2024 Celebrating Black Voices, Column, Arts

Weynand: Horror Films Have Historically Mistreated Black Characters—Jordan Peele Changed That

You know this group of rag-tag survivalists all too well—there’s the jock who may not be the brightest, but still comes in handy for a fight, the nerd who can only outsmart the killer for so long before they’re killed off, or the comic relief who’s always cracking jokes, even when they meet their untimely death. 

I’ve seen these stereotypical protagonist tropes in countless horror movies—the recent iterations of Scream, Halloween and Netflix’s The Fear Street trilogy all play into a few of these classic horror character tropes. 

Unfortunately, I’ve also seen the trope where the Black character is killed off first. It turns out the trope isn’t as common as I’d thought, according to some.

As a casual modern horror fan, the only horror films I’ve seen where Black characters were developed substantially were Jordan Peele’s recent slew of horror movies. Other than a few exceptions, I hadn’t seen any movies where central Black protagonists survive to the end of the movie. This trend is frustrating for many viewers who tend to see the same white protagonists in lackluster stories instead of diverse casts, and it can degrade the quality of the genre.

The difference between Peele’s films and the typical horror films isn’t the presence, or even the survival, of Black characters until the end of the film. Peele uses Black characters in a meaningful way that makes them fantastic horror protagonists who make smart decisions, but their plots also have a greater meaning than just survival.

By changing the landscape of what roles minorities can take on in the horror genre, Peele has not only demolished the stereotype of the Black character dying first, but he’s founded an entire new genre of films based on social commentary in a horror story. Still, the idea that Black characters have limited roles in the horror genre prevails in the public opinion. 

Many film critics assert that the stereotype, which claims that Black characters die first in horror films, is untrue. A study conducted by Complex in 2013 analyzed 50 of the most prominent horror films and recorded whether a Black character was the first to die. 

The study found that only five out of the 50 films analyzed featured a Black character dying first, and often, the characters even survive until the film’s end. I’m not a fan of this study, though. 

I noticed that some of the films on the list are forgotten movies that no one from my generation would watch, and some shouldn’t even be considered in the horror genre—I’m looking at you, Jaws: The Revenge

Even if I look past their odd movie choices, the study states that of the included films, “0.1% (5 out of 50) of them have black characters who die first.” Five out of 50 films would be 10 percent, which is a much more significant percentage than 0.1 percent. Maybe Complex just can’t do math, but the credibility of this study still needs to be questioned. 

Rather than conducting another arbitrary study myself, I’ll speak to the modern horror films I’ve seen which need to do better in terms of their representation, as well as the horror films that have transformed the genre.

I’ll start with Warner Bros. and its terrible track record of representation in recent horror films. The studio, while successful at creating scary and suspenseful situations for the genre, has failed to give a storyline of any importance to most of its Black characters.

Some recent films, including The Nun or Five Nights at Freddy’s, seem to almost exclude Black characters from their casts altogether. I suspect this is partially for the purpose of staying faithful to a film’s source. For a movie like The Nun, it’s not likely that a Black person would be found in 1952 Romania. This could explain the exclusion of any Black actors in the main cast. 

But would their inclusion affect the film’s watchability or appeal in any way? No—the point of a horror film is to scare people, not to obsess over historical accuracy. Similarly with Five Nights at Freddy’s, the fact that the source material might not include Black characters shouldn’t restrict the film’s casting. 

A number of films in the horror genre barely exceed the minimum when it comes to meaningful Black representation in casts regardless of source material. A new wave of horror movies, placing minorities at their forefront, has recently swept through Hollywood to fix the glaring issue. Horror owes a big thanks to Peele. 

Peele has risen to fame since his success in horror, despite only producing three films in the genre: Get Out, Us, and Nope. These films feature a Black cast at the forefront of the stories, and have proven to be successful with critics and audiences alike. The three films alone have grossed over $650 million at the worldwide box office.

Get Out began Peele’s transition into the horror genre with a horror film that plays much like a psychological thriller. The film follows Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) meeting his girlfriend’s family for the weekend. The family turns out to run a covert racism operation, brainwashing Black people. Horror elements combine with thriller sensations as the story progresses. Get Out is not just a fantastic story, it’s also a commentary on society’s underlying racism.

Kaluuya is given plenty to do when he plays Chris, as he deconstructs the concept of racism and explores how a Black man navigates an overwhelming white society through a horror-esque lens. The horror, however, is really just an offshoot of how society operates, which is what really makes Get Out a scary film with Chris at the center. 

Numerous films also include a Black supporting cast, yet these films don’t allow the characters to contribute significantly to the plot. This pattern was glaringly apparent to me after a marathon viewing of the 2018 Halloween franchise reboot this October. I watched Halloween, Halloween Kills, and Halloween Ends. I enjoyed them all as fun slashers, but there was an obvious problem with the trilogy’s Black characters. 

Sheriff Barker (Omar J. Dorsey), the only Black character to be seen in all three installments, does nothing to help the protagonists at any point in the films’ plot. Vanessa (Carmela McNeal) and her husband Marcus (Michael Smallwood), a Black couple, are introduced in Halloween Kills, but are among the film’s first victims, despite the fact that they make smart decisions—for a slasher film. None of them contribute to fighting Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney), and no Black characters receive any significant development. 

Peele’s other two films are also insightful commentaries that use developed Black characters in main roles, and these characters were used more productively than any Black character from the entire Halloween franchise. 

I saw Nope and Us in theaters because I was excited to see what Peele would do after Get Out, and these movies didn’t disappoint. In fact, they elevated the horror genre further. They star Black actors at the center of horror and thriller situations, and the characters are actually given depth, personality, and passion. 

Peele’s films include plenty of examples where Black leads are at the center of horror movies, and they’re given much more than just filler plots. 

The duality in Us between Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide, and her sinister alter ego Red, creates a perfect showing of the film’s classism by villainizing Red for her desire to live a life like Adelaide. In Nope, Keke Palmer plays the radiant and passionate Emerald—a badass woman in her own right who fights off UFOs to save her farm and her resources, revealing how society steals natural resources from those indigenous to the land.

Peele’s movie magic has left its mark on the horror genre. Recent horror films by other directors, like Nia DaCosta’s Candyman and Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk to Me, put Black actors at the cast’s forefront. It’s an important distinction to ensure everyone feels represented on screen, no matter the genre of film.

I’m a believer that every horror film needs to have fear at its center, but a well-crafted story can make room for all types of casts and narratives. Peele is helping the horror genre finally take the necessary steps to go from a total lack of representation to a genre that thrives on diverse stories and casts. 

February 19, 2024