Afro Horror: How To Write Black Characters
August 21, 2020
So, you want to write a horror film with Black characters but you’re not Black? How do you do that without making them flat and stereotypical, and above all, without being racist? It’s probably easier than you think. To figure out how to do it better, let’s look to the past. Join me on this quick historical journey of Black representation in horror films, also known as Afro Horror.
Over the hundred plus years of horror history, Black people have notoriously been excluded from the genre save for a few notable exceptions: When they are sacrificed to save the white protagonist, or when they provide the comic relief stock best friend…who usually ends up dead. If you grew up in the nineties during the peak of meta horror, you’ll especially remember this trope. It became somewhat of a game to watch a horror movie and time when the Black person died—usually never making it past the second act. In fact, during season one of my podcast, Afro Horror, we would provide the exact time of death for each Black character in the film we were analyzing.
How do you avoid this trope when you yourself are not Black? There are three main rules my inner Randy (you all remember that little genre-changing film called Scream, right?) would like to offer you:
KNOW WHAT THE TROPES ARE
This is the most obvious, while also the most overlooked. The first step to anything in life is education. You have to do the work and learn why the tropes are damaging. Now, we’re not going to deep dive into all the tropes today, but here are a few that top the list. The first is The Sacrificial Negro; a character only derived to save the white protagonist. A good example of this is Alfre Woodard’s character in 2014’s Annabelle. The Spiritual Negro, similar to The Sacrificial Negro, except they don’t necessarily die (most times they do), exists only to provide spiritual guidance to the naïve white protagonist. This character is usually rooted in some sort of voodoo magic, is often older, and has a thick accent. Think Bill Cobb’s character, Estes, in 1998’s I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Then there’s the Stock Black Best Friend. This character, usually a Black woman, is only scripted to give a few encouraging lines to her white bestie, à la Elise Neal’s Hallie in Scream 2. Albeit Hallie was originally crafted to be the killer before the script leaked, she was ultimately reduced down to this trope. In 2019’s horror documentary, Horror Noire, actress Rachel True (The Craft) said this character often delivers the line, “Are you okay?” in various fashions throughout the film. These tropes are not only insulting but damaging to the Black community. They re-enforce the idea that Black lives are only valued when servicing white lives and without that service, do not matter (#blacklivesmatter).
CRAFT LAYERED CHARACTERS
Naturally, this is something you should do for all of your characters no matter what color or creed, but in terms of crafting Black characters, you’ll need to dig a little deeper. Adding Black characters to your horror already heightens your stakes. Remember the hit and run scene of I Know What You Did Last Summer? The characters were concerned that because they were drinking and driving, that the police wouldn’t believe them. Now, imagine that same scene with even one Black character. The stakes are exponentially heightened and much more relatable. It’s not as simple as writing “color-blind.” When you are writing a Black character, you will inevitably have to deal with racism in your script. For example, Rachel True’s character from The Craft was written as white, but once True was cast, her scenes were changed to include racist bulling from her peers. While race is always going to be a conflict for your Black characters, it should not be the defining characteristic. Black people vary culturally dependent on their environment, which is vital info when layering your character. Are they African American? Afro-Latino? Mixed? All of these will determine what type of Black character you are drafting and all of them will have different reactions to your story. Remember, Black is a race covering a multitude of cultures. We are not monolithic, meaning there is no one way to shape us.
AVOID AAVE AT ALL COST. SERIOUSLY
What is AAVE, you ask? If I have to define it for you, then you should definitely not be using it. AAVE is African American Vernacular English; aka slang. It’s typically used by Black people as shorthand speech online, derived from our family. Writing a Black character does not give you free range to impersonate Black people or what you think Black people sound like. Remember in point two when I said we weren’t monolithic? Let’s revisit that. While AAVE is gaining in popularity online, not all Black people use it. Depending on where you live, the AAVE will change. You can tell when a character is written by a non-Black writer—they’re usually riddled with AAVE in every line. Just write the character—dassit(AAVVE). Whomever is hired to portray that character will take care of the rest. If your character is described as “hard, tough” there’s no need to make their dialogue sound like what you think a “hard, tough” Black person sounds like. The most you should do is describe the character’s personality and allow the actor to find the voice. Leave your “chile” and “oh, hell nos” in the drafts.
While we’re on the topic of character descriptions, let’s take this moment to point out some basic adjectives you should avoid when crafting your Black character. Words like “ghetto”, “gangster”, and “angry” only add to the mountain of false narratives subscribed to Black people, especially Black woman. Instead of those lazy, racist terms, try writing full phrases such “extremely protective”, “has a heart guarded by barbwire” or “easily triggered.” It’s just good writing, too.
And if you are writing a horror script with a majority of Black characters and you are not Black yourself, truly ask yourself the question, am I right person to tell this story? There’s a huge difference between writing a horror with Black people and writing a Black horror. Which side do you fall on? If it’s the latter, perhaps reach out to a Black writer and ask them to co-write with you. At the end of the day, having an authentic Black voice contribute to your script is the best advice I can give you to write great Black characters.
Written by: Sade' SellersSade’ Sellers is a screenwriter and producer based in Burbank, California. Originally from Michigan’s capital, Lansing, Sade’ has been working in the entertainment industry since 2009. In 2017, Sade’ was a finalist for Tv One’s Screenwriting competition for her teleplay The Replacement. This achievement motivated the network to hire her as a writer for their upcoming movie of the week event, Deadly Dispatch, which premiered on the platform in the summer of 2019. Through that production process, Sade’ met casting director Leah Daniels-Butler who was in the midst of staffing her production company, 1oneninety5. Sade’ then rose to the role of Vice President of Content Acquisitions and Development and spent the next year learning the ecosystem of film and television development from pitching to production. Using that experience, and bound at home due to COVID-19, Sade’ made a return to her first love, screenwriting, utilizing her free time to write new content. www.sadesellers.com