Horror movies are littered with common tropes that consistently reappear from movie to movie. Chaste women are the only ones able to stop chainsaw-wielding slaughter giants. Murdered ghosts always enact bloody revenge upon whomever dares move into their abandoned, Victorian-era mansions. And the black guy always dies first.
Hopefully by this point, most of us are aware of this racist trope. It seems built upon the notion that horror directors wanted a more diverse cast, but they also didn’t want minority character getting as much screentime as the film’s heroes sporting less melanin. This trope reached its zenith in horror films from the 70s and 80s. Parodied in films such as Evolution, Scary Movie, Scream 2 and, inexplicably, 8 Mile, pointing out the fleeting mortality of black horror characters is nowadays hopelessly cliche.
Since it’s such a pervasive trope, a list detailing every time it reared its hackneyed head would be both exhaustively long and even less interesting than a PG-13 slasher (looking at you Prom Night).
We thought it’d be more interesting to look at films that really, really didn’t need to kill their black characters first, but forced it in anyway. Like shoving a wedding cake through a mail slot—it’s possible, but it’ll leave a hell of a mess. Some instances are from the trope’s heyday; some are painfully, awkwardly recent.
1. A Christmas Story (1983)
Character: The Black Robber
Likelihood of being killed first: 33 percent
Forgot about this one didn’t you? This classic Christmas film is stuffed with memorable moments—the leg lamp, tongue-to-pole freezing etc.—but the murder of four defenseless men doesn’t usually leap to mind when the film’s brought up. But I remember. Oh, I remember.
The brutal slayings occur during a daydream sequence culled from the fertile mind of our nine-year-old protagonist. Ralphie has once again been told he’ll never get a Red Rider BB gun, and that he would have no need for such a weapon anyway. So Ralphie imagines a scenario where Ralphie—and his long-sought-after BB gun—are the only defense against “creeping marauders.”
The scene starts out harmlessly enough—goofy music, washed out, dreamy visuals—but quickly takes a dark turn once the old-timey thieves notice how well-armed Ralphie is. The robbers (clearly outmatched given their utter lack of weapons) attempt to run away. Instead of letting them go, Ralphie chooses to pump each criminal full of lead.
Ralphie’s first target? The butt of one of two black members of the sextet. Ralphie literally shoots the black thief in the ass, causing him to fall off the fence, thrash wildly on the ground and then fall still: dead. He’s been shot in the ass to death, for no crime more serious than trespassing. It’s a punishment never before seen outside of Colombian cocaine cartels and giggly screenplays written by middle school boys.
Picking a criminal at random, Ralphie had a two in six chance of hitting a white guy. He doesn’t and thereby fulfills the trope in horrifying fashion.
2. The Shining (1980)
Character: Dick Hallorann
Likelihood of Being Killed First: 25 percent
Yes, I’m aware that The Shining is ostensibly a horror movie and should therefore be exempt from this list, per my rules. But, unlike the Slaughter High and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiems of the world, The Shining is a legitimately-excellent film that transcends such simple labels. As such, we are allowed to ask more of it. Also, it’s my list, so shut up.
There are really only four characters in the film that could conceivably be killed. I’m assuming that creepy ghost twins are immortal and thereby not subject to the rules of the physical world. You’ve got the writer, Jack, his sensitive wife, Wendy, their young son, Danny and a single, black janitor named Dick. Those in the know could immediately recognize from this small cast that there’s no way in hell Dick was ever going to outlive the others. The real question is why Dick had to be a black character at all.
After all, the haunted hotel was built on a Native American burial ground. Wouldn’t it have been more poetic to have the janitor be a Native American himself? That’d really bring home the metaphor of white people taking over Native lands. As it is, Stephen King and Kubrick just seem content to provide a basic set up for the most obvious murder this side of O.J.
3. Red Dawn (1984)
Character: Mr. Teasdale
Likelihood of Being Killed First: 11.7 percent
Lest you think I’m conjuring the oddly-specific percentage of Mr. Teasdale’s survival chances from nowhere, know that my math always comes from a place of love. What I did was take the American population in 1980 and divided that by the number of black people in America at the time. Thusly we get a little less than twelve percent.
The reason this number matters is because the beginning of Russia’s American invasion in Red Dawn could have presumably happened anywhere in America. At the very least, the film could have opened on any particular section of the conflict. Presumably millions and millions of Americans are killed as they strive to beat back their invaders.
That’s why it’s so surprising that the first casualty of the Great War happens to be a black science teacher from a small town in Colorado. Congrats to the film for portraying an African-American as something besides a janitor or a criminal, but did Mr. Teasdale really need to confront the approaching military helicopters himself? Alone?
For some reason, Mr. Teasdale decides to go outside and say, “hi” to a bunch of well-armed soldiers who clearly mean business. Was there no other faculty in the school? Was Mr. Teasdale new and the only teacher who didn’t know that gun-toting Russian soldiers didn’t typically parachute onto school grounds on Tuesday mornings? Maybe he thought he should politely mention the school was a gun and vodka-free zone?
All of it seems like an extremely roundabout way to get a black man shot first. It’s not even that poignant a scene, especially considering they could have had on of the kids at the school get shot, which would have really raised the film’s stakes. As it stands, it just seems oddly forced.
Also, this is a side note, but why did the Russians land there of all places? Surely there were more strategic buildings they could hit first? On that note, weren’t there more strategic cities that would demand their attention? How did the Russians manage to fly a bunch of military helicopters all the way out to Middle-of-Nowhere, Colorado without anybody noticing? Were the students building nukes in shop class? I digress.
4. The Other Guys (2010)
Character: Detectives P.K. Highsmith and Christopher Danson
Likelihood of Being Killed First: Very, very low
Director Adam McKay should be commended for the serious effort he put into ensuring his film’s first onscreen deaths involved black characters. It’s honestly astounding that despite two massive shoot-out sequences to open the film—involving buckets of bullets and copious, brain-melting explosions—nobody actually manages to kill anybody else.
Officers P.K. Highsmith and Christopher Danson rampage across New York City in pursuit of various bank thieves—inflicting extensive collateral damage to the city’s infrastructure—but don’t land a single shot. Given how many rounds are fired, and cars exploded, we’d expect somebody to get injured. Not even a sprained ankle? Maybe a rubber-necking civilian accidentally runs over a cat? No?
McKay, apparently realizing nobody had yet died, decided to kick off the deaths in the film by literally forcing his black heroes to jump off a roof. The scene is definitely hilarious, but if there was ever a more transparent way to hand a film off to a couple of white characters, I’m not aware of it.
Because let’s be honest, everybody wants to see an action movie with The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson as the leads. There wouldn’t be enough money left in the world if that baby came out. Look how well The Fate of the Furious did, and tell me it wouldn’t have been even better with Samuel L. Jackson speed-driving a sports car and cussing out Charlize Theron. I dare you.
5. 300 (2006)
Character: Persian Messenger
Likelihood of Being Killed First: Apparently quite high
I’ll be the first to say that I don’t think Zack Snyder’s 300 really counts as an accurate portrayal of history. According to my sources, Spartan’s abs weren’t even half as toned as they are in the film. Also, they glistened much, much less. It’s enough to take me out of the film, personally. I came for historically accurate representations of functional abdominal muscles, not this sexed-up washboard portrayal.
One thing the film does seem to get right is that the Persians largely appear Middle Eastern. That is—with the exception of their massive, androgynous king—the Persians look like what you might expect a modern day Iraqi to look like. Now, I realize that there are black people living in the Middle East, and, at the time period of the film, it’s possible that African countries and people were probably conquered and absorbed by the Persian Empire. What I don’t understand is why they’d send an African emissary to get kicked down a well. They—and by “they” I mostly mean the filmmakers—could have sent any variety of person to talk to Gerard Butler.
Because here’s the thing, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the fiercely-proud Spartans would try and kill your messenger. That comes to them as naturally as breathing or doing sit ups. That black envoy was absolutely being sent to an early death down a big ol’ well. Since pretty much everybody else in the Persian army appears to be of a different race, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to avoid this trope and let some other dude get kicked down the well. We all knew it was coming.
We all know this is Sparta.
6. The Bucket List (2007)
Character: Character: Morgan Freeman (because isn’t that really who he’s playing at this point?)
Likelihood of Being Killed First: 50 percent
This is one of the highest chances a black actor had of not dying out of the films on this list. All Morgan Freeman had to do was survive lung-cancer longer than Jack Nicholson, in his second appearance on this list. Nicholson’s a real winner, apparently. This shouldn’t have been an impossible task, given Freeman’s previous stint as God in Bruce Almighty.
When the two meet, they start on what seems to be equal footing. They’ve both been diagnosed as terminal, and they’re both able and willing to go on a crazy adventure in an effort to find themselves before they succumb to their illnesses. Sure, Nicholson’s character is a billionaire while Freeman plays a lowly mechanic, but it’s not that hard to envision them dying together, on the same bed and holding hands like the final scene of The Notebook.
Alas, Freeman’s role in the movie is simply to teach Nicholson how to better appreciate life, and he dies in a hospital bed while Nicholson’s character goes into remission. There was literally one death in the movie, and it ended up being the black guy. Typical.
Jordan Breeding is a current Paste intern who also writes for Cracked and the esteemed Twitter.