Rapping One’s Way out of Horror’s Laziest Trope
By now you may have heard that Jordan Peele’s well-received directorial debut Get Out is a horror movie where racial commentary drives the fright:
While the film does follow a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) meeting his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) family — and though the comedy vet Peele (MADtv, Key & Peele, Keanu) has never shied away from race in his writing and performances# — Get Out is, more bluntly, a horror movie from a black perspective; a rare angle full of potential that, up to this point, has gone horrifically unexplored. Although the genre has historically been used to drive social commentary, racism hasn’t yet been given its cultural due diligence: a satirical/horrible film like — Peele cites in a recent interview with Forbes — Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, which made the women’s lib movement their metaphorical centers.
As Peele reminds in that same interview, nobody’s really made a horror flick about race since Night of the Living Dead…
Many horror movies, despite almost always having white protagonists, deal with race. But there’s a reason Inverse writer Adrian Marcano dubbed Get Out an “innovative step forward” for a genre that “has historically treated Black characters with apathy, or even outright hatred.”
The indispensable TV Tropes notes, “In a film which involves a lot of character deaths, it seems like the Token Minority will inevitably be the first to go,” so this phenomenon isn’t particular to horror films (their examples include Leviathan, Heat, and The Monster Squad). Specifically looking at horror, however, Complex recently reviewed 50 horror films featuring black actors and discovered that 10% (5 of 50) kill off their black characters first, and the overall minority mortality rate was 72% (36 of 50).
Valerie Complex (no relation to the aforementioned website) over at Black Girl Nerds writes that this is because those minority characters were added to simply rack up the film’s body count (“Black people in horror films don’t always die first, but will die eventually”).
Nevertheless, she does include a few “exceptions to the death rule”:
- 1. Their companion at the end of the film is a white lady.
- 2. The film features an all-black cast.
- 3. A black person is the villain.
To this list, I humbly suggest an even more condescending, yet arduously galvanizing addition:
- 4. “If the character is played by a rapper.”
Let’s look at some case studies…
Ice Cube in Anaconda
Anaconda is about an intrepid documentary team searching for an Amazonian tribe that instead finds a big snake that hates Jon Voight. Ice Cube’s a cameraman who simply refuses to succumb to the constrictor’s might, and while he may have had a song in the mix (“Foe Life”#), Cube actually took the role for similar reasons to Peele’s Get Out motives: representation of perspective.
Simple. The black man isn’t dead in the first three pages, like Jurassic Park. It’s like, ‘The black man kills the snake with a Latin[a] girl? Damn! I got to do this.'”
LL Cool J in Deep Blue Sea
LL Cool J kills three sharks in Deep Blue Sea — one with an oven, one with a crucifix, and one with a harpoon strapped to a car battery. It’s a great movie, and mostly because of his character’s zany antics (he’s a chef/preacher with a pet parrot that has a penchant for profanity).
There once was an urban legend the rapper explicitly listed in his contract that his characters weren’t allowed to die (see: Deep Blue Sea, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, Hawaii Five-0). However, in an interview with IGN back in 2006, Cool J offered a more inspiriting explanation:
A lot of times what has happened is I’ve done the movies and died, but when they tested the movies, the people wanted me to live. If it’s what the people want, that’s what’s in the movie.”
Busta Rhymes in Halloween: Resurrection
Well, it can mean survival, but it can also mean total ass-kicking. Busta kicks Michael Myers out of a damn window, and that guy has insane zombie strength. So what if Halloween: Resurrection is one of the sillier films in the franchise; it’s also a film that allows its rapper protagonist some agency in a genre (slasher) that almost always reserves that ability for its Final (white) Girl.
Busta, too, was extremely cognizant of the trope plaguing black actors who may not have the luxury of being crossover entertainment sensations. In an interview with MTV, he explained (when speaking about changing how black men die in horror movies):
When we die, we die with style. Pressed pants on, all the shirts got to be buttoned up from the neck down. We can’t even be perspiring too much when we about to die. We don’t even yell too much when we about to die. We die fancy.
When acknowledging his trope-busting heroic role, Busta pleasantly reminded, “There’s nothing wrong with continuously being a black hero.”
Rah Digga in Thirteen Ghosts
Thirteen Ghosts, the remake of William Castle’s 1960 13 Ghosts, is a schlocky good time with goofy character designs that embody spooky fun in their mythological creations. The film’s focus on Tony Shaloub and Matthew Lillard exploring a creepy house is typical of the horror genre, though when Digga’s nanny character (I know) goes from finger-wagging, logic-spouting comic relief to full-fledged savior of the film, her role transcends its stereotypical origins.
In an interview with Mike Jordan, Digga tells us that this transformation wasn’t by chance, either. She said her drunken, improvised audition for the role “went over better than what was written so they let her put more Digga Digga into [it].” Apparently the “original script had her character being killed off early in the movie,” but Rah Digga, having fallen in love with film to the extent she ended up enrolling in the New York Film Academy for directing (and apparently “not wanting her per diem to end,” which, who would?), asked if they could rewrite the script so her character could live. The writers acquiesced, with the excuse it’d be too traumatic for audiences for the nanny of two kids to be killed — she was such a big part of the family, after all.
That’s a terrible excuse, but an excellent reminder that the racist tropes damning many minority characters’ fates in genre films are completely negotiable. They’re only in place because of a narrow-minded history, which can easily be changed by open-minded writers, directors, producers, and casting directors; or, if they have the additional leverage of being able to rhyme words on beat, by the initiative of the actors themselves.
Horror and rap are two of the last genres where artists are being truly transgressive, as, whether in music or film, suits will always err on the side of selling their biggest and most prestigious (capital D) Drama and pop to white people. And that’s why these death-defying rappers were more than stunt casting; they were smart casting. These musicians simply had the experience, savvy, awareness, and (most importantly) box office draw to demand better creative treatment – and they were in a genre flexible enough to give it to them.
With Get Out, Jordan Peele continues pushing the good fight forward by using that same genre to reach a clamoring audience – with critical adulation and not a token in sight.
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