Appreciation of Black Women In Horror
Happy Halloween goblins, witches, vampires, and other ghoulish creatures!
For my final 31 Films of Halloween: Women in Horror Edition post, I decided to show appreciation for the Black women in horror! The first Black women who began appearing in horror films were in the 1930’s, and they held roles that strongly represented the social values of America at the time. Films like Chloe, Love is Calling You (1934) and Ouanga (1936) showed Black women as the villain White people (mostly White women) had convinced themselves that they were- thieves of their babies and their men. As the film industry progressed and the horror genre pressed on making more films, the role of Black women in these films didn’t increase in number nor in value. They were pigeon-holed into roles that further stigmatized the ideas around Black people and their culture. They were voodoo priestess’s, gyrating natives, and loyal mammies who served the only purpose of furthering a plot or storyline.
Then, came in the 1970’s. Just as Black pride movements continued their ever-increasing momentum- with an emphasis on Black hair, culture, clothes, and more- came the rise of the Blaxploitation film genre. During this decade, approximately 13 horror films were made that centered around Black women. Most of them were Blaxploitation. They told stories that stepped away from mammie-tropes and the like, and they focused on what horror was truly about- zombies, possession, and more- while Black women served as the focal point, the heroines. Characters like Sugar Hill and Abby Williams are truly a revelation when you go back throughout history and re-watch these stories.
After the 70’s, however, horror films were starring less and less Black women all over again. With the exception of a few, Black women took on a new role- the doting, sacrificial best friend. Scream 2, Freddy vs. Jason, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and even The Vampire Diaries placed Black women in this new role. They weren’t stereotyped; they were just irrelevant. Their fate could have gone either way, and it wouldn’t have effected any aspect of the film.
Everything wasn’t all bad though, right? Of course not! After the birth and death of Blaxploitation, audiences were gifted some really memorable- no iconic- Black female characters in film. Even if they only came once every few years, they still made a stamp where they stood. In 1986, Grace Jones played one of the most stylish, groovy vampires in film ever. Vamp is a campy, cult classic with Jones being the highlight of it all. In 1995, Jada Pinkett Smith plays the demon slayer in Demon Knight, and that same year, Angela Bassett plays Rita Veder in Vampire in Brooklyn. Both were roles you’d hardly ever- if ever- seen Black women play. Vampire in Brooklyn is a reimagination of vampire-lore unlike any other.
Recently, the 2000’s definitely seem to have gotten the ball rolling a little faster. 28 Days Later, Gothika, and Alien vs. Predator all came out the same decade, and they all have a powerful Black woman charging the head of their film. More recent years also seem to be catching wind of the want- no the need- of more Black women in horror. It’s no doubt that Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in Us will go down as one of the most outstanding and popular performances of this decade. And films like Ma allow for Black women to be fun and campy the way we all love horror to be. As the film industry expands its definition of diversity, it’s sometimes easy to feel annoyed with how late and how slow their progress really is. But I also can’t help but feel so excited about what the future has to offer.. What, with things like Candyman in the near future and all.
SO without further ado, here are some of my favorite Black female characters in horror. There’s so many more that deserve recognition, but enjoy this modest list of mine.
1. Sharon Charles (Beyonce)- Obsessed (2009)
You may be asking yourself why this movie is on this list. This film was iconic for a young me. And in a lot of ways, it helped kick-start a subgenre of thriller films that Black women would go on to dominate in later years. As a girl who had loved Beyoncé since I was old enough to love music and memorize lyrics, I was utterly excited for this film. Also, in an industry where popular musicians are constantly breaking into the film industry, it was about damn time that she finally got her lead role.
2. Alexa WOods (Sanaa Lathan)- Alien v. Predator (2004)
To this day, Alien v. Predator is in my top fave Alien films of all time- and my top favorite Predator films too. Watching the two monsters go head to head is thrilling, but honestly, Sanaa Lathan is the perfect lead to spearhead this film. She definitely holds her own when compared to the legacy that the two film franchises bring. This film was another one of those firsts that I watched growing up that helped shape my love for this genre.
3. QUeen Akasha (Aaliyah)- Queen of the Damned (2002)
Gone way too soon, Aaliyah was a superstar. Although she is only a fraction of Queen of the Damned, she is also the only memorable aspect of this entire thing. While everything has that 90s grunge feel, Queen Akasha’s costumes stand out, and Aaliyah’s ability to use her body as an expression/extension of her character make it all the more better. Aaliyah was someone whom I admired throughout my entire childhood. This and Romeo Must Die were the foundation of my love for films. I’ll never forget the many, many times I spent watching them with my dad- the moments we shared and the love we held for what was unfolding on screen.
4. Selena (Naomie Harris)- 28 Days Later (2002)
Of all of the Black women in the film industry, in general, Naomie Harris has one of my favorite careers. I think I might have mentioned before that my love of horror came from watching films I was way too young to watch with my dad on weekends. Two of the ones that scarred me for years afterwards were Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. I would lay in bed at night quaking at the thought of a zombie apocalypse breaking out at any moment. And as I got older, I really loved Selena as a character. She is badass and rightfully heartless at times. I love her!
5. Maureen Evans (Jada Pinkett Smith)- Scream 2 (1997)
This is another one that you may be asking why it’s on the list. Well, the opening scene of Scream 2 is one of the most iconic of any film of all time. I, also, personally find it more enjoyable than the opening to the original (sue me, I don’t care.) Jada Pinkett’s performance is so dramatic, so intense, so damn great that she steals the spotlight of the film for me. If you know me, then you know the Scream franchise is my favorite horror franchise. Scream 2 is my second favorite of the quadrilogy, due to the sheer genius that it continues from the first. However, just by a small inch, the rest of the film still pales in comparison to this stone-cold opening.
6. Jeryline (Jada Pinkett Smith)- Demon Knight (1995)
On a more serious-ish note, Jada Pinkett Smith also plays as Jeryline on Demon Knight. It seems like she could have, and should have, taken the 90’s by storm if you look back at her filmography.
7. Det. Rita Veder (Angela Bassett)- Vampire In Brooklyn (1995)
Vampire in Brooklyn got a lot of heat when it first came out. People really didn’t appreciate it for the masterclass is truly is. Vampire lore is probably one of the oldest in horror history, and there’s only so many ways it has been imagined. Especially through the 1990’s, Hollywood had become entirely too obsessed with the attractive, emo-grungy vampire trope. Vampire in Brooklyn reimagined a tale that we had seen time and time again, and it is done so well. It also has some of my favorite Black actors in its repertoire. Not only that, but Angela Bassett as Det. Rita Veder is so amazingly reinvented for a new generation of women grasping hold of their own destiny and saving themselves in horror films.
8. Ganja Meda (Marlene Clark)- Ganja and Hess (1973)
Remember that era of Blaxploitation? This film is definitely my favorite horror movie of that time. Blaxploitation brought a plethora of amazing, Black-produced films, and in hindsight, many people finally realize and appreciate Ganja and Hess for the genius that it is. Ganja and Hess is another reinvention of the vampire subgenre that is unlike any other. It’s attractive, but it is also so much more. The psychedelic aesthetic elevates the film, and it is the symbolism behind Ganja’s character that makes it essential to this list.
9. Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill (Marki Bey)- Sugar Hill (1974)
Sugar Hill is another one of those iconic, Blaxploitation films. Littered with symbolism and coded language, the film is truly brilliant. Diana ‘Sugar’ Hill uses the power of voodoo to enact revenge against the men who killed her boyfriend. What I love so much about this film is its focus on Sugar. It’s not about her boyfriend, nor the men who killed him; this film is about her liberation and search for power. Not only that, but Marki Bey looks so good while doing it!
10. Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham)- Vampire Diaries
Bonnie Bennett was so integral to my teenage-dom. All of The Vampire Diaries was, but it was Bonnie who I was attached to so deeply. She is the rosebud of the entire franchise, and we all just pretend that it’s Elena. She goes through so much more hardship, and Kat Graham steals pretty much every episode. Not to mention her chemistry with Damon! I mean, c’mon! They make the entire show. I also have to point out that Bonnie is the epitome of the doting, sacrificial best friend. Her life and happiness is completely conditional on Elena’s own. There is one major difference for her, though. She is vital to the storyline; so no matter what they put her through, she can’t go anywhere because even the writers knew she brought all the flavor!
11. Sue Ann (Octavia SPencer)- Ma (2019)
There’s a reason why this utterly ridiculous film is on this list. It is because of how campy and preposterous it actually is. Octavia Spencer’s performance as Sue Ann is allowed to be unhinged for the sake of being unhinged. She got to be freely crazy in this role, in the way that makes a horror film what it is. Other than Blaxploitation films, many Black women held specific roles in horror films (see above), but Ma gave Sue Ann the space to just be- without the stereotypes and the heavyweight of racial relations. Plus, Ma inspired possibly the most film-related memes of 2019. That’s something worth talking about.
12. Adelaide Wilson/Red (Lupita Nyong’o)- Us (2019)
Because I mentioned this film earlier in the article, I needed to talk about it as part of the list too. And there’s a two-sided reason why I specifically put it at the end of my list. Lupita Nyong’o gave (in my opinion) the best performance of any woman in 2019. Like Get Out before it, the writing is so powerful that it needs a twice-as powerful lead to spearhead it. Lupita does just that. She demands your attention. She plays the hero and the villain all rolled into one. And that can be said about the entire cast, to be honest. This was no easy feat, I can tell. And Lupita was perfect for the character she plays. It was her role that, I believe, has really started to get the conversation (recently) re-started by the masses about Black women in horror films. I believe she set a new precedent. I also believe that her performance shows how far behind we really are. The fact that it has taken so long for any kind of recognition of this caliber is stunning at best, and insulting at worst. But also, her snub during awards season shows us again not only how far Black women still have to go for any real recognition but also the horror genre, as well. Both so integral to the film industry, but so so misrepresented and unappreciated in the grand scheme.