Black Horror is Killing It

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate, I’m your host, Jason Johnson. For years, movie lovers knew exactly what was going to happen to the black character in a horror film. They were either going to die first, die in some terrible way or sacrifice their lives so that the white people could survive. But now, African-American characters and artists are flipping the script by writing the scripts and thriving in the world of horror.

S2: Obviously, we are so blessed to have a Jordan Peele who is such a great artist who happens to be one of our own. He’s black and he’s horror. I mean, how lucky are we, right? So as long as Jordan Peele is making films, black horror will be a conversation.

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S1: The Black Horror Renaissance coming up on a word with me. Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Much of U.S. history has been a horror show for black people, but the black voice has just recently become a major force in the horror genre and literature. Movies and television audiences have embraced black horror stories like Lovecraft Country, Candyman, Them, Jordan Peele’s Get Out. One of the writers documenting and leading the Black Horror Renaissance is Tananarive Due. She’s an award winning author of horror and science fiction and a professor teaching black horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA. Do is also an executive producer of Shudder’s groundbreaking documentary Horror Noire A History of Black Horror. It shows that this new horror revolution has been decades in the making. Here’s a clip of Tananarive Due talking about the historic 1972 horror movie Black L.A.

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S2: The movie opens with with him, with his, with his queen trying to argue with Count Dracula to end the transatlantic slave trade to totally cease the slave trade. When is the last time black audiences had seen themselves expressed visually in the seventeen hundreds as erudite and intelligent and holding court and trying to discuss world affairs?

S1: And Professor Tananarive Due joins us now. Welcome to a word.

S2: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

S1: All right, so I want to start with this because, OK, it’s the generic question, which is how you define black horror from horror that just happens to have black people in it. Because, like, you know, horror films are their own kind of particular genre, and some people don’t know that definition. How so? How do you make that definition? What’s what is a black horror film and what is a horror film that just happens to have lots of black people in it?

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S2: I love this question because people do get confused. And in fact, in her book Horror Noire, Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman has two categories Black Horror and Blacks in horror. And I’ll just use Candyman as an example. The original Candyman Bernard Rose, starring the great Tony Todd through a white gaze, a white woman story. Many of the black characters are simply props and the story that is blacks in horror, right? It’s not particularly intended for a black audience, although black audiences are terrified. And then the remake of Candyman is black horror. It’s black horror through a black lens, not just because it has a black director and Nia the Costa, but it’s through a black lens and it has a black sensibility. And I think it’s the sensibility thing that is really, really important. Like Jonathan Demme, the late, great Jonathan Demme, who directed Silence of the Lambs, also directed beloved, the adaptation by Toni Morrison that is black horror. It’s a black story with a black protagonist. Oprah stars in it. It’s, you know, about the intergenerational trauma of slavery recently. Enslaved people, that’s black horror, even though it has a white director. And then I hate to name names because like I always say, I’m trying to work in this business. But there was there was a recent film continuing a franchise where a black actor became the lead character. And ordinarily, I might consider that black horror. It has a black lead, but it did not have a black sensibility. It’s set in the world of policing. There is no mention at all of racism in policing, and the final image is a black man being very, you know, almost sporadically shot by police.

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S1: OK. I am trying to figure out this movie now because now I know you’re trying to work. We all try to get paid, but I’m like, OK, what movie is she talking about?

S2: The latest movie would be a good example of it doesn’t feel like black horror, even though it had a black lead. It didn’t feel like black horror because it wasn’t like I just thought, like, why are we not talking about sort of the obvious when it comes to the policing issue? Why are we ending the movie with such a traumatic image of a black man being shot by police? It’s sort of like the the pinnacle of the film. It’s like, Yeah, this doesn’t feel like black horror.

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S1: How do you as a horror writer, producer, director, somebody who teaches us, how do you teach people to sort of consume horror and find ways that black people can be in different positions, right? Because a lot of times in these movies were either like the sacrificial Negro? Right. There’s a whole joke about that. I think in the second Scream movie or the magical Negro that shows up in The Shining, and it’s supposed to save the day for the white person. Like, how do you, when you teach classes, teach people that there are greater roles for black people to take? Because for some folks, those are great roles. I think for a more critical consumer like me that turns me off from a lot of the genre.

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S2: Jason I am on a mission. I am on a mission to teach my students to recognize. These tropes, any up and coming filmmaker I can just sort of grab by the collar and say, please, please, please don’t do these tropes. The first thing I want to say is I do not blame the actors. And number one, everybody’s trying to work. And often it’s difficult to tell at the script stage exactly how much of a trope your role is. You know, went to one of the things that Rachel True talks about. She was in the craft talks about in the documentary horror noire is how so much of her career was just asking white teenage girls if they’re OK, right? She is. Are you OK? Are you OK? Are you OK? You know, and it’s just it is so true. But she had to work OK. She had to eat. That was all that was available. And the same is true in a contemporary setting. But yes, these tropes, I think, are very harmful. I think they diminish our humanity. In fact, leeches of humanity, because it’s sort of a cardboard cutout character as opposed to the other characters, the white characters who are real. And we’re often used just to raise the stakes for the white characters, right? And you would think post get out. There have been a lot of conversations about black horror. A lot more awareness, a lot more projects. But what I find, interestingly, is that with the push for more inclusivity in the wake of Black Lives Matter in 2020 and the murder of George Floyd, when everyone’s sort of rushing to add marginalize actors to their stories, I see it kind of creeping backward again because these filmmakers who who are at the table and a lot of us as marginalized creators are not at the table. So make no mistake, these decisions are being made by white executives, white screenwriters trying to figure out how to black it up a little bit in their scripts. And it creates problems. They’re starting to lean back on those old tropes. Again, the really good example of that is Bird Box Lou Rao’s character, who was in get out like, you know, get out like way woke horror. All about what racism as the monster huge character Little Rel plays in that movie. But then in Bird Box, he basically sacrifices himself to save people for no reason.

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S3: He got religion. Mythology is full of mentions of demons or spirit creatures that takes on the form of you or fears or your deepest sadness or your greatest loss. Nanites, religious nuts, real talk of sex when they come in all different forms ready to serve God from ancient Christian occult beliefs that mean pregnant women and an unborn children as other creatures such as lobsters or spiders who like gene from China. You got the puka from Celtic mythology. All different names, but the same thing also.

S2: And of us, that would be one thing if he had like a family and he was trying to save his son, but he didn’t even want to go on the excursion.

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S1: Then I will add to that and I’m glad you mentioned that the sort of sacrificial black person, because I’m very curious as your perspective on this. I used to watch and I think this is sort of helped mainstream horror. It’s been 10 years now. I used to watch The Walking Dead. I got tired of it, in part for the reasons that you’re mentioning. All the black male characters were immediately within a season, were emasculated and died, sacrificing themselves for white women or for white people, or for white people to fall in love. And the few black women who were left seemed completely detached from any sort of self-reflection or introspection. They were basically left there to be part of a multicultural harum for the white leads. I understand people have to work, but I also am curious as to how and why you think those limited roles exist because I mean it, Tyreece and T-Dog and all these and you just kill them.

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S2: Yeah, I, you know, I really feel that a lot of the creators are very well-meaning, you know, and the desire to be inclusive is sincere. But this is where I think it’s really, really important to have that inclusivity, not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera. And that and by and specifically the writers room, because that’s where the impact begins. And sometimes I’m not singling out The Walking Dead, but sometimes I am.

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S1: So we’re good.

S2: Sometimes when a creator who is not black creates a character who is black, there’s already the idea of a trope. Or they wouldn’t have thought of the character as being black in the first place. You see what I’m saying? Yeah. Like, Oh yeah, I need somebody who’s sassy. Oh, her friend, you know, it’s an equal or whatever. Usually that isn’t equal, but my point is you’re coming in with sort of a preconceived notion of what blackness looks like filtered through your experiences as a non-black person and consumer of television and films where you’ve been watching these tropes over and over again. So that kind of just feels like what’s supposed to be. Well, of course, you’re supposed to have a voodoo character who knows the answer to the curse or a Native American character who knows the to curse. I mean, how many movies have you seen where the only reason you have the Native American? That’s an even worse example because they really don’t exist unless they’re meant to be a spiritual guide or a sacrifice of some kind or the other, the mysterious other. So I think if you’re a white creator, you have to really interrogate your reasons for why you’re even envisioning this character as a person of color and then ask yourself like a simple checklist what’s their home life? Are they a character in isolation? Which is, you know, what was started to happen to Nicole Beharie of Sleepy Hollow? Not in the beginning. It’s not a great start of great. And then over time, well, play taps on the trumpet. The show just disintegrated, I think, in part because the network wasn’t ready for a black horror series. It was doing everything they could not to make it a black horror series. And so Nicole Beharie finally left. So are they in isolation? Do they have a family life? Are they three dimensional when compared to Doc is a perfect example from The Walking Dead. I won’t talk about that because that’s like a million years ago. Bless everybody. But he wasn’t as strong an actor as the other, and he didn’t even have a real name, but he wasn’t as strong an actor. It really felt to a lot of people that he was supposed to stand in for Tyrese, who was a really towering and powerful character in the comics. But when the show first started, all they got was T-Dog. And, you know, my husband and co-writer Steven Barnes, and I would joke about how when T dog finally died, everyone would sit around talking about the things he did, which we never saw him do right?

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S1: You remember that time, T-Dog make breakfast? Yeah, that’s great. It was like,

S2: What was it like this whole life? Yes, they were like, Oh yeah, that sounds like a great guy. We should be going to see some of that. Sometimes T-Dog didn’t even get invited to the big meetings, you know, but he would show up. So that’s just it’s really I mean, I hate to use the word, it’s laziness. I want him to go so far as to call it racism. Although a lot of racism is unconscious, and I think the reason it happens is that people do not have enough inclusivity in their own personal lives. They don’t have a black friend. They can show a script to and say, Hey, is this character fully dimensional? Now studios and networks are starting to hire people. I know I’ve done it. I know there are other people who do it where you read a script as a beta reader or what they call a sensitivity reader, right? And give notes and feedback, sometimes even after it shot for reshoots, you know, just because they’re like, Oh, we missed the boat here. We didn’t create fully developed characters, and this is where my. Lead to the industry is just please, I know people like working with their friends. I know it’s a multimillion dollar industry and you need people who are reliable you can count on. And often that means people you’ve worked with, but you’re going to have to let some new people in. You’re going to have to let black creators tell their own stories. Other marginalized creators tell their own stories.

S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back. More on the Black Horror Renaissance. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else, I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about the rise of black artists in horror with award winning author and professor Tananarive Due. So all right. Here’s the thing you don’t just teach and study black horror and science fiction. You also create it in you and your husband. Steven Barnes co-wrote an episode of The Twilight Zone on CBS All Access. It’s called a small town. I just want you to tell us a little bit about what was your idea when you put the show together?

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S2: Great. Well, that episode stars Damon Wayans Jr. I want to point out, and it came about because when I first started teaching at UCLA, I have a course called The Sunken Place. I got so excited about Get Out that I had a whole course around it. Jordan Peele caught wind of it on Twitter. Next thing I knew he was surprising my class and, you know, being no fool. And that was great. It went viral. A student like tape, ten seconds of it that went viral. But since that time, Steven, I have had conversations with him. He came and Skyped him back in the day for my online black hair class, sunken place class dot com, but also that he had. But he literally invited us to pitch for The Twilight Zone and we weren’t able to work anything out for season one. Couldn’t quite come up with the right story, but season two. This story idea about a man we met at a small town. I love small town settings in horror sci fi Black Man in a small town who’s grieving basically finds a model in a church attic where he’s living while he tries to get his life together and realizes that if he interacts with this model of the town, weird things happen in the town in real life. And that’s the premise. So it’s that idea of what you do when you have absolute power.

S1: So you’ve written a couple of books you’ve written Go Summer Stories, My Soul to keep the good house. Do you have a favorite like, do you think horror comes across better in books than it does on film? Do you think horror comes a bit? I mean, I’m just curious if you think one medium is better for expressing horror than another.

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S2: That is a fantastic question, and I have to cheat on that answer because it’s hard to pick, really. You know, I started as a prose writer, as a novelist. And there is just something about escaping into the world of a novel where your imagination is supplying the images that really you can’t compare to it. You know, ultimately, that is the most immersive experience. And I also love audio books, which are the same for me when you add a narrator. It’s just that much more intriguing. But I am so intrigued by the visual media, right? I’m so intrigued by the power of television like I can reach a wider audience with one episode of television than I have with an entire career as a novelist. And the same for film. So and also for the kid in me because I like to stay alive and feel like I’m learning new things. Cracking the screenplay is what excites me the most right now. It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, because it’s like the writing part. The pitching part. Like, how do you get all those elements lined up to get it on the screen? I’m just figuring that out, and I can’t wait to learn more about it.

S1: You wrote another book, and this one’s not Will. It’s not quite horror. It’s kind of about your family. You said, you know you are the daughter of civil rights activist Patricia Stevens. Do you read a book together called Freedom in the Family, a mother-daughter memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights? What was it about having a mother who was a civil rights activist that, like, led into hoard? I mean, did you Jason?

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S2: Listen, listen. I said in the documentary Horn or Black History is black horror, right? So I was home schooled. Not technically. I was in public school, but when I was at home. We were also in school with the comic books and the stories about history from my parents and also my father who’s still living, John Dew, who’s an attorney. Between that and integrating new neighborhoods like when I first saw the pilot of them on Amazon, it’s like, Ooh, that’s what that felt like. You know, it’s like, really that pilot, especially. It’s just that’s what it felt like integrating a white neighborhood as a young person. That was scary. And also, my mother was the first horror fan in my life, and I don’t think it’s an accident that she was arrested many times, that she wore dark glasses basically until the day she died. Almost all the time indoors, because in 1960, when she was a college student, a police officer threw a tear gas canister in her face, so she took the full brunt of this tear gas in her face. I consider that an injury to state violence. So being raised by someone who was a victim of state violence, who used herself horror as her escape mystery solved because that was the trauma that was the trauma that led me to horror.

S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back. More on emerging voices in black horror. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about the history and future of black hair with award winning author and professor Tananarive Due. I watched a slew of black horror films from the 70s and they were in the blaxploitation category, but I found a lot of them to be very enlightening in some ways more progress than what we have today. I saw. Scream black. Hello Scream. I watched Jade’s revenge, which was a really, really dark movie. What do you think today’s horror writers could learn from some of these movies in the 1970s? Because the other thing that sort of struck me about these films is that, as you mentioned it beginning, they were steeped in black culture. But again, racism wasn’t necessarily bad. I mean, Jade’s revenge is body horror. I mean, you know this this regular guy is, you know, he’s a pre-law student. He’s got a wonderful life and he’s taken over by, you know, a gangster from 40 years ago doesn’t have anything inherently to do with race. But losing control of one’s body is terrifying, no matter who you are.

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S2: Right? Which, to me, echoes with the reboot Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, which is also a body horror, even though there’s a lot of racism in the themes of that one. But back to your question. You know, it’s the 70s are an interesting time. On the one hand, you had all these creators like William Crane, like, I think he was twenty three when he directed Black Gula. How did that even happen? There was an era when there were studios that specifically wanted to gear movies toward small theaters, black theaters, black neighborhoods. So I’m not going to say that the white gaze was absent because the gatekeepers definitely have their ideas about how black people are supposed to look and how black people are supposed to behave. So don’t get it twisted, but within that what’s interesting? I use black L.A. As an example, he gives black L.A Prince Mama Will Day a Swahili name. The movie opens with him trying to negotiate an end to the transatlantic slave trade with Count Dracula. You know, holding court in the seventeen hundreds, which you know, that’s not common imagery, OK, in the 1970s. I don’t think anyone would probably ever even seen such a thing. So even though it’s not a perfect film, it’s schlocky. It’s of its era.

S1: Yeah. Is it bad on so many levels, but intriguing in its own way?

S2: It’s of its era, but it is not inherently about racism, and the blaxploitation era gives you then a lead forensic investigator who is black and in charge, right? And it’s a love story. Ultimately, it’s about a spirit trying to reconnect with a beloved he was separated from, and that is just our humanness. So I would say that the biggest hint I would give today’s filmmakers is not to forget about our humanness in the quest to get that green light for a black horror. You know, the one part of this conversation we haven’t touched on is a little bit of the backlash that the little baby black horror renaissance has has found because there have been some projects where people felt like it was leaning too much into trauma. Racial violence, right? OK, the trauma is trauma porn, and I hate that term so much. I didn’t even use it first. But you’re right, people label it trauma porn, and it’s a very broad label, which can include any form of violence against a black person. You know, some people like to say, Well, you know, horror is violent. I don’t know how many horror movies people have watched. But generally speaking, there’s going to be some violence and horror. But I think the question, and I think it’s something that is worth engaging with is lynching in particular as horror, like the kind of very specific racialized violence where racist white people kill black people as horror is something that black horror audiences have started to push back against. So I would just I like to say that I think all of us need to sort of chill for a minute, give the subgenre a chance to grow and breathe. Creators remember lynching. It’s in people’s faces. In fact, horror is entertainment. All right. Lynching is not entertaining. So if it if horror is not entertaining, it’s a fail. That’s like, well, it’s not an imminent drama. Sometimes you can get away with that. And that’s kind of I think the purpose of drama is to bring the realities up in our faces and hold it up for us to see. But in horror, it’s usually a little more metaphorical storytelling. It’s not the thing itself, it’s what feels like the thing itself. I think that’s why my mother found comfort in horror, because watching movies about vampires and zombies and ghosts and demons felt like white supremacy without actually looking like white supremacy, right? So creators try to be creative in the ways we create dread and horror like Nia DaCosta’s in the animated sequences, the puppetry and in the new Candyman instead of making us watch. You know what happened? For Kennedy, they’re right. So find the creative ways that audiences Churchill, Churchill, OK. We just got this door cracked open because the man listened. When social media starts talking about trauma porn, it takes like two seconds for the executives to tell you in the meeting, Well, black people don’t like horror, which is not true.

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S1: I want to close with this because this is always the important one going down the road. Where do you think black horror looks and the next, you know, 10 years? Do you think there will be, you know, black horror television series? You think something like that will really catch on? Do you think vampirism will come back? Do you think that maybe diasporic stories of horror become more mainstream here? What do you think this looks like in 10 years?

S2: I’m going to answer yes to all those questions. It’s not going to be a straight up trajectory like a rocket shooting in the air. You know, these things always ebb and flow. And just as we’re seeing the pushback against some so-called trauma porn, which I think really signals how some executives and studios that really weren’t comfortable with this storytelling or just sort of finding a reason to shy away from it. Right? Oh, well, it didn’t really succeed. Oh, well, the audiences don’t really like it. We’re going to move past that because the gates will change. The gatekeepers might not change. Some of them are, but the gates will change because it’s never been cheaper to just shoot it yourself. The Issa Rae model of doing a web series and then letting other people come to you, that is key. So independent filmmakers, I think, are going to be the ones who keep pushing that needle forward. I mean, obviously, we are so blessed to have a Jordan Peele who is such a great artist who happens to be one of our own. He’s black and he’s horror. I mean, how lucky are we? Right? So as long as Jordan Peele is making films, black horror will be a conversation. But in terms of the artists outside of Jordan Peele, some of them will get breaks. You know, some things will get set up that won’t quite make it to the screen. Lots of stuff will get an option that never even, you know, it gets farther than an option. But those independent filmmakers? One example is Nikki R2D2, who made a film called Suicide by Sunlight that was at Sundance. It’s about black. Vampires and vampirism is kind of a metaphor for queerness. Well, she just finished directing. I believe it’s her first feature called The Nanny, which I haven’t seen yet. But that, to me, is an example of a kind of filmmaker starting in the independent space. Moving into the so-called mainstream are really going to help push the needle forward, not relying on tropes, not relying on try to be the next get out or whatever it is. It’s just just telling your truth, your story that will always went out.

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S1: Tananarive Due is an award winning author and producer who teaches Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA. Thank you so much for your time today.

S2: Thank you. This has been fantastic.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Saluja is the managing producer of podcast at Slate. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcast at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.