The whitewashing of the film industry isn’t a new issue, but thankfully there are many Black writers, editors, actors, and directors that have persisted in telling their stories. Horror movies in particular tend to serve as a vehicle for social commentary, and films by Black creators and/or starring Black actors help us see history and ongoing prejudice in a new light. Black horror cinema has always been crucial to our understanding of race, and has continually helped keep the conversation going around a problem we’re still battling today. Below are 13 movies that accomplish something important in terms of that discussion—in addition to bringing spine-chilling terror right to your screen.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The history of Black horror films doesn’t start here, but this is where many of us were initiated. You don’t have to be a movie historian or horror connoisseur to know that George Romero wasn’t trying to say something revolutionary about race in this film, but the casting of Duane Jones and his subsequent impact as the first Black lead in horror cinema is something we’re still talking about today.
A discussion of Blacula could fill up at least an entire book, but we’ll keep it short and sweet. This movie is crucial for two reasons. The first is obvious: it’s an early blaxploitation movie from a Black director that involves an African prince, deconstructs the classic Dracula narrative to turn it into something new, and features Black actor William Marshall as the lead. However, the historical value of the film comes from the fact that it inspired many Black writers to follow in its footsteps. Blacula even led to a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, which featured more vampire and voodoo mayhem among appearances by Marshall, Pam Grier, Don Mitchell, and Richard Lawson.
Ganja & Hess (1973)
Ganja & Hess is an experimental horror movie written and directed by Bill Gunn. It’s also the first movie on this list, perhaps with the exception of Blacula, that you’ll find on every essential list of Black horror movies. The film, which was remade by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus in 2014, stars Marlene Clark and Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones. Jones plays an anthropologist who turns into a vampire after being stabbed with a cursed dagger by his assistant. Between the great performances, underlying religious connotations, and its subtle statements about race, this movie earns the spot it occupies on all those lists.
Candyman would be here even if it wasn’t a classic of the genre. For starters, the core of the movie explores racism and the dark history of interracial relationships. It also features an outstanding performance by Tony Todd. Furthermore, this movie put the spotlight on urban legends in a way that changed horror movies forever.
Def by Temptation (1990)
Not every movie has to earn a spot here for its historical significance, and Def by Temptation is a prime example. Instead, this sometimes cheesy, sometimes funny horror comedy earns a spot here because it has aged relatively well, the performances were all solid, and because everyone from the director on down is Black, which was an even braver move in 1990 than it would be in 2020.
Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976)
This film by William Crain is mentioned significantly less than his previous directorial effort, Blacula. However, the movie deserves to be talked about because it does a lot of the same things Blacula did, like deconstructing a white narrative and reshaping it into something new. If you couldn’t tell by the title, this movie is loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The horror, murder, and chaos in this movie are far from subtle, and the racial commentary is more pointed than it was in Blacula.
Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995)
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I love movies that take tropes and do something new with them. In the case of Demon Knight, it’s the final girl: Jada Pinkett Smith made history by portraying one of the first non-white Final Girls in horror.
Tales from the Hood (1995)
If Candyman shone a spotlight on urban legends and took horror to the heart of diverse cities, Tales from the Hood took it a step further and unabashedly talked about drugs and gang violence. Each of the stories told within this anthology film has its share of social commentary, but the movie never becomes preachy and is instead consistently entertaining—plus, satisfyingly gory.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Actress Kasi Lemmons delivered several horror performances before sitting in the directorial chair, and every bit of knowledge and insight she soaked up during that time makes its way into this movie. While there are a few dark comedies on this list, this flick is outright horror that carries a serious message about human nature. With a Black writer/director and cast, Eve’s Bayou is simply a great movie that tackles horror with a lot of energy and heart.
Get Out (2017)
Get Out deconstructs racism for white people. Get Out talks about things that most horror movies don’t want to talk about. Get Out tackles systemic racism. I could go on and on, but chances are you’ve already read a hundred articles talking about all the things Get Out accomplishes and why Jordan Peele is a modern master of the genre. Marking a new era of modern discussions about racism and otherness, this flick is a perennial presence on lists like this one, for good reason.
The First Purge (2018)
Obviously not every movie on this list is brilliant, but they have all done something special to earn a spot here. Though this movie is far from great, there’s something important at its core: the centering of people of color as the main victims of violence, without consequences for the perpetrators. Looking at the news, this one hits a little too close to home, and plausibility tends to augment any horror narrative’s punching power.
The beauty of Us is that Peele turned his approach upside down. If Get Out is an in-your-face movie about racism, Us is the opposite: a film that makes a strong statement about Blackness by telling a compelling story, having a Black director, and having a Black cast…but not allowing racism to take over the narrative or affect it in any way. Us is an example of Black excellence and nothing but.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)
This is the only documentary here, but no list of Black horror movies would be complete without it. This is the definitive authority on Black cinema, and the voices involved in the discussion, which range from the aforementioned Peele to writer/national treasure Tananarive Due, make it a film no fan of horror should miss.
Featured still from "Us" via Universal Pictures