White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books. Directed by Jonathan Gayles. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2012. 52 minutes.

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. Directed by Xavier Burgin. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 2019. 83 minutes.

Reviewed by Debra C. Smith

Representation of race in film regularly reflects the normalization of powerful white males. Standardizing white males as able, handsome, and formidable perpetuates the 1950s postwar “ideal” American figure who was the breadwinner for his middle-class, nuclear family.1 For decades, film images and character relationships have influenced viewers’ perceptions of themselves and others. In my critical film courses, I suggest to my students that this standardization of whiteness and the “othering” of non-whiteness has been entrenched because film depictions are bound to ideologies about race in America.

Othering is often achieved by stereotyping and has been an enduring and profitable means of portraying blacks. Stereotypical representations of black people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as toms, coons, domestics, and savages have been replicated in the twenty-first century and continue to reflect the history of race and racism in America. To present black people as savages who could not be tamed outside the plantation life of a slave on one end of the continuum and as lazy, shiftless coons and docile domestics on the other, emphasizes the constructed “need” for white males to be the sensible, intelligent character—the savior. While white male characters in film are fully dimensional, powerful, and present, oftentimes white females are docile, delicate, and desired. Conversely, black characters are doting mammies, infantilized sidekicks, or hypermasculine parodies of reality. Both films reviewed reveal the recurring dynamic of black stereotypes and their collusion in maintaining the common-sense reality of whiteness as standard and virtually un-raced.

Jonathan Gayles’s documentary White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books features a panel of experts who examine forty years of comic book portrayals of black men. The film can be analyzed against the backdrop of 1970s blaxploitation male and female actors towering on the cinematic screen as black power protagonists who never bowed to any perceived white authority while defending issues of social urgency. During their era, blaxploitation films were commended for their appeal to black audiences and criticized because the non-black writers and producers who created them reinforced stereotypical images of black males as lawbreaking and criminal and black women as sexualized, weapon-toting heroines.

In a fashion similar to the blaxploitation era, many black comic book figures from the 1960s and 1970s appeared as radical ex-cons also created by white writers who normalized how America has theorized black men. Black superheroes like Black Panther, Black Lightning, Cotton Mouth, and Tyroc were depicted as some iteration of angry buck and unleashed thug. One of the film’s interviewees explains that, much like blaxploitation characters, black comic book characters were “problematic” and detached from the realities of black life.

Based on the book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, director Xavier Burgin’s documentary Horror Noire depicts black protagonists pivoting from the stereotypical magical negro to lead roles in horror films.2 In chronological historical revelations about the horror film genre, panel experts discuss horror through a black lens. At the start, one discussant exclaims that “black history is synonymous with black horror.” Indeed, history has captured white actors in blackface acting as violent, animalistic bucks preying on white female bodies, as Horror Noire denotes by showing a clip of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation. And forty years later, Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi, by enraged white men who believed that he flirted with a white woman. Real-life terror stories like Till’s reveal that horror for blacks is not limited to a film genre. Engaging and responding to this legacy, Horror Noire recasts screenplay horror to elevate black writers and producers who can promote the sociopolitical experiences of blacks in the historical fabric of America while also revealing the horror perpetrated against them.

White Scripts and Black Supermen also references thematic elements of the blaxploitation era systemized in 1970s black horror films while noting the gap in black representation in horror films in the 1980s. In the genre’s evolution, twenty-first-century horror films, like Get Out (2017) by Jordan Peele, intentionally reject stereotypes of black characters and challenge Hollywood’s collusion in constructing fear of black males.3 Beyond that, black horror filmmakers provide a unique perspective on how horror is depicted and experienced by black audiences.

During the 1970s, the women’s movement worked for equal rights and opportunities in relation to gender while black women were stereotyped on screen; therefore, both films would be ideal to study race and gender representation alongside blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown and Shaft and Stephane Dunn’s “Baad Bitches” and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films.4 Also, consider Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That the Movement Forgot to interrogate black comic films and black horror films in relation to sociopolitical themes that were symbolic of the black freedom, black power, and civil rights movements.5

Horror Noire provides context for the exploration of America’s history of racial terror in a comprehensive manner. The film is nearly an hour and a half, which may require more than one class period to complete. Combine it with the film Antebellum to unmask the legacy of racial terrorism that produced the socioeconomic and sociopolitical inequalities that confront black people, and particularly black women, in America.6 Mark A. Reid’s Redefining Black Film provides critical film theory to motivate discussions about the way stereotyped characters in horror films can lead to tokenism and marginalization of black women and men. Reid also provides perspective on the cinematic contributions of black feminists; thus, exploration of the film might encompass how racial and gender diversity of writers and producers have tremendous implications for black representation in front of the camera.7

1Television: The Ideal American Family,” The American Century, accessed February 2, 2021.

2 Robin R. Means Coleman, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (New York: Routledge, 2011).

3 Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele (Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 2017), 104 minutes.

4 Foxy Brown, directed by Jack Hill (Los Angeles: American International Pictures, 1974), 94 minutes; Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks (Los Angeles: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1971), 100 minutes; Stephane Dunn, “Baad Bitches” and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

5 Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (New York: Viking, 2020).

6 Antebellum, directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (Santa Monica: Lionsgate, 2020), 106 minutes.

7 Mark A. Reid, Redefining Black Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). Educators may also be interested in a syllabus curated by Horror Noire filmmakers, which lists a wealth of resources including films, webseries, essays and books, comics, and online publications.

Debra C. Smith, PhD, is an associate professor in the Africana Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is also an affiliate faculty in the Communication Studies Department. Her research and teaching interests include African-Americans in communication and popular culture, minority health and environment, minority images in the media, and developing teaching strategies that incorporate popular culture, language, and power.