"I seen this movie, the Black dude dies first." -Orlando Jones as Harry in Evolution (2001)
I'm a bit sour to the notion that Black characters (always) die first as the issue skitters the line of accuracy. I've always watched horror movies a bit removed from this concept, consistently watching films that more or less taint this formula. If Black people don't die first, they perish later. My biggest gripe is the fact that Black characters are more times than not woefully underdeveloped, simplified tropes that, if and when they do die, are plants often for the white, central character we are to invest emotionally in. With the television series Fear The Walking Dead being the latest demonstration of Black and first fallen, I began thinking more about why this idea continues to prevail. Within film history in particular, does it have an origin?
With much speculation, there is no firm time stamp on when or how this inescapable sentiment arose. But noted is 1968's Spider Baby, Or the Maddest Story Ever Told where Mantan Moreland died in the opening scene, marking "the literal death of the outdated black 'spook' stereotype in horror movies, and it christened a new, more modern stereotype: the black victim". The reverse in Night Of The Living Dead (1968) where the Black male lead dies last, "not only reflected a sense of hopelessness about the modern landscape of the late 1960's, but also launching a legacy of despair about the fate of black characters, even those in starring roles."
The 70s and 80s demonstrate a difficulty in pinpointing any sort of trend except for the fact that the presence and significance of Black characters in horror were minimal at best, regardless of their mortality. Overall, many Black characters die and die first, some do not. Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) is the first casualty in A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) and Childs (Keith David) is breathing alongside Kurt Russell in the infamously ambiguous end of The Thing (1982). It's a hodge podge of examples from both ends of the spectrum. Black death in horror films is and has been much more complex than what's been reduced to a punchline. There's a firm case for multiple perspectives on the topic.
More often than not, Black characters in horror films who are at least alive for the wealth of the movie become a number in the body count much later. From Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) where Marsha Hunt's Gaynor is there to strengthen Dracula (Christopher Lee) to Annabelle's (2014) Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) convinced she only exists to sacrifice herself for Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and her family, the insult to injury is in the context of Black death.
Lost is a sense that these characters have a story worth telling. Rarely are characters of color given central roles. Lost is the opportunity to integrate these Black characters as rich and autonomous, not dependent upon the arc of the main white players. Unfortunately, the historic trajectory of Black death in horror/sci-fi (more than any other genres) can and does lead to conclusions that contest, "horror is no genre for black people". That's a statement I refuse to accept.
Is there a trend of Black characters being dispensable? Absolutely. I believe we can look to present and future Black survivors and heroes with a hope to see them flourish and multiply within the genre landscape without forgetting our current addresses of Black death used in a relentless fashion to shine a mirror on the irrational fear and anxiety over the Black boogeyman/Other. Our heroes are few and victims many. It's important we keep demanding why while creating our very real and complex survivors.
*Additional information provided by Matt Barone's Complex magazine's feature on the subject. Also:
"The Black Death" from Blackhorrormovies.com
"The Black Guy Always Dies First (except when he doesn't)" from Blair Hoyle at cinemaslasher.com
"FEAR THE WALKING DEAD? No, More Like F**K THE WALKING DEAD!" by David Walker