Monday, March 16, 2015


Culturally speaking, BLACULA is a complicated movie. Usually written off as a "blaxploitation" oddity, the film is more"thoughtful" than "good." The title might be a joke but the people making them film took their work seriously.

I don't think anyone took their work on the film more seriously than star William Marshall. He was vaguely apologetic about the film in a 1972 interview with Junior Scholastic (which you can read HERE), but his criticism was more about the problems with cinema, in general.
"Believe it or not, so far there are no black films," Marshall said. "There are only films about white situations played by black actors. A truly black film should deal with black history."
He's not wrong. Even the film's title identifies the movie as an novelty, suggesting it's "Dracula in Blackface." Marshall's sensibilities were better reflected in the sequel, 1973's SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, a movie that manages to improve on almost every aspect of the original without really solving any of its lingering issues. I'd planned to discuss that film in a bit more detail today, but couldn't find time over the weekend to revisit SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM in its entirety.

But I had a thought while watching the first act play out: Is there a cultural variation of the Bechdel test that might be applied to fiction?

If you're not familiar with it, the Bechdel test is a tool used to evaluate the value of female characters in fiction. In order to "pass" this test a story must include a conversation between two named female characters that's about something other than a man. You'll be amazed by how many movies flunk this test.

I like the Bechdel test, but think it's sometimes used as a shortcut to thinking. It's not really the pass/fail litmus test some believe it to be, but it's an excellent tool for prompting discussion on cultural inequalities. It's surprising to me that someone hasn't devised a similar tool for discussing racial inequalities in cinema. While watching SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM this weekend, it occurred to me that such a "test" would need to be much more complicated than the Bechdel. The ideas Marshall discussed in his 1972 interview clearly played a role in making the sequel less schlocky, but that doesn't mean its attitudes on race are any less troubling. For one thing, there's that word "Blacula" still in the title.
As a 40-something white man, I'm about the last person on earth that needs to be establishing ground rules for such a test. If you've been paying attention, you might have noticed my habit of slipping back and forth between words like "race" and "culture" as though they mean the same thing. There's also a risk that discussing such a concept in this context will lead to it being named "The Blacula Test." But it's something that's worth talking about, if you're open to such a conversation.

— Wallace McBride

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