One of my most anticipated nonfiction books this year was The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar by Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD and Mark H. Harris. I have long been a big fan of horror movies, and race studies are undeniably of great importance. This work of nonfiction offers a timely intersection of the two, examining the representation of Blackness within horror films and how it has evolved over the past century.
One year ago, I enjoyed a book called Black Love Matters by Jessica P. Pryde, a collection of essays on the representation of Black people in romance. Now, we have an equally important look at race representation, but in a totally different genre: horror. The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar delves into numerous aspects of Black horror, from the characters to the actors to the people behind the camera, from comedic elements to religion to the intersection with social justice issues. It’s an engaging and informative look at my favorite genre of movies, offering readers a bit of fun while also challenging their perspective on films both old and new.
The book begins with an overview of Black representation in horror through the decades. Early on, Black actors were limited in the kinds of characters they could play in horror, often being relegated to “spooks” or undefined groups of “tribal” people. Over time, the types of roles changed, but more often than not, Black characters were killed off first and were less likely to survive to the end of the film. The Black Guy Dies First offers a tongue-in-cheek list of the ways Black people most commonly die in films, as well as a hilarious section on advice for how to survive if you are Black and find yourself in a horror movie.
My favorite chapter was on Woke Horror, in which the authors examine how social issues are addressed in scary movies. Indeed, many of today’s issues are perfect inspiration for horror and add to the sense of dread and fear. Perhaps the obvious issue here is racism and and the many ways Black people are mistreated to this day. However, other kinds of social horrors are also prevalent in films: sexism, xenophobia, class inequality, the climate crisis, and much more. Throughout the chapters, examples of specific movies that address these social issues are provided.
From there, the book goes into the representation of Black religion in horror (from the overuse and misuse of voodoo to Christianity) and comedy within the genre. Indeed, Black actors have often been relegated to comedic roles—early on as “spooks,” then transforming into, for example, the funny best friend who doesn’t understand why white people always decide to split up.
The final chapter is also particularly important, discussing why representation matters and examining different intersectionalities of Blackness within horror. Who are the people writing and directing films? It’s only recently that we’re seeing a rise in Black people behind the cameras and developing the movies, and they tend to produces films with a lot more on-screen diversity. How about Black women within the array of roles in filmmaking? How often do movie viewers seen Black characters who are also queer or transgender? Then consider who plays the villains, who gets to be the hero, and why Black people deserve to be seen in all kinds of roles: the good and the bad, the hero and the villain.
The Black Guy Dies First is an engaging and fun read from start to finish, even as it talks about important topics. And as it discusses horror films in great detail, you can expect a multitude of movies to be mentioned, old and new alike. One word of warning: This book expects readers to either already have seen the movies discussed or be okay with spoilers. Because indeed, with most of the movies mentioned here, the authors also talk about the ending, revealing plot twists and who lives and who dies. I myself have seen many of the newer movies, though some I’ve been planning to watch were somewhat spoiled in reading this. No matter! Most of the spoilers I will probably forget (there are so many of them!), but for the others, it won’t prevent me from eventually watching and enjoying the films.
Get Out is largely credited with the recent boom in Black horror, and it is mentioned dozens of times here. However, there were so many Black horror films before, and newer movies coming out today continue to be original, engrossing, and thought-provoking. After reading this, my list of horror movies to watch has grown considerably! Moreover, it’s heartening to see how far Black representation in horror has come, and I hope it continues to rise in both popularity and respect in the years to come.
The audiobook for The Black Guy Dies First was narrated by Jaime Lincoln Smith. He does an excellent job here, perfectly capturing the tone of the authors. His voice is engaging, infusing the text with exactly the right amount of humor and wit. His energy keeps the audiobook lively and captivating throughout.
If you enjoy films (especially horror) or care about race representation—and especially if you care about both—then The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar is a must-read. It balances an intelligent and important discussion with a fair amount of humor and fun, making for an enjoyable and enlightening read.
The authors also collaborated on the recent documentary Horror Noire (adapted from Robin R. Means Coleman’s book of the same name). I absolutely plan to watch that for more discussion of race in horror.
Get the Book
You can buy The Black Guy Dies First here – it’s available as a paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris|
|Audiobook Narrator||Jaime Lincoln Smith|
|Genre||Nonfiction: Media Studies; Race Studies|
|Format I Read||Audiobook|
|Original Publication Date||February 7, 2023|
A definitive and surprising exploration of the history of Black horror films, after the rising success of Get Out, Candyman, and Lovecraft Country from creators behind the acclaimed documentary, Horror Noire.
The Black Guy Dies First explores the Black journey in modern horror cinema, from the fodder epitomized by Spider Baby to the Oscar-winning cinematic heights of Get Out and beyond. This eye-opening book delves into the themes, tropes, and traits that have come to characterize Black roles in horror since 1968, a year in which race made national headlines in iconic moments from the enactment of the 1968 Civil Rights Act and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April. This timely book is a must-read for cinema and horror fans alike.
About the Authors
Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman is Northwestern’s vice president and associate provost for diversity and inclusion. An internationally prominent and award-winning scholar, Dr. Coleman’s work focuses on media studies and the cultural politics of Blackness. Dr. Coleman is the author of Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present and African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor. She is coauthor of Intercultural Communication for Everyday Life. She is the editor of Say It Loud: African American Audiences, Media, and Identity and coeditor of Fight the Power: The Spike Lee Reader. She is also the author of a number of other academic and popular publications. Dr. Coleman is featured in, and executive produced, the critically acclaimed documentary film Horror Noire which is based on her book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present.
Mark H. Harris is an entertainment journalist who has written about cinema and pop culture for over twenty years for New York magazine, Vulture, Rotten Tomatoes, About.com, PopMatters, Salem Horror Fest, Napster, MadAtoms, Pretty Scary, Ugly Planet, and THEiNDI. A lifelong horror fan, he created the website BlackHorrorMovies.com in 2005 as the premier online source chronicling the history of Black representation and achievement in horror cinema. He was a featured commentator in the acclaimed documentary Horror Noire and the Shudder series Behind the Monsters.
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