We’re in a golden age of black horror films

In the horror genre, black is definitely back.

The movie “Ma,” which premieres on May 31, will star Academy Award winner Octavia Butler as Sue Ann, a lonely middle-age woman who clings to a group of teens to the point of obsession.

“Ma” comes on the heels of Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed “Us,” which is also led by an Academy Award winner, Lupita Nyong’o. And let’s not forget that Peele’s previous film, “Get Out,” won the Academy Award for best screenplay last year.

Black actors have always had a role in horror films. But something different is taking place today: the re-emergence of true black horror films.

Rather than simply including black characters, many of these films are created by blacks, star blacks or focus on black life and culture.

Objects of violence and ridicule

For most of film history, black actors have appeared in horror films in supporting roles. Many were deeply problematic.

In my 2011 book, “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present,” I describe some of these tropes.

In the early 20th century, many films – horror or not – had white actors appearing in blackface. The characters could find themselves on the receiving end of especially horrific violence. For example, in 1904’s “A Nigger in the Woodpile,” a black couple’s home is firebombed and the pair staggers out, charred.

In the 1930s, there was a spate of horror films that took place in jungles, where blacks were depicted as primitive – sometimes indistinguishable from apes. A decade later, black characters started appearing in horror films as objects of ridicule. Actors like Willie Best and Mantan Moreland appeared as comic relief – characters for audiences to dismissively mock.

Willie Best plays Clarence in the 1941 film ‘The Smiling Ghost.’ John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive
To be sure, there were some instances in which black actors assumed leading roles. The 1934 film “Chloe, Love is Calling You” starred black actress Georgette Harvey as the vengeful Mandy. In 1957, Joel Fluellen portrayed the smart and reliable Arobi in “Monster from Green Hell.”

However, often these characters existed to support the survival of their white counterparts.

From placeholders to full participants

For a brief period, in the 1960s and 1970s, horror films began to treat blacks as whole and full subjects.