Black Horror Films of the 30s and 40s
by Balogun Ojetade
The race film or race movie was a film genre which existed in the United States between 1915 and 1952. It consisted of films produced for an all-Black audience, featuring Black casts.
In all, approximately five hundred race films were produced. Of these, fewer than one hundred remain. Because race films were produced outside the Hollywood studio system, they have been largely forgotten by mainstream film historians. In their day, race films were very popular among African American theatergoers. Their influence continues to be felt in cinema and television marketed to African Americans.
Race movies were most often financed by white-owned companies and scripted by white writers. Many race films were produced by white-owned film companies outside the Hollywood-centered American film industry, making them some of the first financially successful independent films. The Ebony Film Company of Chicago, created specifically to produce Black-cast films, was also headed by a white production team.
Some Black-owned studios existed, including Lincoln Motion Picture Company (1916–1921), and, most notably, Oscar Micheaux’s Chicago-based Micheaux Film Corporation, which operated from 1918–1940. On his posters, Micheaux advertised that his films were scripted and produced exclusively by African Americans.
In the South, to comply with laws on racial segregation, race movies were screened at designated Black theaters. Though northern cities were not formally segregated, race films were generally shown in theaters in Black neighborhoods. Many large northern theaters incorporated special balconies reserved for Blacks.
While it was rare for race films to be shown to white audiences, white theaters often reserved special time-slots for Black moviegoers. This resulted in race films often being screened as matinées and midnight shows. During the height of their popularity, race films were shown in as many as 1,100 theaters around the country.
While most race movies were polite melodramas and murder mysteries featuring educated, upper-class protagonists, a string of more bawdy, working-class comedies also proved to be popular.
Many of these comedies, inspired by the popularity of Son of Ingagi, featured horror elements – primarily haunted houses or voodoo curses. Comedians Mantan Moreland (Lucky Ghost; Mr. Washington Goes to Town; Professor Creeps) and Pigmeat Markham (Mr. Smith Goes Ghost; Fight That Ghost), in particular, headlined several such movies.
Let’s examine a few of them:
Drums O’ Voodoo (1934)
This is the very first Black film featuring elements of horror. Thomas Catt, the proprietor of a “jook” – a Southern cabaret-brothel – desires young, virginal Myrtle Simpson, the niece of preacher Amos Berry and the fiancée of the grandson of Aunt Hagar, the local voodoo high priestess.
Thomas threatens to expose Amos’ past to his congregation if he refuses to “give” Myrtle to him, Amos resists Thomas’ attempts at blackmail while Aunt Hagar activates some of her voodoo spells.
Later, during one of Amos’ spirited revival meetings, Thomas bursts in and, with razor drawn, announces that he has come to claim Myrtle. Thomas starts to reveal to the congregation that Amos had once murdered a man. In the middle of his exposé, however, Thomas is struck by a bolt of lightning and is blinded, a fate that had been predicted by Aunt Hagar. Thomas then dies in a pool of quicksand, and Myrtle and Amos are at last freed from their tormenter.
The Devil’s Daughter (1939)
Jamaican cockfights, a Harlem conman, whose soul has been transferred into a pig, an obeah blood dance ritual and a powerful death incantation are just some of the craziness in this scary mystery movie that gives Scooby Doo a run for its money.
Son of Ingagi (1940)
This film is considered the first horror film – not just one featuring horror elements. The film’s director, Spencer Williams – who portrayed Andy in the controversial Amos n Andy television series – brought the technique of montage – the superimposing of scenes – to race films and used such innovative films in the creation of this classic horror film.
Playing on the title of an earlier silent exploitation film, Ingagi, which introduced white audiences to a sexually aggressive gorilla, Spencer Williams, who also played a role in the movie, scripted Son of Ingagi from an original short story, “House of Horror.” Dramatic stage actress Laura Bowman, an original member of the Lafayette Players Stock Company and an Oscar Micheaux veteran, had the leading part as the mad woman doctor, whose creation N’Gina – the half-man half-ape son of Ingagi – is played by actor Zack Williams (no relation to Spencer).
With his own film projector, Williams began traveling the southern US, showing Son of Ingagi to audiences, who invariably found themselves engrossed in the plot:
Moments after the wedding of Robert and Eleanor Lindsay, wealthy old skinflint, Dr. Helen Jackson asks the lawyer Bradshaw to draw up her will. While the wedding reception is in full swing, Helen – an African missionary who introduced Eleanor’s deceased parents – secretly observes the festivities through a window.
The reception is interrupted by an explosion at the foundry where Bob works, which results in the loss of his job.
When Helen arrives at her home, she finds her criminal brother Zeno waiting for her, so she rings her Oriental gong, summoning the strange ape-man N’Gina, who frightens Zeno away.
That night, Helen completes her drug experiments and creates the greatest medicine ever made. However, when N’Gina drinks from one of the test tubes, he becomes enraged and kills her.
The Lindsays find Helen’s body. Because they are named as the beneficiaries in her will, they are initially suspected of murdering her. Eventually, though, the Lindsays are acquitted of the crime and they move into Helen’s manor, where Eleanor soon discovers that food is mysteriously disappearing.
Bradshaw, the executor of the will, comes to urge them to sell the house, and while rummaging through the desk, he carelessly rings the gong, which summons N’Gina from his hiding place in the cellar.
Angry at finding a stranger in Helen’s chair, N’Gina brutally kills Bradshaw. More horror and comedy ensues. I won’t spoil it for you. Run and get this film (the film, in its entirety, is available on Youtube)!
And thank me later.
Professor Creeps (1942)
Washington and Jefferson, a pair of bumbling private investigators who run a nearly bankrupt agency called “Bloodhound Ink,” are hired to find an alluring woman’s boyfriend who has mysteriously disappeared. The detectives soon discover that the woman’s boyfriend is not the first boyfriend to vanish and that every time a suitor is on the verge of proposing to her, he vanishes without a trace. To solve the case, Washington and Jefferson go to the scene of the mysterious events, the house belonging to the woman’s uncle, Professor Whackingham Creeps, and more disappearances ensue and the professor demonstrates how he can defy gravity and turn people into animals with a squirt from his special gun.
While this great movie is cool because of its scary moments, its science fiction elements make it that much cooler!
Lucky Ghost (1942)
After being ordered by a judge to get out of town, small time criminal, Washington Delaware Jones and his friend Jefferson hit the road in search of a new home. They end up in a sanitarium haunted by terrifying ghosts and a piano playing skeleton.
A fun movie, indeed!
These are just a few of the Blacktastic horror films of the Diesel Age. There are many more that will make you laugh as much as jump out of your skin. Search Youtube and a few independent film rental and sales companies, which often carry these gems.
Balogun Ojetade is author of ten speculative fiction novels, contributing co-editor of the Steamfunk and Ki Khanga anthologies and editor of the Rococoa anthology. He is author of three non-fiction books on indigenous African martial arts, an award winning screenwriter and director and fight choreographer of several popular independent short and feature films, co-founder of the Steamfunk Movement, coined the term “Dieselfunk,” and is a major contributor and authority on Afroretroism. Find him at: Balogun Ojetade official site.