Feb 29 2016

The Importance of “Blacula”

It is far too easy for the uninitiated to regard Blacula as a joke. Considering the low quality of blaxploitation horror movies like Blackenstein, it’s somewhat understandable. The film’s publicity materials also helped add a little fuel to this fire. Here’s one such example from CineGraphic:

Although it initially went into production as a comedy movie, the film transformed into something far more meaningful. The original idea was for Blacula to be a goofy bumbler who just happened to wander into Dracula’s castle and get turned into a vampire. It gets worse. Rather than the respectable prince we got in the final product, Blacula’s human identity was a man named Andrew Brown. Which just so happens to be the full name of “Andy” from the infamous Amos and Andy series. But American International Pictures was having trouble finding an actor to agree to play the part. That’s when William Marshall entered the picture.

Marshall had made numerous film, television and Broadway appearances since 1944. His portrayal of the lead role in countless stage productions of Othello had won him much acclaim. With such a commanding presence and quite the résumé, it’s easy to see why the producers agreed to his requirement that the script be changed. Rather than simply have a black man wandering around Transylvania without any explanation, Marshall opted for the character to be an African prince who was traveling through Europe in an attempt to find aristocratic support to end the slave trade. He wisely noted this new origin would remove “the stereotype of ignorant, conniving stupidity that evolved in the United States to justify slavery” from the plot. Some critics have also noted a parallel between Dracula turning Mamuwalde into a vampire under the name “Blacula” in order to suffer for eternity while locked in a coffin and the treatment of slaves in America. The only hints of the original version were left for some aspects of the film’s publicity campaign and the unfortunate handling of the interracial gay couple in the movie itself. Thankfully Marshall’s portrayal of the title character when he isn’t overcome by bloodlust is extremely sympathetic. With his intelligence and charm, it’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t want Mamuwalde among their circle of friends if he wasn’t cursed with vampirism.

But Blacula was treated with suspicion by many African Americans when it was first announced. A 1972 issue of Jet magazine openly lamented the initial announcement of such a film. During the very public argument between William Marshall and Anthony Quinn over Quinn’s proposed film Black Majesty, one outspoken opponent of blaxploitation films said that having a non-black actor like Quinn portray Haitian leader Henri Christophe was acceptable if black actors were allowed to have “demeaning” roles in Blacula! But other critics (of all colors) had praise for the film and it made a killing at the box office. So the sequel Scream Blacula Scream was released the next year and the results were not nearly the same. Aside from a brief scene where Blacula compares prostitution to the slave trade, social commentary was virtually absent and everything felt closer to your average horror film.

Blacula was not only the first of many African American vampire movies, but it also spawned the entire blaxploitation horror wave! The originator is definitely of higher quality than the imitators. It is also the first horror movie with an African American cast to achieve mainstream release (and success). Previous films, such as 1940’s Son of Ingagi were limited to segregated black theaters. While the 1939 film The Devil’s Daughter had an African-American cast, all other aspects of the film were handled by caucasians. The director of Blacula, William Crain, was not only notable for being an African American graduate from a major film school, but the popularity of the film made him one of the few such graduates to have a commercially successful film under his belt. The movie having its script changed the way it had by William Marshall also made it a notable first. Marshall even used its success as as a springboard to speak out on important issues involving the depiction of black characters in movies. So do yourself a favor and track down a copy of it sometime!

Bibliography:

[In our ongoing effort to make articles both as informative and as visually attractive as possible, the following is presented in what the staff likes to jokingly call “The Leathbridge Manual of Style.” While not quite up to professional standards, we hope this information and direct links to the pages will still be of use to you. All sources are listed in the order in which the information from them appears in the article. Comments and suggestions are more than welcome.]

Jet, June 30, 2003. “William Marshall, ‘Blacula’ Actor, Succumbs At 78.”
William Marshall (actor) – Wikipedia
Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms: Essays on Gender, Race and Culture. “The Dracula and the Blacula Cultural Revolution.” John Edgar Browning and Paul R. Lehman.
Horror Films of the 1970s by John Kenneth Muir.
Movie Pressbook: Blacula (1972) (From Zombos’ Closet)
Jet, March 2, 1972. “People Are Talking About.”
The Cult Film Reader by Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik.
Blacula – Wikipedia
Scream Blacula Scream – Wikipedia
Scream Blacula Scream – From Zombos’ Closet
Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Robin R. Means Coleman.
William Crain (filmmaker) – Wikipedia
Jet, October 5, 1972. “Roy Innis Proposes Review Committee For Black Films.”

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