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Delving into blaxploitation in horror

Blaxploitation — We looked at the initial stages of Black horror in the last article, which led to blaxploitation, a film subgenre with a tangled history in entertainment. Blaxploitation began in a variety of genres, such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but swiftly transitioned to horror, most notably Blacula.

Blacula not only studied blaxploitation, but it also changed how vampires, notably Dracula, were portrayed. While Bela Lugosi had an impact on subsequent vampire representations, William Marshall took vampire masters to new heights.

Many actors who followed in Bela Lugosi’s footsteps played the role in a ridiculously stiff manner, but Marshall made a reputation for himself with Blacula. He portrayed African-Americans in a way that made them appear intelligent, strong, and articulate. The success of Blacula paved the way for blaxploitation in films that included Blackenstein, Abby, Sugar Hill, and Bones.

Other blaxploitation films

Blacula’s success sparked a flood of new Black horror films, allowing directors to give audiences something unique while erasing misconceptions about African Americans. Some were adaptations of well-known horror films that alternatively starred African American performers, while others were wholly new concepts.

Abby and Sugar Hill, for instance, provided a fresh perspective on how women got involved with Black horror. 

Abby tracked the production of The Exorcist to see how it influenced the film’s marketing. Due to similarities to the Linda Blair-led movie, Warner Bros. compelled American International Pictures to pull the film from theaters. It is still a well-known film, though, since it depicted women as emancipated, enabling them to make decisions about their own sexuality. Abby also symbolized the feminine rejection of the religious wife’s mandatory duty. 

Sugar Hill, on the other hand, blended a vengeance storyline with a typical voodoo notion. The “vengeful woman” story catapulted Diana “Sugar” Hill to fame. Her act altered the idea of African American women’s strength in the horror and entertainment industries.

More than just a picture

Another blaxploitation-era Black horror film, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, questioned the origins of slavery and made connections to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Almost 400 African American males with syphilis were studied for five decades to better understand the disease’s impact. The men were not informed of the purpose of the study.

Furthermore, the film, like many other blaxploitation films, tackled problems of racism, class, and the Black Power Movement. Racist films connected African-Americans with monkeys for decades (and continue to do so on social media). Mr. Hyde and Dr. Black endeavored to express their opinions on slavery’s evolution. The appearance of the Hyde creature as an ape-like creature akin to the Frankenstein monster altered the direction of the tale.

Director William Crain, on the other hand, portrayed white people as the root of all evil in African-American culture. His effort to turn Hyde into a Frankenstein monster evoked sympathy for the character as a lonely man in an unusual situation. Crain took the idea from well-known African-American author Elizabeth Young’s book Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor. He has a vision of the original King Kong as he falls from a towering edifice.

Class critique is another theme in Crain’s blaxploitation film, with Bernie Casey’s Dr. Henry Pride presented as a rich Black doctor who transcends the black-white divide. He’s considered selling out and assimilating into white society. Several have noted that the character’s effort to an effective therapy for cirrhosis of the liver is a metaphor for his ambition to change the “black urban underclass.” There are occasions in which he heads back to spots from his past in order to demonstrate his Blackness after overcoming a barrier and stepping into the white professional class.

Experts and laypeople alike have remarked on how Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde reverses the roles of different colors in traditional films. While there is traditional blaxploitation imagery (prostitutes and well dressed pimps), the film also redefines these characters by showing how white people harm Black people. The white car Prider drives, for example, demonstrates rich whites’ damaging and nasty attitude toward Black people. Mr. Hyde, a white monster who embarks on a murderous spree against African-Americans, is another metaphor used in the film.

Bleeding into modern Black horror

Despite the fact that blaxploitation is still a disputed film subgenre, its effect on current horror cannot be understated. For many years, movies depicting a Black neighborhood in a metropolis almost always included blaxploitation themes.

Snoop Dogg’s appearance in Bones, a 2001 film in which he stars, would have the same impact as Blaxploitation. The 1995 anthology film Tales from the Hood contains various references to early-century stereotypes. Whatever one’s feelings are, there’s no disputing that blaxploitation made an impact.

However, blaxploitation, like other film subgenres and themes, faded over time, giving rise to a new trend that would eventually be written in the history of Black horror.

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