Wall Street Times

Blaxploitation, a divisive chapter in Black horror

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Blaxploitation — The early beginnings of Black horror eventually culminated with blaxploitation, a movie subgenre with a tangled history in entertainment. Although it began in a variety of genres, such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, blaxploitation would later permeate horror, most notably Blacula.

Blacula not only explored blaxploitation, but it also gave fresh life to the portrayal of vampires, particularly Dracula. While Bela Lugosi influenced how the renowned vampire will be represented in the future, William Marshall introduced a new tragedy to vampire lords.

Many who followed in Lugosi’s footsteps played the part in a humorously rigid manner, but Marshall made an impression in Blacula. He depicted the persona in such a way that African-Americans were seen as smart, strong, and well-spoken. Blacula’s success helped to generate blaxploitation in black horror, resulting in titles such as Blackenstein, Abby, Sugar Hill, and Bones.

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Other blaxploitation films

Blacula’s popularity sparked a surge of new Black horror films, allowing directors to offer audiences something different, shattering stereotypes of African Americans. While some films followed the model of replicating classic horror films with African American cast members, others brought fresh ideas.

Abby and Sugar Hill, for example, offer new light on how women acted in Black horror. 

Abby tracked the production of The Exorcist, which had an impact on its promotion. Warner Bros. forced American International Pictures to withdraw the picture from cinemas due to similarities to the Linda Blair-led blockbuster. However, it is still a popular film because of how it showed women as powerful, allowing them control over their own sexuality. Abby also left a lasting image of the woman’s opposition to the prescribed role of a church wife. 

Meanwhile, Sugar Hill used the classic voodoo theme in a revenge-centered narrative. It did, however, use the “vengeful woman” plot, which helped Marki Bey’s Diana “Sugar” Hill become a force to be reckoned with. Her performance shifted African American women’s power.

More than just a picture

Another Black horror film that rode the blaxploitation wave, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, imparted criticism on reasons for slavery and parallels to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. The studies on over 400 African American males with syphilis spanned five decades and served as a research on the disease’s consequences. The men were not made aware of the nature of the experiments.

Furthermore, the picture, like many other blaxploitation productions, addressed issues of race, class, and the Black Power Movement. For decades (and even now on social media), racist films compared African-Americans to apes. Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde attempted to weigh in on the evolutionary issues surrounding slavery. The Hyde creature turned the tables by portraying itself as an ape-like creature akin to the Frankenstein monster.

Instead, director William Crain depicted the white man as the cause of terror in a Black society. His idea to turn Hyde into a Frankenstein creature gave the character compassion as a lost person in a strange new universe. Crain got the idea from Elizabeth Young’s book, Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor, which is well-known in the African-American community. There is also a significant resemblance to the original King Kong, as he falls from a tower.

Class commentary is another issue addressed in Crain’s blaxploitation film, with Bernie Casey’s Dr. Henry Pride portrayed as a rich Black doctor who stood on a black-white dichotomy. He’s talked about selling out and seeking to blend in with white culture. Many people have pointed out that the character’s pursuit for a treatment for cirrhosis of the liver is a metaphor for his desire to heal the “black urban underclass.” There are times when he goes to places of his past to confirm his Blackness after crossing the line into the white professional class.

Experts and observers have also noted how Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde flips the roles that colors perform in typical movies. While there are conventional images of blaxploitation (prostitutes and outrageously dressed pimps), the film also recasts these roles by depicting how white people damage Black people. For example, the white automobile Prider uses underlined the truth of privileged whiteness’s destructive and violent character against Black people. Another symbolism employed in the film is Mr. Hyde, a white monster, going on a murdering rampage against African-Americans.

Bleeding into modern Black horror

Blaxploitation is still a contentious cinema subgenre, yet its influence on modern horror cannot be underestimated. For many years, if a Black neighborhood was depicted in an urban context in a film, blaxploitation clichés were nearly always present.

Snoop Dogg’s character in Bones, a 2001 film featuring him, would begin by repeating the impact of blaxploitation. Tales from the Hood, a 1995 anthology film, would make several references to various clichés popular in the early decades. Regardless of one’s viewpoint, there is no denying the immensity of blaxploitation’s effect.

However, blaxploitation, like other cinema subgenres and motifs, would gradually fade away, giving place to a new trend that would eventually be carved into the history of Black horror.