Black folks make everything better. Sports, cuisine, entertainment—you name it. And when it comes to cinema, the horror genre is no different.
Black representation in film has long swayed between problematic (blackface) and brilliant (leading Black faces). From the late 1960s to the present, we’ve seen more and more Black folks gracing the big screen in scary films, challenging America’s subjugation of Black people by putting them in roles typically reserved for Caucasian actors. With this came the frustrating side effect of providing more bodies to depict progressively gorier deaths—not to mention the eye-rolling trope of (white) scriptwriters killing off Black characters as quickly as possible.
Yet still, adding color to the scary movie genre has made for some unforgettable viewing experiences. With Candyman, we’ve got a series of films that a large sect of people refuse to reference by name to this day, due to the folklore tied to the titular character. Who could forget the horror film turns of music stars like Busta Rhymes, Kelly Rowland, and Brandy in Halloween: Resurrection, Freddy vs. Jason, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, respectively. Non-Wayans films aside, the Scary Movie franchise, although parody, is untouchable. And Jordan Peele’s work in the last half decade or so has helped to entirely reshape racial horror in his image.
Authors Mark H. Harris and Robin R. Means Coleman celebrate the Black horror subgenre via their new book, The Black Guy Dies First, Black Horror From Fodder to Oscar, which dropped last month. With this year marking the 55th anniversary of the seminal film Night of the Living Dead—and the upcoming release of the comedy horror film, The Blackening—LEVEL reached out to Harris for his 10 must-see Black horror films, ranked and summarized in his own words. —As told to Shane Paul Neil
10. Ganja & Hess (1973)
Bill Gunn’s long-hidden gem from the ’70s is an artsy, surreal, intellectual take on vampire lore that touches upon everything from addiction to racial identity, cultural appropriation, religion, capitalism, materialism, sexuality, gender roles, and class exploitation.
9. Candyman (1992)
Although the original Candyman’s Black characters are a bit problematic, you can’t deny the smooth-yet-scary power of Tony Todd originating the iconic titular role, the ghost of a lynched Black man turned urban legend.
8. Demon Knight (1995)
In this fun siege tale from director Ernest Dickerson, Jada Pinkett—playing the spunky and resourceful Jeryline, whose work duty at a seedy boarding house is interrupted by an onslaught of demons—proves there is such a thing as a Black “final girl.”
7. The First Purge (2018)
The turbocharged fourth film in the Purge franchise gets Blackity-Blackity-Black, not only with director Gerard McMurray taking over the reins, but also with the militant story of government-sponsored genocide targeting Black and Brown populations with white supremacist mercenaries.
6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s black-and-white classic revolutionized zombie lore by turning them into cannibalistic corpses while also revolutionizing what it meant to be a horror hero, casting Duane Jones as the leader of a ragtag group of people holed up in a farmhouse during a zombie uprising.
5. Good Manners (2017)
Part horror, part romance, part fable, part musical, this enchanting Brazilian film shines a light on the overlooked role of Black housekeepers, in this case a woman who finds herself taking care of her boss’ young son, who has a hairy secret that emerges every full moon.
4. Us (2019)
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out expands the scope of his storytelling with an ambitious, imaginative, thrilling, and metaphorical plot about a doppelganger uprising, featuring perhaps the best performance(s) of Lupita Nyong'o's career.
3. Attack the Block (2011)
A pre-Star Wars John Boyega leads a group of inner-city London teens to ward off alien invaders in this rousing British film that captures the adventurous spirit of the 1980s “kids on bikes” films with an R-rated horror edge.
2. His House (2020)
If horror was more widely considered worthy of Oscar consideration, this British tale about South Sudanese refugees placed in a haunted house in England would’ve been a prime candidate, as it’s full of wonderful performances, emotional resonance, and social commentary on top of grade-A scares.
1. Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s game-changer for Black horror couples terror with brains, delivering an insightful, fresh look at racism coming not from the typically portrayed hate-mongering Southerners, but rather from liberal Northerners who LOVE Black people… a bit too much.
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