Dictionary.com defines a cliché simply as “anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse”. There are two apparent clichés which I would like to talk about here. The first is that the black guy always dies (usually when referring to a horror film). The second is the sentiment that the black guy always dies. It happens. And we know it happens. But is it because Hollywood is full of racist, bigoted assholes? Probably. But such is the world in general.
There is definitely something I find more annoying than the black person dying in horror movies: people who endlessly say it like it is fact. Maybe it is fact. Hell, it’s more than likely true, as we shall see. But one thing is for damn sure: it has become the ultimate movie cliché, and the ultimate clichéd movie cliché. And it’s been evolving, too. At first, it seemed to be that everyone thought that the black guy died first, and now it is simply that the black guy dies.
Why are we concerned that “the black guy” dies, and not concerned that there are not that many black main characters in movies to begin with? Hell, why are we always concerned about the black guy, and not the “Asian guy” or the “[insert other characteristic here] guy”? Or girl? Why is it always “the guy” with some people (and “the girl” for others, now that I think about it)? Why are we concerned about the wrong things? It cracks me up whenever I see feminists argue against violence done to women in an action movie where dozens of males are being butchered every other scene.
The cliché is truth. In matters of probability, the black guy will more than likely die.
Or, at least, he or she has an equal chance of dying as just about everyone else. And it is not because Hollywood attracts racist assholes (although this could be true, as well). You see, in a typical horror film, where he or she is the only black character out of a cast of eight, ten or twelve or so actors and actresses, odds that they live are not high. In fact, their chance of survival is equal to every other human being (one out of eight, ten, or twelve). Then factor into account that these films are usually about body counts and the fact that they are usually the only one of their ethnicity. So when they’re killed, so is the group that they “represent”.
Of course, you could very well argue that their chance of survival is about as equal to how much the screenwriter sympathizes with them (this includes racism and the like). Here is my feeling though, and obviously I cannot say this about every screenwriter and every director and every casting agent: I highly doubt that the writers pen screenplays with specific intentions in mind, especially for shitty horror movies, in which the standard cannon-fodder characters are not exactly dependent on a person’s skin color to make or break them. I highly doubt that the obscure screenwriter at their desk or the casting agent at an audition is thinking: “This role of Generic Body Count Fodder #1 would be perfect if he was played by a black person!” It’s like when O’Bannon and Shusett were developing Alien and decided to make all of the characters “generic”, so that anybody, regardless of skin color or gender could play them.
Not to mention, since they have the same chance as everyone else of dying, the odds are not stacked up against them at all. In fact, people of all sorts of races, creeds, ethnicities, genders, etc. are killed off liberally in these films. Black people are not treated any better or worse in this regard. For instance, let’s imagine a film of eight characters, with two major stars who survive, and the rest of the supporting to serve nicely for the body count, and one of those fodder characters happens to be black… Well, guess what, five white people are dead, along with one black guy. Why doesn’t anyone ask why there are so many white people dying? Because no one gives a shit, apparently.
But what about population demographics in the movies, that is, should there be more black people based on statistics? In 2010, the percentage of whites in the U.S. population was 72.4%. The percentage of blacks was 12.6%. Now, obviously, this is just a very rudimentary look at the figures. But that means that in a horror film with a cast of principally eight actors (main and supporting), one should be black (one in eight being 12.5%). This does not seem to diverge too greatly from most horror films. In fact, I think a lot of horror films, in the call for racial equality that people seem to be demanding of them, are trying to represent more people. Of course, still not all people seem to be represented fairly or even at all. Asians are the prime example of this: underrepresented or misrepresented (either as clichés or villains).
Let’s take a look at a few examples, shall we? There may be spoilers ahead, but considering all of these are Hollywood films with generic storylines and expected body counts, it should not spoil much. However, if you see a title you do not wish spoiled, just move on. I have chosen Alien has an arbitrary starting point, and have selected a rather random list of mainstream Hollywood horror films (basing this on the reputation of the director, cast members, budget, scope of release, box office returns, etc., or a combination of related factors).
Everyone dies except one female. And Yaphet Kotto manages to survive for a good while there, too. Tom Skerritt’s is probably the most surprising death. Alien is also a sci-fi film set in the future, so it might seem a cop-out to say we have no idea what a “future society” looks like in terms of demographics. But in terms of current stats, it is surprisingly close.
The Thing (1982)
The finale leaves two characters, our main stars – one white (Kurt Russell) and one black (Keith David) – to ponder their fate. Whether they survive or not is left ambiguous (as is the survival of humanity).
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Takes place in some middle class white suburbia. No major black characters. But everyone dies pretty much.
This film is probably the greatest example of what constitutes possibly the most blatant act of useless character-killing in the last thirty seconds. A most noteworthy case of what seems to be the filmmakers deliberately going out of their way to kill the black guy. We’re left with Peter Weller and Amanda Pays as survivors. Weller also punches out Meg Foster in a scene where he is totally justified.
Event Horizon (1997)
Eight main crewmembers, two of them are black. One of them survives to the end, although the audiences are left with an ominous closing shot.
Deep Rising (1998)
This film is awesome for the simple fact that it contains an extremely large list of upper-tier members of the lower-tiers of Hollywood. There’s actually quite a diverse and amazing cast here, and three people survive. And they’re all white.
Notwithstanding all of the Russian people who died (off-screen), the main cast consisted of eight people. Of these characters, two were female, one was black, one was Maori, one was Cuban, one was Russian, and one was relatively older. One of the eight, 12.5%, was black. Frighteningly close to the 2010 stats. Everyone dies, except for the main stars, of course. This is another one of those films where they probably could have let the black person survive. But, no. Our Maori friend also gets a pretty lame death.
The list goes on and on. The cast usually ranges from half-a-dozen to a dozen. Most of them end up dead. Even recent films follow this trend.
But there’s one fundamental aspect that the statistics above fail to illustrate. That it all depends on the role of the character. And this is what should be at the crux of the discussion here. Most black actors are inevitably shoehorned into portraying supporting characters. This is just a polite way of saying that, at the end of the day, they are simply there to inflate the body count. But so are most of the other characters. In very few horror movies – at least, since the 1980s, when more mainstream films (exploitation films had been doing it awhile) began to place more emphasis on gore and violence – do we see low body counts.
But this is where the real racial discrimination lies, if any. The statistics that have been carefully (give-or-take) laid out are skewed for the fact that most (pretty much all) leading characters in mainstream Hollywood movies are portrayed by whites. Not all characters in a horror film have an equal chance of death (or survival). Your survival rate happens to skyrocket if you happen to be in the leading role. So why not cast more black people into these roles? Black people, or any other people for that matter, have just as much a right to portray shitty one-dimensional lead characters as anyone else.
I am not saying that this is a colorblind fantasy-land of toleration. I’m just saying that I think people are looking to put their complaints in the wrong box. If anything, people should be complaining that there are so few black people in leading roles. If you want actors to survive as their characters, cast them in the leads, not the supports. Characters aren’t dying because they’re black. They’re dying because they play parts of the body count, and they happen to be black. That’s where the real discrimination lies.
The preceding work is the result of a noncommissioned non-study and should not be taken seriously in any way, shape, or form.