When The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, it marked the beginning of a century of deeply racist and damaging representations of Black people on film. While The Birth of a Nation was heralded as a cinematic masterpiece at the time of its release, Black groups openly criticized and protested it. This racism continues in many films today and is a subconscious bleed of society’s racism into the media industry.
Black actors in films get stereotyped into specific roles such as a police officer or an FBI agent. Morgan Freeman in the 1997 drama “Kiss the Girls” and Kevin Hart and Ice Cube in the 2014 comedy “Ride Along,” Black actors are given the stereotypical role of the Black police officer or detective. Despite this, “depictions of white police officers dominated the police crime genre, appearing as the lead or joint lead in 89 percent of such films, while African-American officers were leads in only 19 percent of such films, according to an Indiana State University study”. Another role black people often receive is the victim in horror films. Based on a sampling of almost 1,000 horror films containing over 1,500 appearances by black actors and actresses, a site has found their mortality rate to be about 45%. Given all of the minor, non-speaking roles that were accounted for, this sample is saying that nearly one out of every two will die. In more gory movies such as Slasher movies in the mold of Halloween, monster movies like Alien or Jaws and zombie flicks like Night of the Living Dead, any black characters deemed major enough to have a name and a speaking part are killed. In the Friday the 13th series, for example, an astounding 16 out of 19 black characters die.
According to wikipedia, “Normality is a behavior that can be normal for an individual when it is consistent with the most common behavior for that person.” Normal is used to describe behavior that is conforming to society.
However, normal behavior is merely recognized as the opposite to abnormality or going against society’s flow. Being seen as normal or not can bleed into acceptance and inclusion into social situations.This leads into the mere-exposure effect. It is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. In studies of interpersonal attraction, the more often people see a person, the more pleasing and likable they find that person. With this logic, the more often a black person is seen being killed on screen, the more normal it becomes to the audience. This phenomenon leads straight to police brutality.
In 1999, African Americans comprised 49 percent of total arrests yet constituted 13 percent of the population. Nearly one in three black males in the age group of 20-29 are under some form of correctional control, such as incarceration, probation, or parole. African American males have been subjected to racial discrimination, particularly by the police. After Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, was killed in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Mo., an investigation found that the FBI undercounted fatal police shootings by more than half. This issue is because reporting by police departments is voluntary, and many departments fail to do so. The findings in data reported half the shootings were white, yet this was disproportionate because black Americans account for less than 13 percent of the population. Per every million white people, around 16 are fatally shot by the police. This is less than half the number of black people killed; standing at 41 per million.
In a place like New Orleans, where the city is 59% black, racism is assumed to no longer be an issue. Yet almost every single piece of horror based media set in New Orleans kills people of color off first. The fake killing of an actor is a far cry from the real murders black people face by the police daily, but it is reflective of the feeling of America in a grader scale. New Orleans is known as America’s most haunted city yet surprisingly has few horror films set in it. Hatchet, filmed in 2006 is about a group of tourists in New Orleans who attend a haunted swamp tour. They find themselves stranded in the wilderness and their evening of fun and spooks turns into a horrific nightmare. The cast is entirely white except for Dean Leon, who plays Marcus. Marcus ends up dying at the hands of the villain. Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1994) surprisingly does not have a black character die but instead the black man is the villain. The film also focuses heavily on slavery in the family tree being the catalyst for the villian being evil. Dracula 2000 has a mostly white cast with the exception of Marcus played by Omar Eeps. He holds a short amount of screentime and is quickly killed and turned into a vampire.
A more recent horror television show followed a very similar pattern. American Horror Stories: The Coven (2013-2014) was the 3rd season of the show and was set in New Orleans for its spiritual lure. The main cast is entirely white and the recurring stars continue this pattern containing only 3 people of color. In the 12th episode, 2 of them end up trapped for eternity in literal hell and the 3rd, famous actress Angela Bassett, ends up killed.
Most horror film writers are White males and they didn’t know how to “write” Black characters. They make Black characters expendable so that they don’t have to attempt to flesh out someone who they didn’t understand. Further, horror films often contain a romantic element. What is unspoken in Hollywood is that interracial Black male/White female relationships are not “popular.” This allows writers to create a Black character, but not have to give that character a romantic partner. This makes them expendable. To be blunt, racism sells films. There are areas of the United States and the world where the death of a Black character would not be mourned. An unspoken writing rule was that killing off the Black character had little downside with certain audiences. And finally, Someone has to die. The Black character is almost never the protagonist, meaning that if a choice had to be made, then he/she represented that choice.
Burning Man is a music festival held in the western United States about artistic expression and community.The event has been located since 1991 at Black Rock City in northwestern Nevada. It is a temporary city made of 100 miles in the desert. The event is guided by ten principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. In 2019, 78,850 people participated in the event. The event originated on June 22, 1986, on Baker Beach in San Francisco as a small bonfire. At the end a wooden man was burned, a tradition which has since continued on a much larger scale. According to the founder, “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.” This was written with a broad stroke for general organizing, meaning anyone is welcome to the Burning Man culture. When talking about the core values, it is said “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift-giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” Instead of cash, participants at the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert are encouraged to rely on a gift economy. Along the same idea is the concept of no advertisements. There are a few coffee vendors and such who take donations as payment but no true currency is allowed between participants. The website says, “To preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.” No cash transactions are permitted between attendees of the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert.
Because of the formation of a society which holds no monetary values, there is very little crime. They state, “We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.” That being said, the encampment is not without its problems, including drug use, arrests and sexual assaults. Law enforcement officers patrolling the area include local deputies and federal agents as well as Burning Man’s volunteer Black Rock Rangers. In 2020, there were 16 incidents across the 8 days.
Charges included battery of substantial bodily harm, domestic battery, possession of controlled substance, obstructing a police officer, battery, false statement, destroying or concealing evidence, possession of paraphernalia, battery on a protected person, sales of controlled substance and a bench warrant for a crime committed in 2019. Overall, there were only 2 incidents per day which in a city of almost 80,000 people, is near unheard of in the United States.
The concept of Burning Man cannot be applied to the City of New Orleans for many reasons but many of the aspects of the festival can be. Burning Man argues that people are inherently good. When someone is placed in an environment where the normal is love and kindness, the people will rise up to that standard. Give the City of New Orleans and their films a chance to try this. The film industry as a whole is very biased; but taking away the greed people have by paying them in a form other than money can open up an entirely new way of creativity. It can promote different ideas and mediums such as the art pieces seen in Burning Man. With this logic, it could potentially revamp the film industry and how people of color are treated, specifically for color actors being placed in racist roles. There is a concept implemented there that strips people of the labels, status, and identities that they are often hidden behind. The sense of normalcy mentioned earlier is forgotten about during the 8 days of Burning Man. Asking people to forget all sense of normalcy is not an easy task, but it could be implemented in short bursts throughout the year that gradually increase over time. Burning Man also suggests that what society thinks does not matter so long as one is kind. This is back to the idea of forgetting what normal truly is. By doing that we would remove labels and thus forget the racism in the film industry.
An argument could be made for removing and isolating the filming of movies in the City of New Orleans but that is wildly unrealistic. Movies often want to be set in cities especially with the lore of New Orleans. Burning man teaches that in a group dynamic, you are either a leader or a follower. Leaders take initiative, they think a few steps ahead, they plan and organize, and initiate action. Followers take a passive approach, often exerting minimal effort and sit back relying on the fact that eventually the leaders will play their role. Being a leader or a follower is not a fixed identity, it’s a choice you make on a constant basis. This idea can be implemented in New Orleans and in the film industry. If a director is inherently making biased choices consciously or unconsciously, it is up to someone else to step up and choose whether or not to follow them. If enough people stand up, real change begins to happen. Burning Man teaches us that people want to make the right choices but they don’t often have the ability to due to external circumstances. Taking away the monetary values placed by society on someone would allow them to do that with little to no consequences and begin the change New Orleans needs to see in their film industry.