Casual racism is present as much in horror movies as it is in society at large and with the recent release of Get Out, a horror that focusses on exactly that issue, we are forced to ask ourselves how much progress has really been made?
Get Out, directed by comedian Jordan Peele (Key and Peele), hones in on the kind of race prejudice that is still all-too common in parts of Western society. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, an African-American who accompanies his white girlfriend on a visit to her parents' house in a rich suburban neighbourhood that harbours a dark secret.
Peele explores the nature of micro-aggressions within white suburban society, and how they have a major effect on the African-American population who find themselves in that environment. He puts the audience entirely in Chris’s shoes as he is thrust unwittingly into a judgemental group of like-minded sociopaths who slyly attempt to make him feel out of place and less entitled than they are, so as to affirm their power and maintain their community’s hierarchy. Placing this subject in a horror context lets the audience experience the emotions and fear of being in Chris’ shoes on a more visceral level, and it allows the viewer to better comprehend the disrespect and downright prejudice that African-Americans have to put up with on a daily basis in some parts of America even today.
As with any kind of discrimination, the question isn’t really why this is still happening but how it took the film industry so long to address it? When a horror film shedding light on casual racism in America is seen as unusual in an industry more at home with having the black guy die first, it begs the question of how such basic attitudes towards race discrimination have still managed to persist.
Get Out is by no means the first horror film to present race prejudice in a terrifying and deadly scenario. Intentionally or otherwise, Candyman (1992) also adopted the pose of presenting society’s 'fear' of the black man as a horror to which a predominantly white audience would relate. Casting Tony Todd as the supernatural character of the title whom all of the protagonists fear immediately raises the issue of why a black actor was cast in the role in the first place. In the film, African-American culture provides the clue to the dangerous puzzle whose solution is being sought by a white female researcher named Helen, after a number of deaths result from people uttering Candyman's name five times in front of a mirror. This stereotypical notion of a particular racial type being in thrall to magic and the power of voodoo is presented in Candyman as a spooky vibe emanating from an entire culture, thus perpetuating a view that plays to inherent racism.
The idea of 'outsiders', of different cultural groups, being the source of evil in horror films has been there since the beginning, however. The likes of Fu Manchu and the 'Yellow Peril' were popular villains in books and films of the 1920s and '30s, and themes involving black magic and zombies invariably laid themselves at the door of Afro-Caribbean peoples. Nowadays, South Africans and Serbians make good villains - especially after the recent Balkan war. But blacks remain particularly prone to fall into the villainous category, which on the one hand plays to the 'dark man' of ritual magic but more significantly points up a continuing prejudice within the American industry.
The difference between a horror film dealing specifically with the stigma of racism and one that itself incorporates racist attitudes without realising it is enormous. Films such as Candyman portray the black man as a villain possessed of unnatural powers - monstrous even - without necessarily condoning the incitement to prejudice based on stereotyping that its theme might encourage.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) is another example of treading the thin line between positive and negative views on race. Director George A Romero made African-American character Ben (Duane Jones) the hero, and his death at the end of the film proved to be a strong Civil Rights statement, but he is subjected by the script to constant challenges from the other male lead who doesn’t want to give over control to Ben, while the women in the film are often distressed and unsettled by Ben’s presence, rather than feeling safe as a result of his noble intentions. In Romero's design, all of this was meant to make the same anti-prejudicial point, but simply exemplifying it still runs the danger of appealing to base instinct in some sections of the audience.
Even a major horror film like The Shining (1980) can include a stereotypical black - in the case of Kubrick's epic, it is Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), a wise old shaman who uniquely knows what’s going on with Danny and his gift of 'shining' and is killed as soon as he reveals the secret. A similar character occurs in the Final Destination franchise in the form of the 'mortician' who stands in for the medieval figure of Death and warns of the fate that awaits the protagonists in trying to outwit it. No coincidence that the character in Final Destination 2, 3 and 5 (as well as that of Ben in the Night of the Living Dead remake) was also played by Candyman actor Tony Todd.
The ‘token black man’ trope is perhaps a more commonly recognisable role for an actor of African-American origin. The idea of such a token character is primarily a cynical sop to avoid accusations of prejudice and feign observance of racial representaion in the wider society. Which at least is some improvement on the incluson of blacks in American films of the 1930s, whose presence was simply to provide light comic relief of the pop-eyed, 'Yes, massa', Amos 'n' Andy variety. But the token character can still be found in the horror cinema of today, most recently in The Bye Bye Man, played by former Coronation Street actor Lucien Laviscount.
Racial stereotyping has been present in cinema since DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation employed the KKK as black-baiting defenders of white female virtue in 1915. America has retained an underlying fear of Afro types since slavery was abolished in 1865. This inherent neurosis that one day the black man might rise up and take communal revenge for the sins of the past has been transformed into the mythic in many a horror film since. But if Candyman can teach us anything, it’s that we could be saying 'Helen, Helen, Helen, Helen, Helen' into our bathroom mirrors instead, because maybe, just maybe, the majority white population are every bit as much of a threat.