Black Women in Horror
Sugar Hill, premiering in theaters February 1974, was the first horror movie with a Black female lead. Actress Marki Bey took center stage as Houstonian photographer Diana “Sugar” Hill seeking revenge through the use of voodoo on her boyfriend's killers. The theatrical release poster for the film had Bey, our ‘hip hero,’ posing with her afro curled and shaped to perfection, while surrounded by 1930s-esque zombies. Sugar Hill garnered average success at the box office and became a cult classic horror flick. But, the criticism held against the movie raised concerns about the harmful stereotypes against Black women.
Movies with a style like Sugar Hill were labeled as “blaxploitation films.” The term was forged by Junius Griffin, head of the NAACP in LA, to describe the negative contribution films like Sugar Hill applied to Black people. The criticism was valid since, in the film, Sugar lacked autonomy and her ambitions were entirely driven by a man. The movie fell into all sorts of racial traps that Black women didn’t need during the time. As the ‘70s blaxploitation era began to wane and the ‘80s crept in, new ideas in horror came, but held the criticism of blaxploitation in mind. When the ‘80s arrived and more Black faces in horror appeared, so did the tropes. Now Black women were the ones to die first, the ones to suffer, the sassy Black friend, or the magical Black woman. The list kept growing, until the ‘90s and early 2000s had Black women playing bigger roles. Although they were not the main protagonists, Black women became the powerhouse sidekicks (Alien vs. Predator) or gorgeous antagonists (Queen of the Damned).
A divergence emerged, not quite large, but enough to create a gap for new creative pursuits to spill through. This spill led to works such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out and US emerging on screen. These movies took that gap and cracked it further for a river of opportunity to flow forth. With US in particular, though not directly about race, Peele purposefully cast Black actress Lupita Nyong’o as the central character with her all-Black family. Once the dam was broken, more movies starring Black actresses went into development. Black creatives and fans of horror alike proved that representation does matter, which directed us to where we are today. For a few days, I binged watched Black women in horror to grasp how far Black horror has come along. But as horror screenwriter Tananarive Due stated, “Black horror doesn’t have to be rooted in race.” In recent years, Black women are not poorly used per se, but they are not too often given roles that stray away from racial commentary.
The first two movies I watched were Antebellum starring Janelle Monae and Bad Hair starring Elle Lorraine. Both 2020 American horror films are blatant in their connection to slavery. Antebellum is a psychological thriller about modern woman Veronica getting sent back to the antebellum period where she undergoes intense, merciless torture. Bad Hair is a satirical horror taking place in the ‘80s where weave first appears and Black women feel pressured to assimilate to white beauty standards. Both films were good in their own right, yet they are deeply rooted in slavery and the poor treatment of Black women. Bad Hair also makes the mistake of playing into racial stereotypes, but to be fair, it is a satire.
The films I watched afterward both took place in Britain. In Fabric is a horror-comedy following a haunted red dress and the destruction it leaves behind. Sheila, our first victim, is a divorced single mother struggling to survive in the odd world she lives in. Sheila is consistently reprimanded by her two white bosses for insignificant actions like taking two minutes for the bathroom and waving at her boss’ mistress. The contrast is quite clear when the same two bosses are interacting with the next victim, Reg, another white male. Sheila in her time on screen is talked down to and her actions are constantly questioned. Her own son is often disrespectful to her as if she’s a nuisance. In Kindred, Charlotte grieves her white boyfriend while kept inside his family’s home due to being pregnant. Her late boyfriend’s mother doesn’t want to lose her only grandchild, so she and her stepson trap Charlotte within their surreal mansion. Despite calling Charlotte ‘family,’ they treat her as ‘the other,’ the one who doesn’t belong in their world. The grandmother makes petty jabs against Charlotte, stating how her son, “had a habit of chasing animals” while openly staring at her. Both Sheila and Charlotte struggle to maintain their sanity within their constricting environments and are verbally beaten down.
Common issues for Black women in the films mentioned are that they are either psychologically tormented or beaten down. Whether physically or mentally, blatantly or subtly, the way these women are treated stems from their race. They are also forced to assimilate into a society that doesn’t want them. In contrast, the last movie I watched hardly involved race at all. Noticeably, in the movie Sweetheart, light-skinned actress Kiersey Clemons takes center stage. It is a survival horror where Clemons’ character Jen survives a shipwreck, landing on an island where she struggles to fight against a creature lurking in the sea. Not once is Jen’s race mentioned and she’s shown to be completely capable to withstand the forces of nature. Colorism existed as long as racism has, it is not limited to one racial group, but it is often talked about within the Black community. Whereas the light-skinned women are the badass beauties who can command people on a whim, dark-skinned women are treated as ‘the other’ who have to work their way to the top.
Black women leading the horror genre are few and far between. Even if there are plenty of Black women publishing novels, not many of them play leading roles in horror films. Tananarive Due stated at a panel that the reason is because films are a huge gamble, while tv shows get picked up and put into production much faster. However, due to cultural reset movies like US, the market for Black horror is expanding. In contrast to earlier years as Dr. Coleman, author of Horror Noire stated, “there’s a difference between Black horror and Blacks in horror.” Black horror now has come a long way from the blaxploitation era, but its effects still linger. Horror applies a mirror to society, showcasing the bad more so than the good. What it reflects is all the dark scars and deep bruising we all experience. The actresses involved did phenomenal work with what they were given. On the other hand, regarding dark-skinned women, we should allow them to explore their range to other non-racial-related issues. To further expand on what Tananarive Due said, “Black horror doesn’t have to be rooted in race, we are human. Our whole lives are not about fighting racism.” Horror is meant to push boundaries beyond the norm, so allow Black women to push theirs.