Racist stereotypes are, unfortunately, everywhere. We may be more progressive today than we were fifty years ago, but society is far from color-blind. In a lot of ways, the most insidious forms of racism persist in our entertainment.
In horror, the “token” black man is usually one of the first to die. He’s frequently dressed in baggy pants, a ball cap, and flashy jewelry. These characters have little to no personality beyond caricature, and often sound uneducated. The terms “thug” or “player” typically apply to them.
Mysteries and crime procedurals have frequently relied on “the other” when it comes to convenient culprits and baddies. We’re all familiar with the image of the hulking black man with a weapon, either violent by choice or circumstance. Gangsters, gang members, addicts and henchmen—they’re frequently portrayed as black or other non-white ethnicities.
Many current shows and movies have steered clear of such negative clichés. But they still exist, particular in the horror and crime genres. That’s what makes George Romero, Norman Jewison, and Neil Cross so influential.
Building a Better Black Protagonist
George Romero created waves when he cast a black man as his first film’s hero. The fact that Duane Jones was chosen simply because he was the best actor didn’t change the fact that Night of the Living Dead was powerfully relevant. It was released mere months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and with the boycotts, race riots, and lynchings in the news, Ben’s struggle against zombies and climactic death at the hands of rednecks couldn’t be anything but timely.
Ben in Night of the Living Dead is dressed like a professional, is eloquent, is capable, and doesn’t hesitate to take charge because he knows his plans are the soundest. He’s empathetic enough to take care of the catatonic Barbra, but doesn’t hesitate to slap her when she breaks into hysterics. Talk about a daring directorial decision in such turbulent times! In Ben, we were given a strong black character who was a man, not a trope.
Just a year before Night of the Living Dead, Norman Jewison sparked controversy with In the Heat of the Night. Sidney Poitier became one of the first fully developed, sympathetic black heroes in a crime drama—his Detective Tibbs isn’t afraid to push people around to get his man, but he relies more on his wit and words to solve the mystery.
Fighting injustice, racism, and oppression at every turn, Tibbs doggedly pursues the truth in the name of the law no matter the personal cost. His struggle is representative of many African-Americans’ in the 1960’s, and helped pave the way for future black detectives, including the more recent John Luther of the BBC show Luther.
Angry Men in Power
The separation between Tibbs and Luther isn’t only measured in time—four and a half decades—but also in attitudes. While In the Heat of the Night drastically challenged societal norms and opinions, it was still firmly rooted in the Civil Rights era. Tibbs is forceful and powerful, but adheres to the strict letter of the law. It’s the only way he can operate in a primarily white domain without being seen as a dangerous threat.
John Luther is a bird of an entirely different feather. Yes, he’s a detective sworn to uphold the law. But for Luther, the law is sometimes lacking. He believes in justice, which cannot always be obtained through due process.
Neil Cross’s show Luther is outside the norm for a variety of reasons, but one of the largest concerns how it frames its lead hero. John Luther, played by Idris Elba, is an angry man with a violent temper. He lashes out, shouts at people, punches walls, roughs up suspects. And yes, he is a physically large and intimidating black man.
What keeps Luther from falling into a thuggish stereotype is his personal code of ethics and empathy. Many of Luther’s rage-fueled outbursts are directly linked to his connection with the victims in the cases he investigates. And while he refrains from doling out total vigilante justice, he doesn’t hesitate to bend the rules in order to secure an arrest.
The incredible thing is that the show doesn’t hide the fact that Luther is, in fact, doing illegal things. It’s clear that he shouldn’t be torturing suspects or tampering with evidence. The show makes no apologies for Luther’s actions—it merely shows us that his motivations are complex and firmly rooted in his own idea of what is “right.” This is hardly new in the crime/noir genre, where things are not always so black and white—what is new is that the lead anti-hero is black, not white.
Luther is above all pragmatic: his means justify the ends in his mind. He understands violence, and frequently welcomes it. He has a lot in common with two other black heroes in zombie cinema: Peter of Dawn of the Dead and Big Daddy of Land of the Dead.
The quartet of survivors in Dawn of the Dead are led by Peter, a former SWAT officer. Peter is essentially an action hero, given his predilection for gunfire and karate chops. He doesn’t hesitate to gun down a superior officer when the man goes crazy, but he also has plenty of philosophic moments and acts as the movie’s moral compass. His empathy and ruthlessness frequently mirror Luther’s.
If Peter is the proactive leader, Big Daddy of Land of the Dead is the Black Panther revolutionist. He’s also the first black zombie hero. Yep, that’s right: Big Daddy leads a revolution of zombies against an oppressive group of humans. And we cheer for them the entire time! When Big Daddy screams in agony for his massacred undead “brothers,” we feel his pain. When he breaks through the doors of Fiddler’s Green with his jackhammer, we recognize it as a righteous overthrowing of a destructive ruling class. Big Daddy becomes a symbol of justice and independence rather than the typical flesh-hungry monster; kudos to Mr. Romero for that dramatic choice.
To an extent, the token black man and violent gang member will always be around in the horror and crime genres, just as the cocky jock and cynical gumshoe will. But as long as there are more Tibbses, Peters, Bens, Big Daddys and Luthers, hopefully the norm will become to focus on solid black characters rather than stereotypes.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.