Zombie or Black Man?

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

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2 thoughts on “Zombie or Black Man?

  1. I actually acted in a stage version of Night of the Living Dead in High School and I love the script. It’s a fascinating film and a lot of fun to perform. This post connects to Katherine and my post on the role of race in casting (https://blst296.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/casting-racism/).

    When I performed in the show, I did some research on the movie and learned that the role of Ben, the black man who survives almost until the end, was originally written for a white man (https://www.thewrap.com/night-living-dead-casting-cult-classic-20545/) but the part went to Duane Jones because he was the best actor for the part. Jones completely altered the role, making Ben the educated, competent hero that is seen in the movie. The movie has a reputation for being one of the first films to cast a black man as the hero. The movie was seen when it came out as a revolutionary challenge to the traditional perceptions of race, not as reinforcing the classic tropes. It fascinates me how our perceptions of modernity evolve.

    It is an interesting challenge to the classic trope that a woman (generally white) survives until the end. I didn’t notice it at the time, but our cast matched the race of the original characters. Jeremy, who played Ben, was the best actor in my theater company. He went on to Julliard and now performs on Broadway and on television (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5898124/). I know he was cast in the role because he’s the most talented actor I’ve met; I now think the show was chosen with him in mind.

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  2. It is quite interesting to see how the prominence of black actors in film has drastically changed in the last century. Seeing a black man leading a starring role is not something that I would think twice about normally when watching a movie trailer.In addition to me being a young kid, the first time I saw the movie, the black and white film noir style somewhat took my attention off of the race of the characters. I realize that as I watch it now because although you can see Ben is a black man compared to the other characters, it is not as visually obvious as it is in color movies today.

    I find it refreshing that a role written originally for a white man was given to a black man based off of pure talent and merit, especially since it could have dramatically changed the viewer perception of the film and the audience it attracted, since it was released in a time of much racial prejudice. I am sure there were regular horror movie fanatics that were disappointed that the black man was victorious while his white counterparts were killed off.

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