What can I tell you about horror films? They make you jump, they’ll stop you from sleeping and, if you’re really lucky, they’ll terrify you so deeply that even the memory of watching the movie will make you twinge with discomfort. Fun, right? Unfortunately, there’s another symptom that has long pervaded the genre until pretty recently – black people tend not to feature and, if they are, they’ll probably be dead in the first few minutes.
It’s a cliché that the black community has long poked fun at. "Don’t leave the house, black kid! That zombie’s definitely going to kill you first!" How funny! How predictable! How in on the joke we are! But if you'll allow me to spoil the fun for a second, in reality we’ve spent years subscribing to the ideology that black people don’t fit into fictional horror stories. It’s not our space and if we step into it, we’ll be killed, ridiculed or caricatured at the earliest opportunity. Dig a little deeper into the psychology of the whole thing and it's even more grim. We have to consider that perhaps it's because our real-life trauma – the race-specific experience of things like slavery, poverty and gang violence that Hollywood has long preferred to capitalise on – is terrifying enough. We've been assigned our narratives and cinema has expected us to stick to them. To me, that's far more daunting than a menacing shadow lurking on the other side of the shower curtain.
So where does it end? Barry Jenkins' Best Picture-winning coming-of-age drama Moonlight was a landmark film, exploring masculinity in a way we've never seen before. Jordan Peele has been a game-changer, of course. His Oscar-winning Get Out explored the black experience in a way that high-grossing blockbusters hadn’t seen outside of the historical drama canon. But how far did it push? Within the scary film family, his 2019 follow-up Us starring Lupita N’yongo gave the 'black dies, white survives' trope the middle finger in a huge way. Up next this year is Ma, a new horror from The Help director Tate Taylor. He reunites with actress Octavia Spencer, who now plays Su Ann, the sinister woman who invites a group of teenagers from the local high school to party in her basement.
It's a welcome genre-switch for Octavia. Save perhaps for Hidden Figures, where she starred as one of three unsung African-American women who launched astronaut John Glenn into orbit, her most familiar performances have been as the literal 'help'. "The archetypes that they really want to see a – woman of zaftig stature and a cute, little Cheshire cat grin – is the nurturer, or the sassy whatever," Octavia told Dev Patel in Variety's Actors on Actors interview back in 2016. "And right after I did The Help I was all excited about the possibilities that would come, and 90% of the roles [offered were] a maid. And I'm thinking, I just played the best damn maid role written. I don't have a problem with playing a maid again but it has to top this one – and none of them did."
She's just one of many black women who have continuously been typecast as characters with little more backstory than the generalised struggle that's attached to blackness: pain, hardship and dependancy. In Ma there's clearly more to unpick. Though the trailer hints that Su Ann's motivations might be loosely related to an underlying race conflict, it's not clear whether it'll be a key plot device in the film. That said, the fact that my first instinct was to make this presumption about a film with a black lead and a majority white cast says a lot about what I've come to expect from contemporary cinema – not very much, apparently.
I don't think it's a coincidence that many black actors have found their entry into big money, blockbuster roles via films that follow a stereotypical, largely American narrative of black history. If we take it back just to 2010, we have Mo'Nique winning the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Precious. Fast-forward two years and it's Octavia Spencer's turn to take home the same accolade for her defining role as Minny in The Help. Then comes Lupita, who was awarded her career-launching role in 12 Years a Slave. The trend seems to continue every couple of years, with Viola Davis taking home the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role after starring in Fences in 2017. This year it was taken by Regina King for her outstanding performance in If Beale Street Could Talk. Can you spot the common denominator?
These, some of the most highly acclaimed films of recent years, which are about the black experience, are rooted in a history of pain. That's not to overshadow the fact that each of the aforementioned films is, indeed, exceptional. They gave due attention to both the talent starring in them and the stories that would otherwise be overlooked by people unfamiliar with the uncomfortable reality that we all share. But it almost feels as if black trauma continues to be, if not a trend, then a genre that tactically resurfaces to be applauded by Academy boards that remain predominantly white.
It's a lot to consume and it's difficult to articulate. Personally, I had to stop at If Beale Street Could Talk. I was moved by the love story at the heart of Barry Jenkins' wonderful adaptation of James Baldwin's novel and crushed by the race-fuelled prejudice and injustice that clouded around it. It was poignant, powerful and very close to home – purposefully so. I'm yet to watch this year's buzzy black pain films BlacKkKlansman and Green Book, purely because I didn't feel emotionally prepared to take on or relive painful stories that I'm personally familiar with. To put the sentiment in writing feels selfish of me, almost as if I'm getting in the way of sincerely important narratives that I do truly care about being shared. But there's a heavy weight that rests on my chest as a black woman observing a barrage of 'blacks beaten down by whites, blacks saved by whites' stories. It's a generalisation, for sure. But it's one that is incredibly difficult to unsee.
There are amazing films that come along to break the trend of course, and through them we're slowly starting to prove that black culture is richer than the experiences the big screen seems committed to showcasing. Look at the success of Black Panther and Girls Trip. Films starring black characters, with stories that aren't just about the black struggle, are seeping through the cracks. But we're a little way from celebratory black narratives outweighing or even equalling those that focus on a culture of trauma which in many ways remains prevalent in the world today. And it's just as crucial to see black-led stories about our community's successes, inspiration and celebration brought to life as it is the painful narratives that are sometimes harder to talk about off screen.