Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Presentations: Black Women in Horror Films from the 1930's-Present

Last November, I had the pleasure of presenting a historical overview of Black women in horror film history at the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association conference. These regional divison gatherings display a massive range of scholarship in just about every corner of Liberal Arts/interdisciplinary studies with enthusiatic participants from fresh-faced undergrads to former grad students-turned-independent scholars like myself to long tenured, PhD holders.

Simply, you spend two or three days in a hotel lobby talking, listening, arguing, asking questions about the producer-distributor-conglomerate connection between the hesitancy of complex, non-white, straight characters in your favorite television and film texts and other wide-ranging topics. Needless to say, the program is always pretty lengthy.

Below is an overview as a guide for my topic that I presented and hope to improve upon for future use.

Graveyard Shift Sisters: Black Women in Horror Films from the 1930's-Present

Abstract: African American women who have appeared in what are arguably films that fall under the horror genre are generally overlooked and grossly ignored due commonly to their status as subservient or supportive characters to white protagonists. Although this can be said for almost all film genres, African American women found in this space and the characters they embody are heavily representative of, at times, racial and sexualized concepts inequitable insignificance and evil. 

However, these earlier depictions are overthrown in an extremely complex manner in the 1970’s onward that dare to celebrate the varying aspects of humanity through these bodies. From the 1930’s to present day, despite the troublesome sociocultural climate in regards to race and gender, Black women in horror have been representative of resistance and protest in relation to racist and sexist systems used to suppress their voices and agency. 

Here, I will provide an overview of the historical foundation of African American female characters in the horror genre beginning in the 1930’s and map their trajectory in the most significant and frequent appearances in the horror genre including their heavy presence in 1970’s Blaxploitation horror all the way up to the present day. This approach will also juxtapose these appearances with important products and social policies that work together to produce a consistent narrative about Black women during these specific time periods.

Slide 1: Introduction

Why I started Graveyard Shift Sisters: 

Slide 2: Fear Of A Black Boogeyman

Establishing evil depictions of Blacks in American cinema that horror would only exacerbate with its heavy focus on the fear of the Other.

Post-slavery, the reconstruction period, Separate But Equal, white anxiety and fear over Black retaliation in response to the treatment while enslaved, etc.

First portrayal of Blacks in American cinema.

Played by white actors in blackface – played for laughs as a “coon”.

Foundationally depicted as odd, deviant, primitive, savage, deadly.

Birth Of A Nation (1915) creation of the character of Gus (left) as a savage who chases a white woman he pursues for marriage who ultimately throws herself from a cliff deemed a “rape” scene.

“Fright-films” - fright-films with actual African Americans were commonly horror-comedies that depicted Blacks as bumbling fools for white audiences.

Oscar Michaeux (right) - headlined a responsive Black film renaissance.
Known more for his intent with Black cinema (portraying Blacks as multi-dimensional and rich with the ability of carrying a film with dignity) than for what could be considered his horror films.

Started Micheaux Book And Film Company in 1919.

In response to Birth Of A Nation, many Black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux made dramatic fright-films like A Son Of Satan (1924), The Devil’s Disciple (1925), The Conjure Woman (1926).

Dealt with themes such as hoodoo, hauntings, and morality tales that both centered the troubles and triumphs of Black people within their own communities and resistance against racist Whites.

Slide 3: The 1930's

Arguably when the horror film genre was established as a film genre.

With the Great Depression, many Black filmmakers already struggling financially lost their production companies and much of their work was taken over by white film producers who re-packaged their work to suit white audiences. Think: happily subservient Black characters.

Lustful Black Womanhood - Black women’s sexualized bodies from western perceptions was used heavily in these “out of Africa” horror films where white explorers rescue these women from their abhorrent rituals.

Ingagi (1930)
Black women were mating with gorillas, the white main characters rescues a woman from this practice.

Maintenance of white racial superiority.

Voodoo horror - perceived to be innate to the practices of all Black people with use of witchcraft, snakes, dances, fire, drumming, human sacrifice, blood worship, and of course zombies. Many films are centered around Haiti or a far off land – the underlying themes being fear of integration (white characters taking on voodoo practices which turn them evil)

Roles were written for Black women as the “half-naked voodoo witch” or “fully clothed Voodoo practicing maid” with variations all embedded with the idea that Black women use voodoo as retaliation against whites (Chloe, Love Is Calling You center, bottom) and manipulation (The Love Wanga top, right). This particular trope lasted well into the 1940’s in films such as King Of The Zombies (1941) with Madame Sul-Te-Wan (pictured in Black Moon top, left)

Because these films centered the white woman as the character in peril, in turn, the depiction of Black women were the antithesis of sexual and racial purity.

Slide 4: The 1940’s

In the 1940’s, Spencer Williams, a Black filmmaker took to task some of these vile depictions of Black men and women in these horror films by producing his own.

Williams wrote and had a role in Son Of Ingagi (1940) – a successful Black woman scientist studies a gorilla/human hybrid referenced in 1930's Ingagi who is attacked and murdered by it. A young married couple living with the scientist must stop the creature from causing more rampage.
Dr. Helen Jackson (played by Laura Bowman, right) plays the scientist in rare form ever seen on film before. A no-nonsense, vulnerable, smart, generous individual; a complete re-invention of Black women in horror as an autonomous character.

Slide 5: The 1950’s-60’s

What do you think of when you think about 1950's America?

(White) Conformity/Invisibility

African Americans were mostly absent from horror/sci-fi films of this time.

They were replaced with giant monsters who were arguably used as metaphors for the anxiety and fear of miscegenation and interracial interactions.

Eulabelle Moore (top)

Eulabelle Moore, who plays a woman named Eulabelle in The Horror of Party Beach (1964) was "one of the few significant black characters to be found in horror movies of the era". In Party Beach, basically a film about radioactive sea creatures terrorizing a beach community, Eulabelle is a caricature who rambles, bumbles, gives white protagonists uplifting speeches and in turn, ideas that drive the action of the story which makes the white guys the heroes.

The Leech Woman (1960)

The Leech Woman is especially rare and unique for its time because of its casting of a Black woman in a central role. Estelle Hemsley (bottom, left) played Malla, a 152 year old former slave who negotiates with a white male scientist for her secret to slowing the age process in exchange to be sent back to her regional African homeland. Kim Hamilton (bottom, right) also starred as a younger Malla when the secret to reversing age is used.

While essentially making a Black woman an agent in her own story, she’s still reduced to someone magical and tribal who is only important because of what she can offer the main white characters.

Slide 6: Blaxploitation Horror

What is Blaxploitation horror?

From the essay, Blaxploitation horror films: Generic reappropriation or reinscription? by Harry Benshoff, Blaxploitation horror is 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. Blaxploitation horror signifies a historically specific subgenre that potentially explores (rather than simply exploits) race and race consciousness as core structuring principles.

Tying into the Black-oriented sociopolitical movements of late 1960s/early 1970s, many blaxploitation horror films reappropriated the mainstream cinema's monstrous figures for black goals, turning vampires (Blacula bottom, left), Frankenstein monsters (Blackenstein top, left), and transformation monsters (Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde bottom, right) into agents of black pride and black power.

Most blaxploitation horror films attempted to advance the race by promoting the strong black male avenger; even if monstrous, he was romanticized and celebrated. Female monsters were more regularly deemed truly monstrous because of their wanton sexuality (Abby) or were contained within patriarchal parameters through both plot and cinematographic objectification (Sugar Hill).
Most conversations and readings about Blaxploitation horror or, Blacks in horror films begins with the men, but there is an extremely strong and layered case for the exciting and significant roles Black women had in the sub-genre.

Slide 7: Enduring Women

Dr. Robin Means Coleman, author of Horror Noire: Blacks In American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, describes notable Black women in 70s horror cinema as "Enduring Women", a final girl of sorts that preceded Carol Clover’s.

These characters ranged in simultaneous qualities as villians, anti-heroes, and heroines. They were representative of resistance and protest; became agents in fighting their realistic evils.

Multi-dimensional in character - autonomously sexual and sexualized, ornery, sweet, lovable, vengeful, tough, vulnerable, benevolent…
Battle monsters - White criminals who threaten to destroy black owned businesses, commonly monsters or monstrosity are an allegory for white supremacy (a trope used in Blacula, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, and Ganja & Hess)
A survivor - is her own savior but additionally holds the ability to save others (Scream Blacula Scream)

The most exciting time for Black women in horror films.

*Pictures in order from top -to- right -to- bottom:

Carol Speed, Abby
Marlene Clark, Ganja & Hess
Pam Grier, Scream Blacula Scream
Vonetta McGee, Blacula
Marki Bey, Sugar HillLinda Monte, Dr. Black Mr. Hyde

Slide 8: The 1980’s

Horror was big business: slasher films, VHS, franchises, etc.

In general, Black people in horror films were non-existent but when on screen, usually fell under two categories:

Tokenism – commonly found in slashers as the Black friend that blends in with the group and is almost always a victim early on. (Sheila in A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master left)

Regression – a return to Black female characters in horror that are deemed inherently evil, deviant, and spiritual guides/voodoo mystics for the white protagonist (Grace Jones in Vamp [far right] and Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart [right])

Slide 9: The 1990’s

Black participation centered around a revival of religious/morality and politically themed horror (Def By Temptation, Tales From The Hood), low-budget home video productions, and big budget appearances (Vampire In Brooklyn, Blade, Spawn, Candyman).

These films mostly focused on men. However, Black women during this decade made an impact under two umbrella types of genre fare:

The Southern Gothic – stories that take place in the American south that are rooted in the regions history. Deals with folklore, oral history, and suspense. Characters are riddled with a mental or physical challenges that are a detriment to their spirits. Themes are commonly morality, innocence, all linked to the supernatural. Most critical, known for placing women in prominent positions and treat them as characters with a range of depth.

Beloved (top left), Eve’s Bayou (center), Spirit Lost (bottom left) – films all written and/or directed by other women of color.

Teen Tokenism Sequel – Continuing from the 1980's and with the success of Scream, teen horror had its run of ‘Black girl best friends’ to white female protagonists. They’re commonly not fully developed and always regulated to savior sidekicks. (Scream 2 [bottom right], I Still Know What You Did Last Summer [top right], Urban Legend, The Craft [center])

The Craft was kind of an exception as an ensemble film with 4 girls getting equal time to have a story. But still, there was the main character with the biggest arc and the most well rounded story.

My personal favorite from the decade and the biggest exception was Jada Pinkett as Jeryline in Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight as the ultimate final girl.

Slide 10: The 2000’s

Hip-Hop Horror (left) – horror films almost exclusively set in big cities with predominantly Black and Latino casts that are re-interpretations of old tales of vampires, wolves, vengeful ghosts, demons, witches, and so forth.

Commonly casts well known and obscure hip hop artists as stars or aspiring actors who play hip hop artists in the films.

Direct-to-video, targeted at youth (Vampyaz, Cryptz, Bloodz vs. Wolvez).

Women were secondary to men in these films mostly.

Minimal Depictions - the same can be said for more mainstream films as this time is rendered even more difficult to find central roles filled by Black women in the horror genre.

Sanaa Lathan – Alien vs. Predator (right)

Halle Berry - Gothika (far right)

Slide 11: Present

Black Women Horror Filmmakers Are The Future

They are creating new stories from the perspectives of Black women, mindful that representation does matter, are horror fans, exploring issues that disproportionately effect Black women (hair, etc.) as well as psychological horror, the Black queer community, and unfraid to utilize themes and tropes from their favorite, most influential horror films.

7 Magpies, created by veteran filmmaker L.C. Cruell will be the first all black women written and directed horror anthology that’s currently in the story development phase with notable names attached such as Rae Dawn Chong and Tananarive Due!
Blogger Template Created by pipdig