Jordan Peele’s gripping debut Get Out forced audiences to consider the relationship between Black viewers and horror films. While Peele’s biting commentary on the Black experience in America was hugely successful both critically and commercially, the fears and anxieties of African Americans have been severely underrepresented by the genre throughout its history. Still, horror cinema has provided a handful of strong, multidimensional Black characters over the years. Here are a few of them:
SIMON PETER & TABA (The Vampire’s Ghost, 1945): A pair of Black villagers who determine a white nightclub owner called Webb Fallon is a bloodsucker responsible for a series of recent murders. Together they drive a stake through Fallon’s chest forcing him to retreat. They work alongside the white characters in the movie to capture and kill the creature of the night.
In an allusion to slavery, Fallon charms a white friend named Roy, ridding him of his individuality. Roy comprehends the horrors around him but is suppressed by a feeling of inferiority. White characters are easily deceived by Fallon and rely on Black natives for survival. When Fallon comes under the knife, his eyes protrude from his head like a classic coon character.
BEN (Duane Jones / Night of the Living Dead, 1968): One of many people trapped by a mass of flesh-eating monsters in a Pennsylvania farm house at the onset of a zombie apocalypse.
Ben is courageous and self-assured: all the qualities you’d want in a leader. All but one in the house are inspired to follow him. Harry (Karl Hardman), a middle-class white man, undermines Ben at every turn. Toward the end of the film, as the undead push through the boarded up doors and windows, Harry turns a gun on Ben. After a brief struggle, Harry is shot and killed. The scene captures the horror of racial intolerance. Even during a time of widespread disaster, bigotry rears its head. Ben is shot and killed by an angry mob in the final moments of the picture. After investing ninety-plus minutes in the character, he is ripped away in a radical moment of visual shock.
PETER (Ken Foree / Dawn of the Dead, 1978): SWAT team member who seeks refuge from ravenous zombies in a desolate shopping mall alongside a fellow officer and a pair of television personalities.
Like the black protagonist in Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead’s Peter endures the chaos only to come under attack by a mob of fractious, white humans. Unlike Ben though, Peter lives through to the end credits. He takes to the sky in a helicopter along with a pregnant, white woman.
CHILDS (Keith David / The Thing, 1982): A mechanic assigned to an American research station in Antarctica, who comes under attack at the robust jowls and sturdy claws of a shape-shifting alien.
Race barriers diminish as black and white characters join together in the fight to survive the foreign being. Paranoia sets in as the creature begins assuming the appearance of his victims. Tension builds to an unbearable height until all that is left is a white helicopter pilot (Kurt Russell) and Childs, huddled together as the frigid elements close in around them. As the Blaxploitation movement reached an end and the black experience again took a back seat to white horror, Childs emerged as a tough and noble figure.
FOOL (Brandon Quintin Adams / The People Under the Stairs, 1991): A young boy who breaks into the home of his excessively rich and extremely racist landlords to save his family from eviction. Fool is nearly caught but escapes into the walls of the labyrinthine house where he discovers other children are being held captive. He succeeds in freeing the imprisoned teens while exacting punishment on the twisted proprietors on behalf of their mistreated tenants.
The People Under the Stairs is a darkly humorous urban fairy tale about the evils of greed and bigotry. The home’s maze of corridors drenched in shadow and dust echo the turmoil of Fool’s inner city neighbors whose well-being is restricted by a biased system. Despite its politically-charged themes, its campy performances, effective scares and loose camera work make for a pleasantly entertaining romp.
JERYLINE (Jada Pinkett Smith / Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight, 1995): A convict on work release chosen to defend humanity against the forces of evil. Jeryline utilizes a holy artifact to ward off a malevolent demon known as The Collector.
Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight is a bloody good time thanks to Ernest Dickerson’s gross-out visuals and gooey creativity. Black pride was in full display in 90s horror. Demon Knight is especially notable for its having a hero that is not only black but also female. The film’s New Mexico hotel setting is a refreshing departure from the urban environments that dominated black horror during the time.
WILLIAM SOMERSET (Se7en, 1995) : A veteran detective who partners with a rookie cop to track down a serial murderer who is obsessed with the seven deadly sins. Though his years of service are nearing an end, his wisdom and meticulous nature make him the perfect foil to the cunning and manipulative killer.
The procedural look and feel of Se7en is familiar if not downright banal, but the struggle between the moral excellence of Somerset and haunting depictions of evil are so cathartic as to make Se7en one of the most preeminent films in the genre. Somerset’s cynicism toward his fellow man seems particularly poignant today amid attempts to mend racial disparity across the country.
MOSES (John Boyega / Attack the Block, 2011): An inner city kid who teams up with a cynical white woman named Sam to battle ferocious aliens who are threatening their neighborhood. Moses eradicates one ravenous beast with a Samurai sword, another with a pack of fireworks. Moses and his friends are implicated in the mayhem around the block and taken into legal custody. Before the police cruiser can cart them off to jail however, Sam informs the officers of their true actions.
Attack the Block conjures memories of early Spielberg, though it has a much more bitter flavor. It is a high-paced thrill ride that imbues its blood-tinged narrative with incisive social commentary. Director Joe Cornish uses the razor sharp teeth and piercing claws of his monsters to attack ethnic divides in modern society.
MELANIE (Sennia Nanua / The Girl With All the Gifts, 2016): One of many victims of a mysterious fungal disease that has transformed human beings into flesh-craving zombies. Mankind’s only hope of survival is tied to Melanie and other hybrid children like her, whose conscious minds are intact despite their desire for human flesh. Melanie determines she should not be treated unfavorably because of her condition. She releases an abundance of germ cells on the world, eliminating inequality and leveling the playing field.
A sweet, engaging zombie yarn presented as an allegory for racial and sexual inequality, The Girl with All the Gifts provides a fresh take on a genre that often seems as lifeless as its flesh-eating automatons. It’s effective as both a paint-the-walls red splatter fest and a thoughtful commentary on the value of difference.
JENNIFER REMMING (Kiersey Clemons / Sweetheart, 2019): A young woman who is marooned on a small, tropical island ruled over by a deadly, nocturnal creature. She is relieved to see a pair of white coeds she had been traveling with wash ashore, however their reluctance to accept her fantastic story makes surviving that much more difficult.
Sweetheart gets the most out of its simple premise, leaning on a stylish design and a steady dose of political messaging to deliver a potent monster flick. Jennifer’s ability to navigate the island and stave off the malevolent beast is a celebration of human strength and fortitude. The mistreatment she suffers at the hands of her friends is a reminder of the social disparity in America. Even on a desert island, Jennifer is a minority.