Dismantling The Black Guy Dies First with Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. HarrisPhotos courtesy of Texas A&M University, Marketing and Communications / Mark H. Harris Comedy Features The Black Guy Dies First
This isn’t horror scholar Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman’s first rodeo.
Not only is her 2011 book Horror Noire: A History of Black American Horror from the 1890s to Present a foundational text on Black horror, Dr. Coleman also produced and appeared in Shudder’s documentary adaptation of it. She’s served as an expert on PBS’s Monstrum with Dr. Emily Zarka to discuss the zombie’s Haitian roots in the show’s “The Origins of the Zombie” episode.
But with the strides taken by Black horror in the decade after her first book’s publication, Dr. Coleman decided to team up with journalist and creator of BlackHorrorMovies.com Mark H. Harris to create an accessible, up-to-date text detailing everything old and new in Black horror: The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar.
Dr. Coleman and Harris were kind enough to squeeze time into their busy pre-book launch schedules to chat with me, individually, about the legacy of comedy in Black horror.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paste Magazine: I wanted to start with the history of “the spook” (a Black character who serves as a frightened comedic relief in contrast to the brave, “rational” white lead) because that’s still very much ingrained into Black representation within a lot of horror movies. I came of age in the ’90s/early-2000s, so Scary Movie was very much part of my adolescence—and it’s a great example of that.
Mark H. Harris: The spook, as a stereotype, has been around for a long time. It has roots in the stereotype that Black people are very superstitious—it goes back to the slavery days when Black people were poked fun at for having these superstitions, whether it be religious beliefs or just a folk-belief in the supernatural. It made its way through the minstrel shows of the 1800s and early 1900s and into cinema when cinema began.
It’s kind of portrayed nowadays as a swaggering type of persona, a bravado kind of approach—but it’s still based in fear. On one hand, it’s smart because they’re not going towards this scary sound. They’re not going to go and get themselves killed. But on the other hand, it does feed into the decade’s old stereotype of Black people being superstitious and scared. And that’s one of the things we unspool in the book.
Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman: When I think about the spook trope, there are two people that come to mind from classic horror cinema: the actor Willie Best and the comedy actor Mantan Moreland. These two Black actors, who performed various “spook” characters, show up to bug their eyes, chatter their teeth, knock their knees, and do a feets-don’t-fail-me-now performance. That’s the spook trope.
Now, what’s really uncomfortable about the trope is that it often turned racist—more so than what I’ve already described. They very much played on racial inferiority, and they stuck. You’ll see those kinds of images appear even outside of the horror genre, on the big and the small screen, in comedies and advertisements.
Paste Magazine: In The Black Guy Dies First, you discuss that moment in Nia DaCosta’s 2021 Candyman where a character looks down a dark staircase and just says, “Nope.” It seems like movies now are trying to almost reclaim that trope—trying to make these characters more three dimensional.
Dr. Coleman: That’s right—I couldn’t have said it better myself. So now what you have is a depth of characters and a reasonableness. So now it’s, “Nobody in their right mind would go in that basement.” Black characters are echoing and articulating that sentiment in a way that is more human and humane. But most importantly, that statement empowers that character and it’s not immediately juxtaposed against whiteness, to signal Black inferiority.
Because in those earlier movies, the trope wasn’t just Black people—the white characters all remained present, charged forward, and did the problem solving. The spook character was spooked; it isn’t just the boogeyman in the basement—it’s every noise, every sound—they jump with fright over rugs. That’s very different from what we see in these more recent films that are really talking back to those stereotypes.
Paste Magazine: In the book, you also draw a parallel with Dave Chappelle—between how the audience is either laughing with or at a character—and why he stepped back from his show. He didn’t like the way that white people were laughing at certain characters he created; they were laughing for the wrong reasons. That also connects back to Scary Movie, that they’re making fun of these things, but almost falling to stereotypes to do so and the white audiences are laughing at the wrong parts.
Dr. Coleman: There’s nothing wrong with broad humor, slapstick humor. But what Chappelle gets as a lesson is audience reception. He’s doing this broad humor, certainly racially innovative and provoking humor, but then realizes that not all audiences are making meaning and reading what he’s doing in the same way. And he had not considered that going in—“how am I thinking about racial representation, or how is my racial representation being taken?”
Harris: There’s really a fine line there. It’s hard to know all the time when you’re crossing the line or not—are you making fun of a stereotype and undermining it? Or are you falling into it?
Not going down the staircase [in Candyman] highlights the aspects of the “spook” that’s smart—why would you go down into danger when you can avoid that? But the character in that movie does it in a way that will make you laugh with them—not at them. You’re putting yourself in their shoes, you see yourself as that character, “Yep, I would not go down there.”
Paste Magazine: Speaking of Dave Chappelle, he once cracked a joke about how Key and Peele were doing his show every week. But it feels like Key & Peele’s characterization—and especially Jordan Peele’s characterization in his horror movies—is a bit more nuanced.
Harris: Like I said, there’s a fine line. I think they recognize that. I think where Chappelle got into trouble a bit was that it came down to a catchphrase, a goofy character, and goofy stuff. And that’s it. I think the Key & Peele sketches, by and large, have a little more depth to them in terms of meaning—I don’t think I would feel discomfort about white people laughing at almost any of their sketches. They’re not pandering to particular stereotypes, and that’s where the division is for me.
Dr. Coleman: I don’t have full context for the Chappelle comment, but Key & Peele is a lot like the Chappelle Show—they’re doing broad humor, some of it is slapstick, much of it is racially innovative. They go into some of the same territory as Chappelle with varied effect as well. Some of it is a little bit cringe-worthy, some of it is really hilarious. I think what happens with Jordan Peele is a longer runway that allows him to reflect on the kind of lessons and messages he wants his audience to take away.
The most important point is that we love Get Out, it was a mainstream success, it won an Academy Award, but all Black horror needs not be elevated.
Paste Magazine: While you were speaking, it made me realize, Dave Chappelle was making his show and those jokes for himself and creating things he thought his Black friends would think were funny, which he’s entitled to do, and he should be able to do that, but because white supremacy is everywhere, he couldn’t without repercussions. Like you said, eventually we should get to the point where we’re just letting Black creators create things that they have fun creating—they don’t need to always be taking that step back and being like, “Will the white audience receive this correctly?”
Dr. Coleman: I think that’s right, and I think it’s more complicated than that. Think about where Dave Chappelle is today. And he’s making the argument that “I should be able to just create and put it out there—your meaning making be damned, I’m an artist.”
But if Dave Chappelle was in that moment of thoughtfulness, of carefulness and care, and thinking about the ways in which his creative practice impacted the lived experiences of others, then we wouldn’t be experiencing this period, that he has fully leaned to, of transphobia. There are moments where we need to ask our artists to consider that.
Paste Magazine: When I read this book, in comparison to Horror Noire, I didn’t expect to laugh during it. You had the chapter on comedy, but there are comedic listicles in here, and those lists are really funny. What made you two decide to include these very funny lists?
Harris: We view this book as a companion to her book Horror Noire—which is a more scholarly type of book approaching the same topics. As far as the tone goes, we wanted this one to be a little more accessible to the mainstream public—even the people who aren’t really into horror movies that much.
Dr. Coleman: Black horror is really very funny—and we wanted to capture that. But we also wanted to bring people along in the history and story of Black people’s participation in the horror genre in an accessible way. And certainly humor does that.
The Black Guy Dies First is available now from your favorite booksellers.
Brooke Knisley is a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has balance issues. Let her harass you on Twitter @BrookeKnisley.