A complete history of horror films is, no doubt, associated with a past of racism, tokenism, and stereotyping. In the 2019 documentary by filmmaker Xavier Burgin, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (based on a 2011 novel by Robin R. Means Coleman, Ph.D.), Black directors, actors, and producers explore the complicated history of Black people, in particular, as seen through the lens of a genre that has slowly evolved since the beginning of the 20th century.
And there are signs things have begun to change in a major way as of late, given the massive success of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, as well as its follow up, Us, both of which reflect or otherwise comment on the modern day experience of Black Americans. Together, with Burgin, Men’s Health has come up with a list of iconic horror movies directed by Black directors or starring Black actors worth watching (and rewatching a few dozen times) right now, beginning with a classic and progressing to the latest box-office smashes.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
In many ways, the history of Black horror film begins with this—the first ever flick in the genre to star a Black actor (Duane Jones). “For the first time, you’re truly seeing a Black actor take control of the situation and be the lead in a way we hadn’t seen, especially during the late 60s,” says Burgin. At the time of its release, when Black protagonists portrayed on film were incredibly rare, director George A. Romero said Jones was casted because he was “simply the best guy for the job.” After his death in 1988, Jones will forever be immortalized an essential figure in horror movies and film in general.
What begins as a grad student’s quest to debunk a Chicago-born urban legend quickly unravels into a complex tale that examines both race and oppression. (The film is seen as a representation of fear of urban society in the 90s; still, critics point out the problematic trope of Black men in pursuit of white women.) watch out for Jordan Peele’s remake in 2021, starring MH cover star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.
Get Out (2017)
Horror movies starring Black actresses are far and few in between-—the 1974 Sugar Hill is credited as one of the first films to do so—but in recent years, that’s begun to change. Peele’s Us, led brilliantly by Lupita Nyong’o, is one example of a handful of horror flicks that’s changing the face of scream queens and final girls.
Directed by a Black director (William Crain) and starring a Black actor (William Marshall), the 1972 film tells the the story of an 18th century prince sent to Transylvania to enlist the help of Dracula to end the slave trade. The film is hailed as having given rise to Blaxsploitation films of the 70s, an ethnic subgenre of film that catered to Black audiences and featured Black protagonists. “Crain made one of the most important, well-known films in the 70s as a 23-year old Black man in the industry,” says Burgin. “It was unprecedented.”
The Girl With all the Gifts (2016)
Based on a novel by the same name, this film centers around the character of Melanie (played by actress Sennia Nanua), who has one “gift”: She’s a sentient zombie-child, capable of restraining her urges for human flesh (for the most part). The fact that the film stars a young Black actress is, in and of itself, a major first.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Starring Jurnee Smollett and Samuel L. Jackson, the late 90s flick tells the story of a young girl living in Louisiana and her memory of an event that happens during the summer of 1962. “Some folks don’t consider it horror because it doesn’t have big scares, but I consider it a kind of Southern Gothic horror film,” says Burgin. “There aren’t too many films like this.”
Tales From the Hood (1995)
Executive-produced by Spike Lee, this cult-hit tells four stories based on issues that impacted Black communities during the 90s, including police violence and system racism. More than two decades later, a sequel emerged. Lee credits the success of Get Out as his reason for pursuing a second film.
Ganja & Hess (1973)
This cult classic follows an anthropologist (played by Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) who is stabbed by a dagger—and given the power of immortality. “It’s a vampire story in a more intimate, honest, and revolutionary way that you don’t see in most popcorn flicks,” says Burgin.
Horror Noire (2019)
Not a horror film so much as a riveting documentary by Burgin on the evolution of Black people’s roles within horror movies, which includes many of the movies above, as well as other iconic ones in history. Consider it essential viewing.
Oscar winner Octavia Spencer stars as Ma, a woman who decides to take revenge on the adults who bullied her in high school, and their children. Spencer gives a dedicated performance, even as other aspects of the film flounder. Critics weren’t a fan, but already Ma has become meme-worthy. A cult classic in the making maybe?
Snoop Dogg stars as Jimmy Bones, a ghost who comes back after 20 years seeking revenge and to clean up his beloved neighborhood. This Blaxploitation film also stars Pam Grier, and has become a cult classic since its initial release.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Def By Temptation (1990)
Two friends in New York City cross paths with a succubus named The Temptress. She seduces them both, then attempts to make them her next victims. Starring James Bond III, the film also features a young Samuel L. Jackson.
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