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Using the film Get Out to explain Black Horror

Movie poster for the 2017 film, Get Out.
Movie poster for the 2017 film, Get Out.

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Lots of people are going to be watching scary movies tonight ... you know, to get themselves in the mood for Halloween 

Chances are this years breakout hit, Get Out, will be one of them. The film was the creation of actor and comedian Jordan Peele, best known for starring in the Comedy Central sketch series Key & Peele. 

The story centers on Chris, a young African American man, who is feeling nervous about a visit to the childhood home of Rose, his white girlfriend. The initial awkwardness when he meets her parents soon turns to panic when he discovers that her family is part of a plot to kidnap black men and women, and through a series of psychological and medical procedures, take over their bodies. 

The victims would be forced into the Sunken Place, a zone where they would see everything all around them - but have no control over their lives. 

The film was a smash hit, but it also created a cultural touchstone because it got a lot of people talking about how many African Americans deal with subtle racism or microaggressions. Peeele himself tweeted out recently that the sunken place has a lot more to do with everyday reality than movie fiction.

But Tananarive Due, a writer and UCLA educator, saw something else in the film, a chance to use it to examine the scope, role, and impact of something called the black horror genre.  The class,  called The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic, looks at films and horror fiction through the lenses of racism and social survival, and it all started when Due saw Get Out.

When Get Out came out ... I realized it was the missing piece I needed as someone who loves horror, who has written, read and watched black horror my whole life, but we never had that piece of work that we could pin the sub-genre on, especially with this concept of the sunken place, because it so captures what artists are talking about. It's confronting white supremacy, using African based magical systems, sometimes for good or ill ... sometimes it's a bit of exploitation, even in the black made films, but there's that that runs through. Ancestors, family, survival ... all of those things we look for when we enjoy black horror ... 

UCLA professor  Tananarive Due, who's teaching a class called The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic,
UCLA professor Tananarive Due, who's teaching a class called The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic,
Stephen Hoffman
One of the films she featured was the 1972 film Blacula, starring veteran actor William Marshall. Although the film was not well received initially, many critics praised Marshall's performance, but despite the weak ratings, it still helped spark a whole host of other black themed horror films. 

Another film she examined in the class was 1968's Night of the Living Dead by George Romero. In the film the main protagonist, Ben, is played by the black actor  Duane Jones. It follows Ben and five other people who are trapped in a house because a horde of flesh eating zombies are outside.

Ben emerges as the leader, even shooting a white man that refuses to do what Ben tells him to do. 

But after surviving the zombie attack all night, he is shot and killed by a white sheriff. And Due says that this is an early example of black horror, especially when you imagine the time that the film was released.

It's even unusual now to have a black male lead in a horror film, the sterotype for a long time is that we're the first to die ... or you're the spiritual guide, or you're the magical Negro. And Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead is none of those things ... I have to tell my students, imagine you're watching this in 1968, this is pretty explosive stuff... 

Tananarive Due talking about her class on black horror at UCLA, “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic."

(click on the blue arrow to hear the entire interview)