October 14, 2020

Strong Black Women Kicking Ass in Blaxploitation Horror

New Orleans voodoo

I watched an excellent documentary a while back called Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). As a horror fan, some of what it presented was not new to me. For example, it discussed the impact of Night of the Living Dead (1968), one of the first films to cast a Black actor in a lead role where he was clearly in charge of the situation in a way his White co-actors were not. It mentioned one of my personal favorites, Candyman (1992), and explained why it was so controversial at the time. And of course, it addressed some of the recent horror films by Black directors with which I was well-acquainted (e.g., Get Out and Us).

Fortunately, Horror Noire also went into detail about many aspects of Black cinema with which I was much less familiar (e.g., blaxploitation horror). I was already somewhat familiar with many of the more traditional blaxploitation films, but I had only seen a couple of the horror films. I grabbed a notepad and wrote down as many of the films they mentioned as I could. I almost always enjoy classic horror flicks, and they mentioned some I had never heard of.

I crossed off the first film on my list the other night, Sugar Hill (1974). It was a good voodoo zombie flick that certainly fell into the blaxploitation camp and had one really interesting feature that set it apart from almost every other zombie film I've seen. The eyes of the zombies looked like they were made of reflective metal, and it was a really cool effect on film. It was strange how such a simple thing made such a difference in upping the creepiness factor.

I think I understand why the blaxploitation stuff is controversial. Many of those films generated controversy when they were first released. If I remember correctly, the NAACP and some other prominent Black organizations strongly opposed them for perpetuating harmful stereotypes. I suspect some of the woke crowd would like to ban them today even though they are regularly cited by contemporary Black filmmakers as influential.

When I watch one of these films, I try to put myself in the shoes of a young Black person going to see the film when it was first released. I can't help thinking how impactful it must have been to suddenly see people in lead roles who looked like them. Most films released in the late 60s and early 70s either did not include any Black actors or cast them as sidekicks or villains. In the blaxploitation films, most of the cast was Black, and the Black leads were almost always dominant characters. It wasn't just that they were the stars of these movies; many got to put White racists in their place. I never had difficulty understanding the appeal of these films. After all, this White kid had no problem looking up to Shaft or Foxy Brown.

Sugar Hill was true to this mold, casting a strong Black woman as the lead and depicting her getting revenge on White racists who had killed her boyfriend. But since this was a horror flick and not a straight-ahead action film, she did it with the help of a voodoo priestess and a horde of zombies with cool eyes. I'm not sure how many films there were during this era that featured dominant women kicking ass in lead roles, but this was a common theme in the blaxploitation genre. It seems like it took White filmmakers a bit longer to figure out that this works (e.g., 1979's Alien).

So while I can understand why some people did not and still do not appreciate blaxploitation films, I'm not one of them. Yes, they are dated. And yes, many of them have some blatantly racist dialogue (including Sugar Hill). But it seems to me that they did far more good for racial and gender equality than any harm they might have caused. Giving us so many strong Black heroes, including strong Black women, at a time when this was extremely rare in White cinema has to be worth something.

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