Mark Harris has enjoyed watching horror movies since the age of about 10 or 12. Growing up in the 1980’s with so few Black characters on TV or in movies, he always noticed when there was a person of color onscreen. It stood out even more in horror, and the Black character would inevitably end up dead since they were never the main character. As an African American horror movie fan, he decided to start keeping track of the countless ways in which Black characters were killed. In 2005, Mark started the website Black Horror Movies, where he reviews the portrayal of Black characters in genre movies all the way back to the beginnings of cinema. Mark’s website provided a lot of the background information he and co-author Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman needed for their book, The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar. While the subject matter is serious, The Black Guy Dies First is a fun read, written with humor and insight. It includes lots of pop culture references, timelines, photos and concrete examples of Black representation in horror.
Mark and Ben discuss many of the topics and issues raised in The Black Guy Dies First. Horror movies have always been seen as the ugly stepchild of Hollywood, and many people still think of horror as inconsequential. But this also allows horror movies to be transgressive, and push boundaries because the expectations for it to perform with mainstream audiences are low. Scary movies have a tendency to explore different avenues and reflect society’s fears and anxieties. Race in America is one of the biggest touchstones as far as fear and anxiety, so it’s valuable to analyze it as part of the horror genre. The trope of “the black guy dies first” is a history of how Black characters have been marginalized in movies. Since they are never the lead character, they are disposable. One of the exceptions, Night of The Living Dead, was ahead of its time, because it had a Black character in the lead. This made it an outlier in the history of black characters dying.
Other cliches and stereotypes Mark sees that marginalize African Americans in horror are: The Best Friend, The Voice of Reason, The Authority Figure (such as a Black cop), The Sacrificial Negro (the character who somehow decides not to save themselves, even if they could), and The Magical Negro (who is just there to help the white main character, such as in The Shining.) Mark does see the horror genre finally changing for the better- Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a runaway smash, which has allowed for more Black leads in horror movies and across all film genres. And he was genuinely surprised that Peele’s NOPE got any kind of Oscar buzz in 2023 (though it did not receive any nominations.) Other recent films such as His House, Master, and Nanny actively explore the social issues and history of Black trauma.
Mark agrees that the best way to increase diversity in front of the camera is to increase diversity behind the camera. When people of color are writing and directing, it empowers the development of strong characters and provides opportunities for diverse points of view. In Hollywood, there has always been the excuse that too many Black leads in a movie would make it a “Black movie” and therefore not appeal to all audiences or do well internationally. But now, a lot of blockbusters have people of color as the lead, which seems to prove that this attitude is changing. At the same time, it’s important for filmmakers to not necessarily try to make the next Get Out- often, social commentary can feel wedged into the storytelling, when it didn’t need to be. Mark feels that the key to Black horror is to show range in the storytelling, but it doesn’t always have to be so serious. As a genre, horror is the most self-aware of its tropes and tendencies, so it is constantly challenging itself to change things up and find better ways to scare you.
Find Mark Harris: https://www.blackhorrormovies.com/
The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar is available on Amazon, Audible and in bookstores everywhere.
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