WHFS presents: Horror Films Directed by African Americans

Happy Black History Month, and beyond, everyone.
While we celebrate blackness everyday
this month we are appreciating African American directors of our chosen film genre: horror.

I know I’ve written previously that “darkness” and “blackness” too often gets associated with all things macabre. I want to iterate that when I think of things that are dark or black I think of vast night skies in which we stargaze, I think of outer space, the expanding horizon and black holes from which the universes were likely created. I associate “blackness” with depth, profundity, knowledge, and (since i basically live in a cave/apartment) I think of home, and, of course, a people and a history that go by many many names and indigeneities.

Since I’m specifically writing about horror i don’t want you, lovely reader, to think i’m conflating the idea of “blackness” with “horror”. What I do want to conflate is that there is a genre of art called horror that teases out what we’re afraid of AND there are directors who are African American AND there are horror directors who are African American who aren’t Jordan Peele. I know, hard to believe, but there are. Mr. Peele is not the only one he’s just one of the best and one of the few whose films are easy to find on streaming devices. Since I’ve already created a first draft of my Appreciations to his films Get Out, Us, and a first draft of Candyman (90s) in preparation for 2021 Candyman (written by an African American woman btw) I’m going to step back and view films I haven’t previously been exposed to.

Before i dive into the deep end of this month of film appreciations let me be clear that I’m only at the tip of the iceberg of my study of this sub-genre. There are others who have written profoundly about horror films directed by African Americans and I’m still searching for those writings on the search engines available to me. Many of you have seen these films already and know more about them then I. Please add your thoughts or promote your websites and academic papers in the comments if you dare. By adding my two cents I’m not trying to claim having knowledge that I don’t have I’m merely hoping to claim and be open about my exploration of film and my appreciations of them. Also, I’m hoping that by adding voice to the fact that a lot of these films are difficult to find on streaming sites will encourage those sites to stream these films more readily.

Now where to begin!
My research is not that fancy I’m starting with an already compiled list on Gamespot: 14 Essential Horror Movies from Black Directors. by Dan Auty (June 2020). If you have a film list that is even more essential please share it in the comments. I’m not beginning with any film in particular on purpose. I’m simply starting with the film that i can find that i feel like watching.

I’m absolutely not starting with Atlantics (2019) by Mati Diop, available on Netflix, because that’s not where my attention span is this evening. Yet I’m excited to view it, it seems like an amazing film. I’m also not starting with Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976) because I can’t find it without renting it and covid has my wallet a bit skint.

So I’m beginning with
Kino Classics’ Ganja and Hess (1973)
I can’t do this film justice in a few paragraphs but what the hell it’s just for fun–
A friend of mine explained to me a bit about Blaxploitation as a genre, much of what they explained and more can be found in an article about the director: Criterion.com/current/posts/7073-the-black-artist-hollywood-couldn-t-buy The more I watch this film the more I appreciate the director, Bill Gunn’s work and the more I read about the late Bill Gunn the more I love this film.

Image result for Portrait of Billy Gunn
Portrait of Bill Gunn by James Dean

While there are several appearances, the vampire plot centers around a few main characters: Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) who meets with George Meda (Bill Gunn), Hess’s staffer (Leonard Jackson), and later Ganja Meda (Marlene Clark), the leading lady vampire. Despite this film being nearly 50 years old the acting and script hold their timelessness. Each character, and the actor who play them, are impressionable. In my opinion, the true tell of this film’s age is the sound quality. It’s not as much of a pet peeve of mine as it is my poor neighbors’ when the dialogue and the music are at completely different levels, luckily for my neighbors the soundtrack is phenomenal albeit repetitive. It’s too bad my neighbors can’t hear the costumes or the icky blood-spurt effects cause while the blood itself is don’t-drink-the-koolaid-Red it’s still effectively icky and I can’t help but hope that it can be washed out of the wardrobe so i can wear it next.

What’s outstanding to me is that the grainy camera-work of this 70’s film feels modern again.

Movie/TV Memorabilia:Photos, "Billy Gunn with Stool" Original Photo Taken by James Dean. An
original 10" x 8" silver gelatin print shot by James Dean in...
Bill Gunn with Stool. Photo by James Dean

Rather than having fancy CGI or high tech dollies, the camera sits, pivots, and churns our attention so that the cinematography is somehow retro, on-pointe, and the transitions are stark.
This was not a film I could watch without paying attention, i tried and had to restart the film several times. Each scene, set, conversation, movement, and camera shot seems necessary to understanding the film as a whole. I love that about this film. Though it’s horror/blaxploitation it’s not as scary as it is strangely delightful and demonically complex–not only within the film but in it’s relationship to the real world in which it was created. While most horror films are simple and are fairly obvious about their social commentary–Frankenstein being about medical ethics, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde about our duality, zombies about individualism v. consumerism– Vampires are typically about ‘supernatural’ desires and lust. This film has that too, while the film mostly avoids full nudity there is every angle of side-boob and butt. I didn’t know boobs had that many angles but they found them all here. Personally I think the suggestion of sex is often more creative than sitting through unnecessary sex scenes and then when full nudity is shown, rather than being superfluous nudity, we see the importance of the exposure. Lucky for us there are subtler hints about what Bill Gunn is trying to say about humanity’s desires here rather than lust.

The vampirism outside of the film arises from Gunn “failing” at creating blaxploitation that was exploitative enough for the white producers. Within the film the vampirism arises not simply a product of human desire, addiction, bloodlust but from an ancient artifact, a bone knife. The knife as well as the music and scenes it’s in hint to the knife’s origins which seem to conflict with the Christian congregation scenes and the presence of Rev. Luther Williams (Sam L. Waymon). The two distinct spiritualities overlap and yet seem hidden from another throughout the film. Neither spirituality seems more or less supernatural than the other and both each influence Hess’s behaviors in their own way. The main social commentary I pick up on from the film and from articles about the film is that Bill Gunn seemed to be toying with the idea that it is possible to achieve and live out the American Dream and still, in many many ways, desire more–like more connection to each other and our spiritualities as well as our natural desire for more toe rings. Clearly this is only one way to read into the subtext of this story–all art is a rorschach test and this surely is a work of art– what did you understand from it?

Since this film was made after the success of William Crain’s Blacula I have to go back in time to 1972 to watch that one next. I’ll see if i can find it.
Well i found it and
[sighs] so far it seems about as “meh” as the Dracula 3000 starring Keanu Reeves.
I gotta preface by saying I like the story of Dracula by Brom S. I once read it on a train through Eastern Europe to Transylvania where I stayed in the town, Sighișoara, which is the supposed birthplace of the person who the character Dracula was created after (yah, Nerdtown party of many). I actually wasn’t there to hunt down vampire lore, that was merely a fringe benefit, I was invited to a conference set up by Erasmus+ and spent most of the time wandering around staring at cool architecture, listening to folks tell stories about the area and the country (Romania), falling in love with their deep dark romance language (Romanian (and no it’s not the same language as Romani)), running and getting lost, and doing yoga in the old hotel hallways with friends and whiskey and/or doing yoga in a cemetery with friends and water. Left with a Derrida book I haven’t read yet. Anyway i’m going to stretch out on my yoga mat here and enjoy what there is to enjoy and probably cringe a lot. Though i went thru my own Anne Rice phase in middle school I personally i don’t find vampire plots that interesting in film because i always feel like they are talking around issues of bdsm, kink, abuse, and blood play rather than talking about it head on and that stuff in real life gives me the heebie jeebies.
[next evening]
My background research about this film is minimal so I don’t know what to say except my opinion. The principal actors do a great job considering they aren’t working with much of a script. The plot is pretty cool– a gentleman Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) are African royalty and political dignitaries to Europe who are there to speak out against the slave trade. This is interesting for a vampire flick especially considering slavery was widely practiced in Romania and is one reason why the real “Dracula” was considered such an unusually cruel person (Thanks, Romani, for enduring/surviving forced service for thousands of years and prevailing against those odds into the present day whilst still maintaining your own language, cultures, etc and then still generously allowing me to live and teach peacefully with you as a stupid gaidje (foreigner) sorry i was so weird I didn’t want to draw attention to me being there) (Also, no Romanians and Romani are not necessarily the same people group but sometimes they are because identities can overlap). While we are introduced to the two lovers during their trip to Romania they aren’t there long and are later reunited in North America after a lifetime away from one another as Blacula and Tina, pretty romantic. The sets and costumes are pretty fun and the music and sounds are pretty groovy. I can’t say I recommend it because the script is kinda…dated?… i mean…it’s blaxploitation… so …you can imagine or watch for yourselves what the problems of this film might be…but i also can’t say that I don’t recommend it. For all i know, for whatever reason, you feel like watch something that gets you thinking tough questions like, “What exactly am i watching?” I can’t say I didn’t enjoy elements of it. I also don’t want to say that it’s a great film. Still, it’s not the worst film i’ve ever seen.

Next up: Bones (2001) starring Snoop
(pending) I can’t watch Bones without renting it however i did find Mac & Devin Go to High School (2012). And i gotta say: Pow! wow, ya gotta watch this, it is way better than high school musical.
… or is it?

Then Atlantique (English title: Atlantics) (2019) by Mati Diop
(appreciation Pending cause ghost stories are scary)
Okay , tonight I’m watching this for the first time. 5pm Mountain Time (MT)

JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC NOV. 14, 2019. LATIMES.COM. Review: Mati Diop’s ‘Atlantics’ is a hypnotic weave of romance and ghost story.

Carlos Aguilar November 14, 2019. RogerEbert.com: A Language Possessed and Reconquered: Mati Diop on Altnatics

BILAL QURESHI. November 23, 2019 All Things Considered. NPR.org. Atlantics’ Is a Haunting Refugee Story–Of the Women Left Behind in Senegal.

As always I recommend watching the films and writing down your own opinions before reading mine. Feel free to check back into this page– as the month(s) continue(s) I’ll continue to add brief film appreciations about what I’m able to find. While this month we’re looking at N. American Films, this year we’ll continue looking at horror films from around the world and will continue looking for love in their storylines. 2021 will likely be as rough as 2020 but that’s no reason not to look for love in the midst of the difficulties and obstacles we face head on. We’ll be watching S. American, Korean, Thai, African films over the next few seasons. If you have suggestions/recommendations please post them in the comments.

As always, thanks for surviving all the evil, living another day, and reading with your eyes, ears, and hands. Raise hell peacefully,
Anne Arkhane

Drink of Choice: Water. always water.
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