It’s a familiar trope, so familiar it has been skewered over time: In Hollywood horror movies, “the Black guy” usually dies first. The token minority character in the film will be the first to go, a casualty of horror’s need to up the ante and make you scared for the main characters’ lives.
That trope lends its name to The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror From Fodder to Oscar, a witty, lively, and ultimately troubling history of Blackness in horror — its stereotypes, its caricatures, its themes, and its possibilities. Written by film critic Mark H. Harris and scholar Robin R. Means Coleman, it’s a great reference book and a great read.
And it also points to why, exactly, this trope has become common. Three-dimensional Black characters have historically been so vanishingly rare in Hollywood that they were easily disposed of or pushed to the sidelines in favor of the white characters’ development and story arc. That’s no accident; it’s the product of a century of board rooms and writers rooms filled with mostly white creative forces.
But there’s so much to be excited about in Black horror, which they argue has a unique ability to frighten and thrill and unnerve us. The popularity of innovators like Jordan Peele or Nia DaCosta, or the Purge movies (yes!) show that something is slowly, slowly shifting in Hollywood. But there’s still a long way to go.
I spoke with Coleman for Vox’s Gray Area podcast in a wide-ranging conversation about Black horror’s importance in Hollywood history, its most exciting and troubling incarnations, and the future of Hollywood that it forecasts. Below is just a taste of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity. I hope you’ll listen to the full episode and get excited about Black horror — whether you’re a horror fan yourself or not.
The title of your book refers to a common trope, one that’s so common that it becomes something that’s even spoofed. But as you say, it’s illustrating a larger issue in Hollywood history, right? Frequently, black actors are given parts that are sidelined; they’re there to facilitate the main story. Why does this happen?
It comes up in two ways, two tropes that we talk about in the book: the “Black guy dies first,” but also a quote-unquote “sacrificial Negro.” Both of those tropes are really gesturing to the ways in which Black people have been in service and in servitude to whites and whiteness. Their sacrifice, their annihilation, has to be present to facilitate white progress.
Hollywood is trying out different efforts aimed at greater inclusion of underrepresented groups in film productions. For instance, starting next year, a new set of rules will require production companies to show efforts toward inclusion before being eligible for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Do you think those kinds of inclusion efforts help build a more diverse Hollywood? Or will companies look for loopholes and ways to make more money? What kind of efforts would help increase representation?
A more diverse cadre of thought makers — those who are sitting around the table — makes for a better product, whatever that is: ideas, movies, widgets, whatever. There’s a better outcome.
So this isn’t just about needing diversity of thought. What we need is a diversity of histories and cultures and experiences. If you want to make movies and TV about a diverse world, then you want to have diversity around the writers table, giving depth to those characters.
I’ve been in a few writers rooms myself where I’m the only one, and I have to represent the full African American experience — 1619 to the present — for men, women, and gender-expansive identities. Having just one [Black writer in the room] is insufficient, particularly when you have a dozen people writing whiteness and one underrepresented group member writing all of the other things.
So, if you care about the quality of your product, the depth of your product, then you absolutely have to have a diverse writers room.
Are those kinds of measures ones that you have any expectations for, or do you feel like they have limited utility?
I would shoot down the middle. You will see some in Hollywood bristle at what they believe are “quotas,” and resist or reject them, or be pulled along begrudgingly. Others will sort of scramble and be inclusive, but maybe not thoughtfully; they’re like, “Oh, right. Now we need a Black guy.” That kind of thing.
What I would say is that we need many tools in our tool belt. So while I’m skeptical about whether [the Academy’s inclusion effort] is the solution, I think that it is one part of a solution toward motivating Hollywood to be more inclusive.
Would we rather that they see the value and do it on their own? To include a wide range of their neighbors, the citizenry, humanity? Well, clearly that’s not gonna happen. So this is one tool, but it cannot be the only tool.
You write about watching the riots at the Capitol on January 6. Here’s what you write: that you’re “questioning if fiction can ever best the terror of real life with its pandemics, coups, traffic stop fatalities, failed levies, water crises, school shootings, and rabid Karens.”
You say that Black horror’s triumph is that it reflects more deeply on the ways in which Black history has been and always continues to be in some ways Black horror. This is a really profound thought. Horror taps into our fears, but there is a way in which the movies you write about are different from the fantasy horror of a movie that worries about ghosts or getting stuck, I don’t know, in a remote Swedish haven with murderous villagers. (Like a movie I love.)
Would you say Black horror contains more potential than other sub-genres to really terrify?
I’m pretty generous in quoting others because there’s a lot of smart people who are thinking about horror. One of those is writer and producer Tananarive Due, who smartly said that “Black history is Black horror.” That’s a powerful theme.
You see that theme taken up in Nia daCosta’s Candyman, particularly the Candyman trailer, which features a puppet show that reminds us that this is a country that executed George Stinney, a -year-old tiny, tiny child, under very unclear and perhaps even made-up circumstances about a murder. And we’re not talking about executions the way we know them today, where there’s a trial and it goes on for a long time. This was in a matter of hours where he’s found guilty. That trailer also shows the lynching of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged behind a pickup truck by white supremacists to his death.
Black history is Black horror. That’s what that’s getting at.
There’s the way that [Black Congressional law officer] Eugene Goodman stood and protected this country — single-handedly protected the democracy, a complete flip of the ways in which we’ve understood what heroism looks like, real or imagined. He did that. He saved Congress.
So that’s what we’re trying to remind people with that ending [to our book]: Our country is moving through a very horrifying period. That means on the big and small screen, we’ve got to come up with other ways to scare ourselves in an entertaining way because the real world is so horrifying on its own.
You’ve spent so much time thinking about this topic. If you were to think about what you hope to see in a Black horror movie in 10 years or 20 years or 50 years, what would you want to see? Which areas are ripe for exploration or expansion?
There are two that excite me.
I really am excited to see themes of Afrofuturism. What does the world look like — a new and imagined world in the horror space? What does horror look like when you take away anti-Blackness and white supremacy hovering over the Black existence?
The other is that I do think we continue to struggle with the ways in which we represent women and LGBTQ or gender-expansive identities. We don’t know how to break out of the tropes around sexism and misogyny. I would love to see a pairing of that kind of futurism around diverse genders and sexualities.
There’s so much we haven’t done. That’s the future of horror.