people, and yet I am told that I should make a "real" film about racism like The Butler or 12 Years a Slave instead of a horror film.

I don’t have anything against writing a realistic depiction of race relations in America, however when I’m ultimately asked by these particular uninformed individuals to, as they see it, “make real, significant art” by lifting it from the gutter of horror. That sentiment has the same sting as when I was told to “pull my pants up” “turn my music down” or “to not lock or twist my hair” as one relative of mine put it, “You look foolish boy, ain’t nobody gonna hire you looking like that.” Growing up, I heard this from the black members of my family, black people who I wasn’t related to, and from white teachers and friends’ parents. It gave me an OVERWHELMING a sense of shame about how everything I do and everything I am is perceived. I was born a bad egg and to not get tossed out, I have to be twice as good, grateful, humble and decent as everyone else. Good ol’ fashioned respectability politics.

Personally, I feel that with a lot of black films there’s an understandable need to be great, prestigious, praiseworthy. Broadly speaking, I’ve always felt there was a need in our community for our art to be legitimized by the masses as if to say, “We’re good enough right?” “Please like and respect us!” At some point, I went through a kind of a fatigue. I grew tired of seemingly every black film fitting in the same ol’ three or four sub genres.[1] But, I get it. Hollywood has a very strict set of rules and demands when it comes to filmmakers. And the goal post continues to move if you’re black.

This imposed and internalized fear of not being good enough is debilitating. In order for black filmmakers to get financed, and for their films to garner visibility and attract audiences, we’re going to have to let black filmmakers fail. Then we help them up and support their next project. Trying and failing and trying again is a privilege rarely afforded to us in any field, and it’s an absolute necessity in filmmaking. I’ll put up any aspiring black filmmakers attempt at horror or science fiction or fantasy against Ridley Scott’s over-blown Exodus…someone paid millions upon millions for that. No excuse. He’s still gonna make Prometheus 2 though.

Of course I have no desire to make a bad film, and I'd love to get a certain level of success, but being that it will be my first attempt I also know it won't be perfect. The support for trying something simply doesn’t seem to be there to begin with, and it feels exponentially difficult to experiment if you’re an artist who’s black.

When news first came out that Spike Lee was raising funds for his next flick Da Sweet Blood of Jesus via Kickstarter, despite him having had an extremely prolific and impressive career, I was intrigued. I love Spike, I love his films and I love his refusal to play Hollywood’s respectability game. However before much was known about the new film, Spike would only cryptically state that it was a film “about human beings addicted to blood” but “not a vampire film.” 

When I first heard him clarify that the film not being a vampire film, and since I didn’t know its connection to Bill Gunn’s 1973 vampire film Ganja and Hess, I must admit my initial thought was “Damn Spike. I bet if you did make an all out vampire film…it’d be dope as hell!” Today, after Sweet Blood had a limited release, I know it is having a direct dialogue with Gunn’s film. However, I was still disappointed that he felt the need to distance or clarify that it wasn’t a vampire flick. I remember reading an interview with Spike Lee and one of the film’s leads Zaraah Abrahams on Defamer and Lee talks about why he marketed the film as a “semi-genre” film. “I wanted that million 250,” he said. And while it’s true that genre films sell, the last big budget vampire movie involving black people I can think of was Blade (1998). Spike went on to say that he isn’t really interested in making a full horror film.

When Ganja and Hess came out, after Blacula, in the height of seventies Blaxploitation, Gunn stated, “The last thing I want to do is make a black vampire film.” Instead he made a really cool film about addiction starring Duane Jones, Marlene Clark and himself. Really cool, he wanted to say something else, and he didn’t want to be boxed into what the black horror film was at the time. Here’s my problem…I love both Ganja and Hess and Blacula. I think they were both necessary and I don’t think either is more respectable or worthy of value over the other. They both speak truth for me. But, maybe it’s me. Blacula, as a lot of all out black genre films of the time, were taken as goofy or some kind of a joke. William Marshall was a tremendous actor, who brought significant weight and gravitas to the role of Blacula. In his performance you can see how real his struggle is for him and how seriously he took the role. So can we get past the title and actually give credit where credit is due?

After learning that Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is an homage to Gunn’s movie, I instantly understood Lee’s distancing from genre films. He’s moving away from Blacula, from Blade, from a Vampire in Brooklyn. Even though Spike continues to make great films that are thought provoking and skew towards the avant-garde, he has also proven himself more than able to tackle more commercial films and knock them out of the park. (I loved Inside Man.) And we need all of this. I think we need all manner of black vampire, zombie, alien, werewolf, and etc. films. We need such a broad and diverse spectrum so that we never feel the need to distance our work from others’. We need black filmmakers getting that million 250, and we need black filmmakers dropping dope art-house films, and we need everything in between.[1]

After all, Spielberg made a myriad of films in different genres in his career, from Jaws to The Color Purple. Seth Rogan and Simon Pegg (I love, love, LOVE the Cornetto trilogy) are accepted in any genre, without the fear of not being good enough, or worthy of trying something new. I’d like to see people of color, in front and behind the camera, enjoying the same flexibility of artistic expression.

I was a big fan of the first season of Sleepy Hollow for not only its diverse cast and charismatic lead played by Nicole Beharie, but for the fact that all the side characters (who were also people of color) were intelligent and had agency (two things that are rare when it comes to people of color and genre entertainment). I believe this is due to the uniformed belief that people of color, particularly Black people, don’t do sci-fi, horror, fantasy. This past season of Sleepy Hollow seemed to bend backward towards the bad generic types of genre T.V. that preceded it. All of the cool secondary characters became even more secondary, more white characters were brought in and they had seemed to have more to do than Orlando Jones’s character or the main character, Abbie Mill’s sister Jenny played by Lyndie Greenwood. Black fans of the show seemed very vocal on Twitter about the shift in narrative and back pedaling to a more archaic take on black people in sci-fi, horror, and fantasy (that we just don’t do it). And I don’t blame people for being confused as to why all the cool stuff set up in season 1 was being set aside or ignored. 

So why is it important to support filmmakers who are black and want to make horror movies?

Because #BlackLivesMatter. It’s 2015 and despite the Ferguson and the continuing sacrifice of black blood, the world at large is still unmoved by the merciless slaughter of black bodies both here in the states and abroad. Monstrous police officers and bigoted pizzeria owners are able to rack up fortunes through donations so we need to support black horror, support black sci-fi, black fantasy, black gamers, afrofuturists, etc. We need to support the artists who are broadening the spectrum of what is being made – so that we can broaden the spectrum of what is seen by black people – because there IS an audience for all different kinds of overwhelming, awesome, blackness.[1]

I wrote the first draft of my script 8 years ago. I wrote it as a means to release the frustration and anger I had been experiencing as a black man in show business.  I had a string of terrible auditions – in one, I was asked to play an abused stuttering slave who turned out to be a werewolf and is treated like crap and beaten by the other white characters for the majority of the piece. I felt sick to my stomach reading the script and ultimately I couldn’t go through with the audition. Another time I was a hapless victim whose death had no effect or consequence in the story. My death or the black characters’ deaths served as a joke… ‘cause the black guy always dies… funny right?

Needless to say, I didn’t find it funny. I was disturbed by the ‘Laughter at the…’ trope of the black guy always dying. There’s no remorse or recognition of the loss of a human being. Why would there be? We expect it and are desensitized to it in both our fictional and real world. I’m writing a script in which I attempted to deal with that because that’s what artists do, right? No matter what color their skin is.

In general, people get lethargic and apathetic when they get too comfortable. Horror films aren’t made to make you feel comfortable. That’s why they are such a high form of art. They shake you up and place your most primal fears in front of you and make you deal with them. And when they end, they send you home dwelling on and dreaming about your fears and shortcomings. I believe horror films make us better. Along with living in these times comes a feeling of just how badly they’re needed in the black community.

I know for those who come to this site, I’m preaching to the choir. Thank you for taking time outta your day and reading my piece. I also know you’re already aware of the many amazing black women killing it …literally… in black horror. The fact that this site exists and is putting them forward is truly a benefit for us all.  Filmmakers like Reagan Gomez, Tananarive Due, R. Shanea Williams and their collective projects inspire the hell out of me and I look forward to the day their names and projects become as celebrated as the names Hitchcock, Craven, Raimi and Romero. And not to be too modest, but it would be cool if people dug my stuff too. I know the only way any of that will happen is through support through the trial and error. That’s where the risks are taken, that’s where the gold is. 

More About Tarik’s Past/Present/Future Work

Welcome to my Parlor 2, Tarik is currently writing and producing a full-length feature, Victim #1. Welcome to my Parlor 2 features the main character of V#1, Abel Worthy, as the delivery boy. #WhoIsAbelWorthy

Up, Uppity and Away, a web comic that stars Agent Ace, a Tuskegee Airman who can fly (without a plane).

Brothers From Another Planet on Marz Daily Media Podcasts, Don P. Hooper, LeMar McClean and Tarik Davis have a regular podcast where they discuss everything from entertainment, politics / current events and race in America. It's often irreverent, funny, and fast paced.

Tokens, A live-action cartoon following three lifelong, and not particularly extraordinary, gamers. Their daily get-togethers however, are never really about the game. Punctuated by dark and outré humor, therapeutic gripe sessions become the only solace living in New York City. 

Crispus Attucks Troll Hunter, Online gaming + trolls + trolling +Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

[1] Recently I spoke to award winning writer, director of the short film If I Were a Bell and teacher at SVA, Sharese Robinson, about the infamous Deadline article and the success of shows like Empire, Scandal, How to get Away with Murder and now that it’s been picked up for a 3rd season I’ll happily place Sleepy Hollow in the same group. These shows reinforce the value of making art for black people, not simply about black people, and also demonstrate that a white audience is not necessarily alienated along the way. The internet is a blaze with conversations about the overwhelming blackness of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s another artistic endeavor that wasn’t created for the White GAZE. Lamar, Rhimes and Daniels are telling the stories they want to tell without compromise or explanation. And now it’s their work taking the world by storm.

[2] I had two interesting conversations on Twitter this week one about the movie Blade and how its existence is directly responsible for the current superhero renaissance going on right now. And the second was about how underappreciated the film Meteor Man was, and still is. A very sweet and heartfelt Twitter posting from Robert Townsend’s daughter Skye Townsend thanked him for putting those images out there and it got me thinking about how we need films like Blacula and Meteor Man because 1) they’re awesome in their own right and 2) they lead to films like Blade…which will hopefully lead to an amazing Black Panther film.

[3] Slavery, Inspiring Black Bio-pic, Church films, Slavery, Romantic Comedies and…wait how’d a second “slavery” get in there? Damn you slavery! Damn you! (Shakes fist at slavery).

Tarik Davis has a long history performing and writing comedy. He strives to cross-pollinate performance styles and audiences in all his work. Past experience includes performing for The Upright Citizens Brigade in NY, Boom Chicago in Amsterdam and The Second City in Chicago. Now based in NYC, Tarik currently teaches improv to children & adults. He writes and self-produces his own video projects, appears in commercial spots, and occasionally doodles. He can currently be seen on the hit BRIC TV web series Brooklynification and on recent sketches on Late Night with Seth Meyers (@tarikrdavis)

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