Four influential horror films that address the nature of race relations in America

hese horror films can provide some insight about issues regarding race.

With Halloween just around the corner, more people than usual are tuning into horror movies. While the genre consists of many Halloween favorites, horror movies have a complicated history with the Black community.

More attention has been drawn to the intersection of race and the horror genre in recent years. “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror,” a 2019 documentary based on a book by Robin Means Coleman, dives into the history of Black Americans in horror films.

In an article for The Conversation, Coleman wrote that Black actors often appeared as objects of violence and ridicule in past horror films. Viewers may also be familiar with the trope of the Black character being the first to die in older horror movies.

Amir George, filmmaker and programmer at True/False Film Fest, said that to end these harmful tropes, more filmmakers who are Black, indigenous and people of color need the power to make films in which they feel properly represented.

While the horror genre has exploited Black actors and silenced Black filmmakers, Christian Rozier, an assistant professor in the School of Visual Studies at MU, says that we are currently in a renaissance of horror films that intersect with race.

“At this moment in 2020, the conventions of the horror genre might be the most appropriate story structure for grappling with where we are right now in terms of race relations in this country today,” Rozier said.

While films like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us” have helped horror be more inclusive, there are many movies that paved the way for Peele and other Black directors.

For readers looking to view some influential horror films that provide insight on race relations this Halloween, Rozier and George offer a few recommendations.

“Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

This horror classic follows a group of individuals trying to survive the night in a farmhouse as zombies terrorize the town. Although this film doesn’t explicitly address race and is from a white director, Rozier believes that the casting of Duane Jones, a Black man, to play the hero of the film had major implications for its time.

Rozier said it was the first time he saw what is called a “hero shot,” a shot where the camera is low and showcases the subject as a gallant, heroic figure, used for a Black man.

The film ends with Ben, Jones’ character, exiting the farmhouse after surviving the night, only to be shot by a white policeman who mistakes him for a zombie.

“That film on the surface is just a simple zombie thriller, but it is a wrenching parable about the terrifying experience of being Black in the American South,” Rozier said.

“Tales from the Hood” (1995)

Both Rozier and George cite “Tales from the Hood” as a notable piece of work that addresses the intersection of race and horror stories.

The film follows the journey of three teenagers who arrive at a funeral home to purchase drugs from its eccentric owner. The owner takes the teenagers through the mortuary and tells four stories, each relating to a dead body in the funeral home. Each story examines different issues faced by Black Americans.

George recalls a scene from one of the stories where a racist white politician moved his office to a house located on a former plantation. The politician proceeds to be attacked by dolls that are possessed by the spirits of former slaves.

“It has served as an inspiration for a lot of the more recent examples of race on screen that we've seen in the past few years,” Rozier said.

“Ganja & Hess” (1973)

This film follows the story of a Black anthropologist, Dr. Hess Green, who is stabbed by his assistant with a ceremonial dagger of an ancient African tribe and becomes a vampire. “Ganja & Hess” is known for its experimental nature and its use of vampirism as an allegory for addiction.

Bill Gunn, a Black filmmaker, wrote and directed the film and was expected to make a typical vampire flick.

“Gunn was hired to make a blood-saturated exploitation movie; instead he offered up a slow, meditative, and dreamlike exploration of addiction and identity,” film critic Nathan Rabin wrote in an article for the A.V. Club.

At the time of release, the film was harshly reviewed by American critics and re-cut by its producers to satisfy its original narrative.

“This movie could have changed the scope of how we see Black people in horror movies, but American critics chose to disregard it and shun it so it could not have its proper success at the time that it came out,” George said.

For George, “Ganja & Hess” is the most significant movie about race in relation to horror films and has been influential to many Black filmmakers in the genre. The film has slowly gained recognition as a cult classic and has even seen a remake from famed director Spike Lee.

“Candyman” (1992)

This film, based on a short story by Clive Barker, is about a graduate student who is completing research on urban legends and folklore. One of these urban legends is the Candyman, a ghost who was the son of a former slave and was lynched for his relationship with a white woman. The Candyman’s ashes were spread on land that would later become the projects of downtown Chicago.

While the original film is not by a Black director, Rozier said the film still addresses important themes such as urban displacement and the long-term effects of slavery.

“It's an incredibly complex allegory about how inextricably linked white exploitation and Black pain are with each other both in the past and in the immediate present,” Rozier said. “It overlays all that stuff with the complexities of urban planning, policies around redlining and segregation of cities.”

A remake of “Candyman” is set to be released in 2021, this time with a Black female director, Nia DaCosta, as well as production and screenplay from Peele and a few others.

For readers looking to watch a few horror flicks this Halloween, it might be worth the time to indulge in a story that tackles race and is inclusive of the Black experience.

Edited by Sophie Stephens | sstephens@themaneater.com

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