This article is part of the USSO special series Resilience/Renewal: Shifting Lanscapes in American Studies
The representation of blackness and black masculinity within American horror films has been a multifaceted and complicated journey that has reflected societal changes. However, the 1960s changed this narrative when, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, George A. Romero released Night of the Living Dead. For the first time, horror audiences were presented with an African American protagonist (played by Duane Jones) who is heroic, intelligent and does not conform to the traditions of an angry black man. However, there are still racist undertones present in the film, most notably in its climactic scene. Despite the director denying any intention for his work to offer a commentary on race,[i] it unconsciously reflects the turbulence of the time and is of enduring relevance to this day. The film ends with Ben’s death at the hands of white policemen who mistake him for a zombie or what I have named The Monstrous Noir—a threat, an external other, someone to be feared and not worthy of living.[ii] For a long time, it seemed black lives did not matter in the horror genre, with Black men, especially, being seen as figures of fear and contempt rather than totalised good entities.
This trope of the death of the central black characters continued into the 1990s. The journey took a rebellious, reactionary detour via Blacksploitation films, such as Blacula and Ganja and Hess. Still, no other truly notable example existed until Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992). Candyman (Tony Todd) was a black man of the 1800s lynched by a group of white individuals; he takes revenge in the present on anyone who dares to call his name five times in front of the mirror. This depiction of Candyman reinforces the same derogatory stereotypes of black masculinity we see in Night. Black male existence within horror becomes politicised: the black body, particularly the black male body, becomes a site of trauma and uneven power dynamics within society. After Candyman, representations of black masculinity in horror lay more or less stagnant—until Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) changed the landscape of the horror genre and the representation of black masculinity within it.
Get Out showcases the resilience of its black male protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), and serves as a restoration of the black male in horror, as viewers see him through a different lens. Including a heroic black protagonist and white antagonists, the film highlights critical themes such as the state of American politics at the time and the rise of the BLM Movement. Jordan Peele even stated, “I really made Get Out for black audiences; the great thing about Get Out is that it is from a black perspective and centres on a black protagonist, but white audiences can easily identify with him and cheer him on.” [iii] Thus, Peele allows audiences to see the world and the challenges that face minority groups—perhaps for the first time.
Chris’ girlfriend is a white woman called Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). He goes to meet her family, where the chaos unfolds. By the film’s end, viewers discover that the Armitage family have been abducting black people with “talent” or from poorer areas within America and are implanting white brains into black bodies, rendering the black consciousness inaccessible. In some ways, black individuals become controlled and used by the white elite. This provides an apt commentary on tired stereotypes of black individuals being good at music, sports and fighting. This is even commented on by Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who asks Chris if he is an MMA fan; once Chris responds no, as the sport “is too brutal” for him, Jeremy responds with a very troubling statement: “Cause with your frame and your genetic makeup, if you really pushed your body, and I mean really train, you know? No pussyfooting around, you’d be a fucking beast.”[iv] This statement tells of the stereotype still held about black men in society being athletic and assumed to be good at sports. The use of the word “beast” is also an act of microaggression—it reinforces the derogatory stereotype of the animalistic black man, which has been supported in the media since the mid-1800s and still continues today.
The comparison to animals also appears earlier in the film. On the drive to her parent’s house, Rose knocks over a deer. Once she tells her father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), he responds, “One down, a couple thousand to go, I don’t mean to get on my high horse, but I’m telling you I do not like the deer, I’m sick of it, they are taking over, they are like rats, they are destroying the ecosystem, and when I see a dead deer at the side of the road, I say that’s a start.”[v] This has demeaning connotations, as it is clear that Dean is not talking about deer but black men. Chris starts to become uncomfortable but attempts to look through a well-rounded lens and never perpetrates acts of violence until the film’s end, done then as an act of self-defence.
This makes Get Out so different as it contradicts the stereotypes that are often perpetuated in the media of black men being drug dealers, violent and even animalistic. These harmful stereotypes continue today as researchers have found that black men are overrepresented as perpetrators of violent crime, especially on news coverage, and are underrepresented in more sympathetic roles, such as a victim.’[vi] This was not the case for Get Out, as Chris problematised these stereotypes.
As well as being met with microaggression, he is instantly positioned as the “other”; an object to be gawked at. This positioning leaves him feeling uncomfortable: he reports to the Armitage’s black maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who has the brain of Rose’s grandmother, “when there are too many white faces, I get nervous” [Get Out, 00:52.43]. Robin Wood comments that “Otherness represents that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognise or accept but must deal with in one of two ways, by either (a.) rejecting, and if possible annihilating it or (b.) rendering it safe and assimilating it, converting it as far as possible into a replica of itself.” [vii] Get Out shows both; not only is the black body annihilated by the implantation of the white brain, but in some ways, the black body is still hypothetically allowed to live, albeit with a white consciousness. In a multifarious way, this has elements of assimilation, raising complex questions about the black body and how it becomes politicised.
By the film’s end, Chris breaks free from his captors by murdering them in acts of self-defence, but audiences are left nervous as he hovers over Rose’s dead body and we see the flashing of a police car’s blue and red lights. This imagery invokes Night of The Living Dead where the black man is shot dead, reaffirming his low status within the horror genre. But no such scenario happens, for it is Chris’ friend Rod, who is in the police car, and he emerges narrowly unscathed. In this way, Get Out subverts audience expectations and rewrites the narrative.
This makes Get Out so innovative; we see the black man as Final Boy, a subversion of the Final Girl trope that pervades horror. He survives in the face of adversity, and the film gives power to someone who would otherwise be powerless and discriminated against. Since Ben from Night first appeared on our screens in 1968, it seemed that black men did not matter in horror films. But Get Out shows that they do. It has taken decades to get the formula right, but Peele has mastered it. The changing face of black masculinity in the genre has been a slow and gruelling process, from derogatory stereotypes to more ambivalent ones to, finally, Chris: a worthy and sophisticated protagonist who gestures to the beginning of the end of such derogatory representations. Get Out has changed the face of horror as it specifically depicts the societal anxieties of black people in America and the everyday challenges they face, including racism, discrimination, and the threat of violence. As Ernest Dickerson states in the documentary Horror Noire, “[Get Out] really shows how horror films can really talk about things affecting us [black people].”[viii] In this way, Get Out marks a renewal of black masculinity in horror films, and it will be interesting to see how this grows and expands in the years to come with trailblazers like Jordan Peele, changing the face of horror forever.
Xavier Burgin (dir.) Horror Noire Documentary, Stage 3 Productions, February 7 2019, Accessed 02 December 2022, Shudder.
William Crain (dir.) Blacula, American International Pictures, August 25, 1972
Joe Cornish (dir.) Attack the Block, Optimum Releasing, 12 March 2011
D.W. Griffith (dir.) Birth of a Nation, Epoch Producing Co, February 8, 1915
Bill Gunn (dir.) Ganja and Hess, Kelly-Ann Enterprises, April 20, 1973
Stanley Kubrick (dir.) The Shining, Warner Bros, May 23, 1980.
Jordan Peele (dir.) Get Out, Universal Pictures, February 24, 2017
George A Romero (dir.) Night of the Living Dead, Continental Distributing, October 1, 1968
Bernard Rose (dir.) Candy Man, TriStar Pictures, October 16, 1992.
Don Siegal (dir.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Allied Artists Pictures, February 5, 1956
[i] Matt Becker, “A Point of Little Hope: Hippie Horror Films and Politics of Ambivalence” The Velvet Trap 57 (2006), p.58.
[ii] Lakkaya Palmer, “Reclaiming The Monster Within”, in Hear Us Scream Voices of Horror Volume II (eds.) Blayne Waterloo, Catherine Benstead, Rebecca McCallum and Violet Burns, (Independent Publisher, 2022), p.22.
[iii] Noah Berlatsky, “the enlightening doc Horror Noire lays out black history through black horror films: With interviewees Jordan Peele, Keith David, William Crain, and more” The Verge (2019) https://www.theverge.com/2019/2/1/18206521/horror-noire-review-black-horror-movies-jordan-peele-get-out-tananarive-due-tony-todd-candyman [accessed 02/12/22]
[iv] Jeremey [00:24.38] in Jordan Peele (dir.) Get Out, Universal PicturesUnited States, 2017)
[v] Dean [00:15.19] in Jordan Peele (dir.) Get Out (United States, 2017)
[vi] Robert Entman & Kimberley Gross, “Race to Judgement: Stereotyping Media and Criminal Defendants”, 71 Law and Contemporary Problems (Fall 2008), p.98
[vii] Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan… And Beyond. Expanded and Revised Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), pp.65-66.
[viii] Ernest Dickerson, [00:3.48] Horror Noire Documentary (dir.) Xavier Burgin (Shudder: United States, 2019)