Why does the Black guy always die first in horror movies?
Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris tackle the history of Black people in the horror genre
The release of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-nominated film Get Out ushered in a renaissance of Black representation in horror films and TV shows. The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror From Fodder to Oscar by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris will quickly dispel any notion that the Black horror we’ve seen on screen since that landmark film hit theaters in 2017 is the type that’s been in theaters for the past century.
Written with a tongue-in-cheek style and filled with interesting trivia and sidebars, The Black Guy Dies First is for anyone interested in learning about the history — good, bad, and everything in between — of Black folks in the horror genre.
Andscape recently sat down with Means Coleman and Harris to chat about their new book and where the genre goes from here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For those who want to dive into the horror genre, what are three films they should watch?
Harris: It would be a cop out just to say Jordan Peele’s three movies, but you can’t go wrong with any of Jordan Peele’s movies just because he’s kind of set the standard for Black horror, not just commercially but artistically.
A lot of my favorite horror movies are actually not from the U.S. There’s a movie from Brazil called Good Manners. It’s a werewolf movie about a Black maid who finds herself in the care of this child who used to belong to her. It’s just an interesting kind of fable, slightly even a musical, but it’s horror and it’s an interesting mix of genres.
And I would add The First Purge. Those movies, in general, have been a really interesting series that have gotten away with a lot of commentary that I think has either flown over some people’s heads or under the radar in terms of how revolutionary its messaging has been. The First Purge is the one that’s the most ‘inflammatory.’ It really goes into the origins of The Purge and how the government is targeting people of color and minorities for these experiments and, basically, termination.
Means Coleman: The first is the Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror documentary. I think if you start with that, you’re golden, and then you can also read these books. The second is Blacula. William Crain’s Blacula sets up so much of what we see in Blade or the remakes that have come, like Candyman. A Black lead, almost all of these are men, but a black lead that is also dealing with some social issues. There’s something both entertaining and instructive there. And then, I just love John Boyega in Attack the Block. I think that there’s something interesting in there about class, race, and gender politics.
People often consider horror movies to be light fare, but you’re really tackling tough subjects in this book, which is very much what horror movies have done for decades.
Means Coleman: That’s a claim to fame of horror, right? Not all horror is edutainment. It doesn’t always have to have a message, but horror does, as we talked about in the book, provide really powerful insight into the ways in which, particularly in Black horror, Black people see and seek social justice. And it is as radical and disruptive as it comes. It’s super imaginative. And I think that’s what’s been most entertaining and instructive about writing through the genre.
Harris: Yeah, I agree. And the approach to the book was similar to the approach I take to my website, and the approach that horror movies, I think, in general do take is just to be entertainment first, and then slipping the message in underneath. Because if people don’t find your material interesting or entertaining, they’re just going to tune out right away. So I don’t want people to feel like they’re being preached at or anything like that because you’re really going to limit your audience.
Why did you two decide to team up on this book and why was now the time to do it?
Means Coleman: I had been sort of stanning on Mark’s BlackHorrorMovies.com for a really long time, and I was writing the first edition of Horror Noire, the second edition just dropped in November, and relied very heavily on Mark’s website as a resource. It’s not just sort of an encyclopedic list. Mark is a gorgeous, smart, funny writer, and you see that in The Black Guy Dies First. So wicked smart, coupled with the humor.
How many years ago did I call and say we got to do a project together?
Harris: I remember you called me and I was speechless because I had read your book and was definitely familiar with you. I had appreciated that you gave me a shout-out in the thank yous in Horror Noire. I think you had talked about kind of encouraging me to go down maybe an academic route or something. And I was just like, ‘I’m just a guy who sits in front of a computer making stupid fart jokes and stuff,’ so I didn’t really know what to say or how to take it.
I think you mentioned if we had any ideas for books, and I mentioned something about a book revolving around the fact of Black guys always dying in movies. And I don’t know if I misinterpreted it, but I got the sense from you that you thought that was kind of silly. But, eventually over the years, we would keep in contact and you had gotten an opportunity with Saga Press, and I guess you thought about me and my stupid fart jokes and what I could give to the book.
This book has a tongue-in-cheek accessibility to it while also being filled with insight and cultural commentary. Was that simply the result of you joining forces?
Harris: Yeah, I’d say we definitely have our own strengths, and I think we made a really good team. Robin’s a very busy person, so I probably have more time to actually watch movies, so I’m probably a little more up to date on the more current stuff. So I could give some more insight on those things. We would meet up virtually once a week or so and just kind of touch base and then we took our ideas, our own sections, and fleshed them out. Then we brought it back together and gave input on each other’s portions.
Means Coleman: I’m gonna totally challenge everything that Mark said. (Laughs.) I didn’t feel that because I’ve always described Mark as a horror scholar as well. I think we both have an accessible writing style, and that it does not undermine the brilliance of the mind. This is a tough, complex topic. There are important lessons and messages that we also wanted to have readers take away about the power of Black horror, and that requires a different level of sophistication.
Robin, was there ever a moment where you wondered how to differentiate The Black Guy Dies First from your previous book, Horror Noire?
Means Coleman: It’s interesting because the second edition of Horror Noire came out just a few months before The Black Guy Dies First. What Horror Noire does is take this higher scholarship approach to race representation and treatment in front of and behind the screen, decade by decade. The Black Guy Dies First is far more accessible for the lay audience, and doesn’t have the more robust textbook/advanced scholarly requirements that you would see in a classroom text. So the heavy theoretical information, that undergirding, is not in The Black Guy Dies First. But I really am hesitant to compare them. They take up similar subject matter, but you see that they diverge really nicely into really distinct terrain. And it isn’t just the humor and the accessibility, but The Black Guy Dies First takes up a really different theme around representation in a way that Horror Noire doesn’t.
Do you think that’s a result of Horror Noire coming out before movies like Get Out?
Means Coleman: Oh, absolutely. The first edition of Horror Noire came out when really the only kind of sustained engagement with Black horror was Mark’s website. There are a few pieces here and there, but what Horror Noire did was give scholars the permission to really do sustained study of the genre, because up until that point, as you said, people were dismissive of not just horror, but Black horror. They were just not even interested in Black horror. And I can say that even with Horror Noire, my colleagues were saying, ‘Don’t write that book.’
Where do you see Black representation in horror and pop culture today?
MH: The past few years have been especially interesting. I know there are some statistics that came out recently about representation, and they say, ‘Oh, Black representation is actually over what the general population is.’ So it’s kind of hard to say, because I think things have been worked a bit by the whole coronavirus thing and the whole way that movies have been released in the past few years. I think the movies that were released were the Black movies, or the smaller movies that were more likely to have Black representation in them. [The studios] kind of held on to the bigger movies like Top Gun: Maverick that were more valuable to Hollywood. So that is kind of a reflection of how some of the statistics have really jumped in the last couple of years.
In general, things have definitely improved. But things have improved before, so I think it’s still a little too early to tell. I mean, we went through this with the blaxploitation era, with the ’90s urban era, where Black stuff was hot for several years. And then it just cools off. Things moved on.
So now we’re really talking about things kicking off in 2017 with Get Out, so it’s been about five or six years. So I think we’re at a critical point where it could go either way. It could go the way of blaxploitation, where things kind of fade out, or it could continue. What we really need is just more Black filmmakers, more voices. Right now it’s still primarily Jordan Peele [in the horror space]. And we have some others who have kind of done one-offs here and there, but I think we still need more sustained Black voices behind the camera and writing, directing, and producing to help ensure that this isn’t something that fades away like things have done in the past.