5 Essential Horror Films That Were Made By Black Directors

The best way to celebrate Halloween, especially this year of staying at home to stay safe during this pandemic, is to watch some spooky movies. Now, most horror movies that are usually categorized as classic and iconic are probably mostly filled with white casts and/or have white directors attached. This isn’t a groundbreaking thought, but it’s easy to see that most genre films (sci-fi, horror, romance, fantasy, etc.) are not usually a space for representations of people of color. I think even non-horror movie fans are familiar with the terrible horror movie trope that includes killing off black characters first.

I learned a lot about the history of black horror during quarantine when I watched a great, information-packed documentary (that you can find on Shudder for free) called, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. It was absolutely fascinating to see the history of film and how the black community has turned to horror as escapism starting with “Blaxploitation” films in the early 1970s. These are films like Blackula, which were not ideal since they were made to exploit Black communities for money. Although not perfect in representation, it was an important moment for Black communities after years of seeing themselves either erased from the genre or being the monstrous “other” in earlier horror movies. Black horror has definitely gone through a lot of development and change since the 1970s, particularly now, where we are able to see critically-acclaimed Black-made stories with Black characters at the forefront, such as Jordan Peele’s Us and Get Out. There is still a lot more work to get done in order to hopefully and finally normalize having more people of color being at the forefront of genre films. Those of us in the Great Audience can help by supporting Black-led films already in existence. Here is a list of some of the other essential and brilliant Black-directed horror flicks to watch this Halloween season:

  1. 1. Ganja and Hess

    Let's be honest, most vampire romance films which come to mind in our time start and nearly end with Twilight, though my parents tell me Love at First Bite (1979) is maybe worth seeing. Either way, it’s white-dominated. Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess is nearly unique in the Vampire Romance sub-genre as it features two African American actors in a bloody but also sensual, romantic film about vampires and the forbidden romance we all can love. In the film, blood-drinking becomes a metaphor for addiction, and it also shows the wealthy African American leading man, Dr. Hess, have a reason to be afraid of the police. This film received a standing ovation at the Cannes film festival, but it was buried when it got to America.

  2. 2. Eve’s Bayou

    It’s very common for horror films to associate black women with voodoo. The trope makes Black women frightening as they wield their voodoo-based power. That’s what makes Black female director, Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou so intriguing because the story uses voodoo to explore violence against Black women. As horror films are often allegories about societal pain or trauma, this film is an important viewing as it explores family trauma from the perspective of a young Black girl. The film features amazing performances from Samuel L. Jackson, who is truly menacing here, and from Jurnee Smollett, who plays the young girl in the film. Smollett is now in the groundbreaking new HBO show, Lovecraft Country. This film also snugly fits within the traditional Gothic genre, so if you like Gothic literature, or Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House, you will love Eve’s Bayou.

  3. 3. Tales From the Hood

    Rusty Cundieff’s cult classic is a groundbreaking anthology horror film, as it also dealt with issues of domestic abuse, police brutality, gang violence and the oh so familiar racist politicians. The anthology ultimately weaves a single supernatural story about revenge and retribution--and, on a perhaps ironic level, justice. This film was released in 1995, not long after the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of white cops who brutalized Rodney King, which was a critical factor in making this a hit among at least Black audiences.

  4. 4. The First Purge

    I am not going to lie, I never cared for The Purge franchise. So, when I read about George McMurray directing a Purge prequel, I thought this may be interesting, especially if it shows how a purge could be most harmful to lower-income communities and communities dominated by people of color. McMurray perfectly captures the intersections of race and class in this film, but he also makes an exciting and bloody horror movie. It is also great to see Black characters be heroic and at the heart of the story.

  5. 5. Atlantics

    This last film is not from an African-American director. Mati Diop, a woman born in France, but whose family is from Senegal, directed this post-colonial horror film, showing how the effects of colonialism can haunt a society as much as a ghoul or vampire. This film is also, at its core, a profoundly moving love story. I was lucky enough to see this film during my European Motion Picture history class at UCLA while we discussed films that came out of the era of Post Colonial films. Diop develops themes of migration, exploitation and grief in this eerie and barrier-breaking film.

So, this Halloween, why not take a chance on some new horror films instead of the tried and increasingly tired--and maybe support diverse artists who don’t get the mainstream hype others get in our celebrity-focused world?  Each of these films I’ve discussed are iconic and rich in storytelling and characters. They are also just really entertaining! Some of these films will get under your skin and will keep you up at night, while others will make you laugh at their sheer absurdity. People of color should be provided the same space in genre films as white men and women, as we all deserve to enjoy escape and fantasy. As with literature, films are about sharing stories and experiences, and if we do not include people of color’s stories and experiences, we are all poorer in our culture and our lives. The film industry is getting a little better when it comes to giving more opportunities to non-white men in allowing them into the space of "genre" films, such as the horror and superhero genres. We should therefore support these artists and their work whenever we can. So, what are you waiting for? Grab some popcorn or maybe even your favorite pumpkin spice dessert and marathon some of these wild and scary horror movies!