Thursday, July 29, 2010

ANOTHER ONE FOR THE FIRE: RACE AND THE AMERICAN ZOMBIE FILM PT. 2

The very concept of zombies in the 1930s came from an American obsession with the voodoo practices of Haiti. Americans found themselves intrigued with the “exotic” and “fascinating” practices unlike the typical Catholic/Christian backgrounds most Americans at the time were a part of. It was the idea that the Haitians’ own religion offered an opportunity for white commanders to enslave the Haitian people to do their bidding for as long as they desired that appealed to a pre-World War II America. The zombification of yesteryear was a statement on not just the social classes, but also the discrimination of the time before the civil rights movement.

It was by using the mystical powers of voodoo, bodies would be removed after burial and transformed into mindless creatures that had no concept of performing anything other than what they were ordered to do. Here were Haitian workers persecuted all their lives by those in power, and were now at risk to serve the needs of those enslaving them even after they have died.

The fear of the zombie creature was not so much an attack that society has become accustomed to today, but rather the fear of actually becoming a mindless zombie with no other purpose than to serve the needs of others. Film critic Elizabeth A. Kingsley has drawn special attention to the discrimination in place amongst even the zombie characters. “Clarence Muse stands out like a sore thumb amongst the “black” characters in this film, many of whom are white actors in blackface. The zombies who slave in Legendre’s sugar mills are given only a passing glance; it is the white zombies, they who form Legendre’s bodyguard, in whom the film’s horror is located.”(Kingsley, And You Call Yourself A Scientist!). Her statement agrees that is almost insinuated that the black characters are without soul and it is a much more devastating occurrence for a white person to be transformed into a zombie.
The visuals set up in the film itself expose the black zombies as almost cattle-like while the white zombies are shown in a more sympathetic and horrific position.

It cannot be ignored that most of the black zombies in the film were merely white actors in blackface. Blackface was a type of theatrical makeup design in which white actors would cover their bodies with a grease based black paint in order to imitate black individuals. While originally a vaudeville practice, blackface was an extremely racist practice of performance and is seldom use in today’s productions. It seems to add insult to injury by portraying black zombies in such a negative light, and to have them performed by white actors in stage makeup. White Zombie was overtly racist in many facets, including its media campaigns. The tagline for the film is as follows: They knew this fiend was practicing zombiism on the natives…but when he tried it on a white girl, the nation revolted! Even the tagline for the film seems to emphasize the assumption that zombiism is a tragedy for white people but an accepted practice when it comes to black people. It’s almost as if being a zombie is closer to the natural state of being for a black individual according to this racist viewpoint. She continues on to comment “while the tagline may be an inaccurate reflection of the film, it was perhaps an accurate one of the mindset of the time”(Kingsley, And You Call Yourself A Scientist). As previously stated, it was almost implied that functioning in a zombie-like state was closer to the true state of the Haitian people, thus making it such a horrifying concept of becoming a zombie as a white person.

The question remains, is it the fear of becoming a zombie enslaved by another for the rest of eternity, or is it the fear of being put on the same level as the black man? “Black zombie slavery in the film thus represents a macabre version of the forced labor system which the U.S. inflicted on the Haitian population in 1918” (Williams, White Zombie). By putting slavery on film and portraying it as a “period piece”, American filmmakers were able to get away with their obvious racist viewpoints. After White Zombie, there came an underrated film titled Ouanga (1935). Like White Zombie, Ouanga was set in Haiti and dealt with a voodoo priestess. The reasoning behind the use of the zombies in this film differed in that the main character, a black female plantation owner enacts a voodoo curse, and revives zombies for revenge. While this may sound a bit more modern horror in comparison to White Zombie, the revenge plot was still very much a pre-civil rights movement concept. The plantation owner was raising zombies because her white male neighbor chose a white woman to be his wife instead of her. The fact remains that before World War II and essentially, the Vietnam War as well, the attitude of the zombie film had been that zombie-caused slavery is acceptable if it remains confined to black people. The true sense of horror from these creatures isn’t present until it carries over into the white population.

6 comment(s):

Trick or Treat Pete said...

Blacks in pre WW2 American cinema were relegated to playing servants, farmhands, jungle natives,witch doctors, voodoo practicing, chicken thievin', bungling "I don't know nothin' bout birthin no babies" and "Uncle Tom" roles that most white American's felt comfortable seeing them in. Even the first African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, won for playing a mammy. White America feared the educated Black American and this was evident in the cinematic roles Blacks were allowed to have outside of "their own" black films (such as those produced by Foster Photoplay Co. and Lincoln Motion Picture Co.).
Even in the 1939 all black cast horror film, The Devil's Daughter, directed by Arthur H. Leonard, was still set on a plantation and filled with voodoo. Two of the actual taglines for the film is "MAGIC...Black MAGIC!!MYSTERY...Dark MYSTERY!!" and "Sensational All-Negro Drama".
Romero's character of Ben,played by Duane Jones,was the first black character in a film featuring zombies that didn't have some sort of voodoo/witch doctor/jungle savage theme. Romero introduced us to the apocalyptic archetype zombies that are more common in modern horror, although movies such as Serpent and the Rainbow and Angel Heart still dealt with the voodoo bred zombie.
I found this on wikipedia and I think it relates the racism of America, even in 1963. It was The Black Smurfs.
"In The Black Smurfs, the Smurfs are stricken by a plague closely resembling a zombie outbreak. After a Smurf is stung by a black fly, his skin turns jet black and driven insane with his vocabulary reduced to a single word "gnap!" He bounces around and bites other Smurfs on their tail, which turns them into black Smurfs as well. Soon, almost everyone in the village has become a black Smurf, and Papa Smurf, the leader, tries to find a cure and stop the epidemic." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Smurfs
The cartoon shown on wikipedia shows a deranged black smurf coming out of the foliage to attack a normal blue smurf.
This says alot about the American psyche of that era which still unfortunately still lingers to this day.
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

ha ha, my word verification for this comment is fluck

Trick or Treat Pete said...

check out The Black Smurfs on wikipedia where Smurfs are infected, turn black and become insane.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Smurfs
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

Trick or Treat Pete said...

You can also check out 1939's The Devil's Daughter which is a horror film with an all black cast, but still is set on a plantation and revolves around voodoo
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

brett g @ oh-the-horror.com said...

Very interesting. You don't see too many people talking about the political undertones of pre-Romero zombie films. Did you see I Walked with a Zombie and Zombies on Broadway? Both feature the same guy (Darby Jones) playing a zombie, and they're both really different movies--but I think both are applicable to this type of analysis.

Pax Romano said...

Excellent, and well researched piece here (as well as part 1).

B-Sol said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent.

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