Why is it that jokes we may so easily make such as “oh of course the black person got killed first” while watching horror movies seem to hold truth?
Maybe it is because films we watch have underlying racial implications that we never really understand because they haven’t been deciphered in popular movie reviews or media. Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968 follows the plot of a zombie epidemic that forces a family, a wife, and a single man to take refuge in a house being attacked by zombies. The movie, which is in black and white, casts all white characters except the main character who is a black man. At the end of the film, daylight breaks and a series of events leads him be the sole survivor of the mass murders. He peeks his head out of a window when he hears the state troopers coming to the rescue, and then is shot in the head.
First watching the film, it is understood that the scene is as follows: the troopers mistook him for a zombie, and therefore shot him. However I remember when watching the movie with my dad as an eleven year old he said that it was expected that would happen. He explained that a black man was rarely portrayed as the hero of a movie or the sole survivor, especially in a film with so many white characters. I was confused and he said that they rarely let the black man stay alive or leave him in prevailing position over the other characters, especially those who were not of color. This film crosses racial boundaries as it represented the shifting racial state of the country at the end of the Civil Rights Movement. There was more acceptance and use of African American characters, however they did not have the roles white people had. While this film did mainly receive attention for its gore and horror aspects, the ending scene places such emphasis on the black male Ben, who, while portrayed as strong and competent throughout the action of the film, is unable to survive.
This situation reminds us of what the authors of Racecraft talk about when they explain the situation of a white police officer mistaking his Afro American partner for a criminal: “Racism did not require a racist. It required only that, in the split second before firing the fatal shot, the white officer entered the twilight zone of America’s race craft.” This showed that although the whtie officer was mourning from his actions, in the split second before he pulled the trigger, his actions may have been accelerated by unconscious racial prejudices he may have had. If it had been a whtie man, he may have taken another second to examine the man’s facial features to determine if he had the right person. In the same way that Night of the Living Dead did not have the story line leave the black man alive, it was continued a trend of the roles of colored people in theatre in film in the 20th century.
– Jessye McVane and Christa Kerr