- Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Robin R. Means Coleman
I eagerly purchased this book when it first came out, and after being asked to review it, I read it a second time. My initial reactions were generally confirmed upon rereading: while this is a fascinating and important topic, and Professor Coleman covers an impressive range of films, the book does not add many new insights to the topic, especially for readers already familiar with horror films and/or the history of Black participation and representation within the American film industry. Despite my sharing with Professor Coleman a western Pennsylvania upbringing steeped in the veneration of George Romero’s locally produced zombie films (and their well-known antiracist agendas), I could not help being disappointed with this book. Much of what is covered in Horror Noire has been explored by other authors in greater depth in previous publications and with more theoretical sophistication. As such, the book reads more like an overview of its topic: a volume that might (and hopefully will) inspire future research but one that does not make a significant contribution in and of itself to the scholarship surrounding race and the horror film.
Coleman begins her book by making a distinction between “Black horror films” and “Blacks in horror” films. The former is a horror film made by and for African Americans and “draws on specific tropes of Black culture [such as] Southern Black church rituals, Black urban [End Page 183] spaces, Black masculinity performances, and Black vernacular, music, style, and other aesthetic features.”1 “Blacks in horror” films, in contrast, “have historically, and typically, been produced by non-Black filmmakers for mainstream consumption.”2 Coleman favors the former over the latter for obvious reasons, given the institutionalized racism of the American film industry. Yet this distinction, based as it is on a simplistic and essentialist version of auteur theory, seems reductive, especially when the potential analysis of individual films might complicate it. For example, the “Black horror film” Son of Ingagi (Richard C. Kahn, 1940), written by and starring prolific race filmmaker Spencer Williams, is praised by Coleman for its depiction of the Black middle class, including a Black female scientist. However, the film also encodes—without irony or critique—one of the era’s most virulently racist tropes, that is, that Blacks are apes or like apes or mate with apes. (The film centers on a house “haunted” by a half-human, half-ape monster played by a Black actor.) Specifically, the film’s unfortunate title positions it as a sequel to an earlier exploitation film (Ingagi; William Campbell, 1930) that purported to show (Black) women and apes in sexual situations. Even beyond the reference to Ingagi, however, the film implies that its female scientist is possibly the ape-man’s mother, especially in scenes wherein she treats him in a tender, protective fashion. Coleman writes that the film “subtly advances the notion of interbreeding” but “does not explore the ape-human connection, dealing with the monster simply as a beast on the prowl.”3 But how could audiences (racist or otherwise) not have made that “ape-human connection” when the film repeatedly suggests it? And how or why did Black filmmakers make a film that revolves around such a racist trope? A deeper exploration of the cinematic text and its contexts would be helpful here, as would drawing more deeply on previous scholarship (as, for example, that by Rhona J. Berenstein on 1930s “jungle horror” films, or by Eric Schaefer on the classical exploitation film).4
Chapter 1, “The Birth of the Black Boogeyman (Pre-1930s),” begins by recapping some of Donald Bogle’s assertions about derogatory stereotypes of Blacks in early silent cinema, before locating said “birth” in D. W. Griffith’s infamous Birth of a Nation (1915).5 Coleman compares Griffith’s menacing rapist Gus to Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the creature in Frankenstein (1931), a move that feels strained...