Interview: Ashlee Blackwell, founder of Graveyard Shift Sisters

ashleeAshlee Blackwell is the owner of Graveyard Shift Sisters, a website dedicated to Black women in horror. In this interview with Shadowgum, she discusses her experiences with researching the topic…

Hello, Ashlee, and welcome to Shadowgum. To get things rolling, can you tell us about how you came to start Graveyard Shift Sisters?

I feel like it started when I was doing some casual internet research and came across Kristina Leath-Malin’s upcoming documentary teaser My Final Girl: The Black Women of 70s Horror Cinema, which lead to finding Dr. Robin Means Coleman, a participant in the documentary whose written a book titled, Horror Noire: Blacks In American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present.  I remember clearly in February 2013 talking about these women with fervor on the Women In Horror Month podcast as a co-host. I was so excited that there were Black women out there that took the genre as seriously as I do. And that made me notice a lot of things I swept under the rug for quite some time.

Major horror sites weren’t talking about these women or their work. I would check regularly and find nothing, not even anything about other women of color. Just the same filmmakers, etc. and their latest projects being promoted, the same “best,” “worst” lists that are pumped out for content. They horronoirdidn’t seem much like a holistic space for horror news, independent or otherwise. The risk taking that I feel the horror genre represents so viscerally was not there. And although I generally enjoy the efforts of these sites, I don’t see where there’s room for excuses. If little ol’ me could find this stuff, so could they. I figured there was little to no interest and that was not okay with me. I felt left out of a genre, a community I relentlessly defend and love dearly.

Additionally, I love listening to horror podcasts. When I heard reviews of films with Black characters, there were only discussions about the men, the Black women were never the “hot” ones or characters they felt worthy of discussion. Unless maybe, possibly they were kinda in-your-face stereotypes. Which was bothersome even further.

These particular instances made me feel even more alone than I already felt in general. As a Black woman, there’s a narrative of invisibility, dismissiveness, and de-valuing that is felt on so many social and political platforms in the United States. It’s a daily struggle where confidence and presence is tested. It almost feels like no one “has our back”.

So I thought a lot about my Black, women’s and Black women’s studies courses and theory I studied in college in addition to my own personal experiences. Horror not only was a personal part of my life, but a heavy weight in my scholarship as well.

I found a bit of my writing stride again after getting an MA in Liberal Arts in 2012 on the Black Girl Nerds website writing about horror and pop culture in general for a wider audience. One piece, “Graveyard Shift Sisters: In Search Of Black Women Horror Directors” I wrote because I had this unwavering desire to find these women, hoping to feel less alone. The title really stuck with me. I remember wanting something with the word ‘sisters’ in it to be encompassing of community and I know it as a term used genuinely in the African American community. And ‘graveyard shift’ is representative of overnight, when it’s dark, less people are out, and those working are usually the ones doing the work no one else wants to or has the luxury of not having to. It also has this witty, horror-esque, macabre feel.

Born out of frustration and excitement to bring to the horror community something not quite done before, the inspiration I found from Kristina, Dr. Coleman, my own musings with the support of my Women in Horror Month boss lady/partner in crime Hannah Neurotica and Black Girl Nerds founder Jamie Broadnax pushed me to birth Graveyard Shift Sisters, a blog dedicated to highlighting and celebrating Black women and women of color in the horror genre. We exist, are fans, characters, writers, filmmakers; visible and valuable.

 

In the popular imagination, Black characters in horror fiction are often relegated to two unsavoury roles: the “magical negro“, and the Black guy who dies first. To what extent would you say that these stereotypes still haunt the genre?

They still haunt the genre because anytime the subject of horror films comes up, the Black guy dying first is the only “relatable” sentiment people can contribute if they aren’t horror fans. I really, truly hate it when people say it. It makes me cringe now just seeing it in writing. I know I’m in the minority because I spend a lot of time researching and watching horror films that completely dispel that concept and I offer prime examples of that just not being the case outright. But it still happens in certain films. I just watched Antisocial (2013) where the Black guy is the first to bite it. So it’s not an untrue statement, I just wished people would think a bit more broadly about the genre. With horror fans, I still hear it but far less. I’m sick of having the discussion and want to try to politely make a shift in the way we talk about Blacks in the genre because there are more fruitful discussions to have.

Magical negroes are another eye roll inducer. It expands beyond horror into fantasy and dramas more so. Both of these roles have a historical context. European perceptions of just about anyone non-European has this exotic mythos because their cultural customs, beliefs, and spirituality vastly differed from the explorers. It becomes “magical” and makes Africans in particular stronger in most cases and easy endurers of suffering, et cetera. What it renders us is not quite human. A Black guy dying first well, look at the news this very moment. People are shooting brown folks first and askingnightmare questions later. If they think asking any questions at all is worth the time and effort. Black life in America never had much in worth. So I guess, why develop a character who’s the Black guy? We just need him for the body count.

But again I preface to say there are some cases where that isn’t factual. And it can be much more complicated in as far as Black characters are concerned which makes it quite interesting. One only need to look at the example of Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) from A Nightmare On Elm Street 3 and 4.

Not only do these depictions haunt the genre, they haunt real life. Another conversation I’m looking to having more on the blog is one that looks to other avenues in which Black artists can express themselves through storytelling using the horror genre. What stories aren’t being told that make us whole, central characters that people can relate to and invest in?

 

On your site you mention seventies Blaxploitation horror films a few times. Aside from the Blacula series, this cycle is often neglected in writing about horror.

My thoughts on certain films are well documented on the blog so I don’t wanna bore anyone here. I suppose I could guess as to why Blaxploitation horror films aren’t discussed enough. I think to a degree Blaxploitation horror is overshadowed by ‘Blaxploitation proper’ in regards to Foxy Brown, Shaft, Super Fly and so forth with a good reason. They were the major monetary hits and made stars and memorable names out of the main actors in them. They were not only good films, but also more universal within the African American community especially.ganjahess

Horror is already noted as an abased genre and very esoteric in general. A lot of the films were swept under the rug maybe because of overall quality – and in the case of Ganja & Hess, it was not the film the studio wanted. Writer/director Bill Gunn took a bold step and made the movie he wanted and not some simplistic vampire rip-off. He offered a beautifully, experimental exploration into the life of a man who becomes addicted to blood and his complex relationships with other characters, in particular Ganja played by the astounding Marlene Clark.

It is also a simple case of not knowing these films exist. I had to do the research to discover that there was a film titled Blackenstein. I was pretty shocked. After listening to one of my favorite podcasts to do a Blaxploitation horror unit in February 2013, it led me to look into other titles and watch the films. From there, I found how rich these bodies of films were with subtext and cultural relevance. I discuss Blaxploitation horror so much because it’s a small part of Black (film) history that isn’t touched enough upon. Which is great for someone with a passionate academic background because a part of what we do is look into texts that are relatively uncharted. Readers want to see fresh, innovative looks at work that would be of interest to them that they never fully knew either existed or the depth of.

 

Do you have any thoughts on Black portrayals in horror films before the seventies?

I’m still working on learning more about these portrayals so I don’t have too many thoughts on them. From what I’ve learned thus far, their portrayals were either non-existent or very much in step with Black representation in the media in general: racist stereotypes to overtly enforce socio-political policies to maintain a white supremacist society.

Black women in early horror were seen as over sexed animals and voodoo witches primarily and I talk a bit more in depth about this in a post I wrote back in February 2014.

 

In some ways it seems paradoxical to look for positive representations in horror and exploitation, both of which can be seen broadly as negative genres; people often condemn exploitation cinema as inherently racist and sexist. But you obviously feel that, even in exploitation, representation is valuable.

It’s a bit messy, isn’t it? Although this consensus is demonstrated in waves, I’m going to speak for myself when I say that I am a huge exploitation/slasher and horror film fan in general not because I think it’s wonderful that characters are being tortured, abused, and killed. There is zero pleasure that comes from anything that would be considered sociopathic or psychopathic.

I’m not looking for positive representations in horror and exploitation films, I’m looking for what the film tells me about myself and the world around me, whether intentional by its creators or not. As a human who is black and female, for as long as I can remember I have been confronted with peoples overt and moreso passive aggressive bigotry, white supremacist and sexist thoughts and behaviors. A big part of my life has been the process of grappling with that which is uncomfortable, not fitting in to these oppressive boxes and resisting this through the best confrontational weapons I have which has been my education and a pen. I just happen to love film in general and find these genres in particular to embody a power that opens a door for critical thinking.

They are so un-neat and so contradictory and so bloody and so awful and so wonderful and so entertaining which makes them wildly fascinating films to discuss and write about.

There is value in the representation of these characters simply because they are a part of the amalgam of humanity. It does feel more enriching to have central characters that are a bit more multi-sugarhilldimensional, but let’s be honest, you’re not going to find that in every, single film. But when I do find multi-dimensions in that one character, I find I have more to say about them. It seems very ego-centric but I think examining films can be a big part of self-discovery.

When I’m thinking of an example such as Marki Bey as Diana “Sugar” Hill in the blaxploitation film Sugar Hill (1974), I see a beautiful woman who loves her entrepreneurial boyfriend, loses him to a bunch of thugs, seeks revenge from the supernatural realm, changes her aesthetic style frequently, is a photographer and somewhat of a business woman herself, and able to confront racism and sexism on both a verbal and physical level. It could be argued that the trope of a female (anti-) hero is driven by her heterosexual love for a man is simplistic, it could be argued that her eye for an eye modus operandi is morally questionable, it could be argued that in certain scenes, her use of her sexual prowess towards her antagonists is just a tried mechanism of patriarchy, rendering women without the ability to really exert social power and be taken seriously as equally capable of being leaders. We can discuss all these things and go further about how she’s a symbol of a multi-faceted womanhood. We can look at how a Black woman negotiated the minefields of socio-cultural life in 1974. We can look at a Black woman rocking the straight-layered and Afro. We can look at her revenge being bigger than herself, in the in-your-face way horror at times operates, recognizing that this revenge is about fighting back against racism and for the autonomy of Black businesses and communities.

This is why horror and exploitation films are valuable.

 

The past decade saw a boom in East Asian horror films such as Ring, Ju-On and The Eye – often drawing on indigenous supernatural imagery – gaining recognition in English-speaking countries. Do you think that a comparably influential boom in African or African American-derived horror is a possibility?

It’s possible. I really don’t have much else to say about that except we’ll see. I’d like to keep my work on the pulse of this possibility and hope to do the best I can do help market and keep African and African American horror in the minds of those who love films. Many folks want to see diverse, interesting, and just good stories being told, regardless of the skin color of most of the characters. But they have to know these films exist and many of us are working hard to make sure they’re visible.

 

It’s worth mentioning that Nigeria has the third largest film industry in the world, and one of its biggest hits was a 1992 supernatural film called Living in Bondage which later inspired imitators such as Sakobi the Snake Girl.

sakobiWatching these films is definitely something I’m open to and possibly exploring somewhere down the line. With African horror, I’m sure there’s someone out there who knows much more about it than I do so I’m always open to reading and sharing their work on the blog. I try to make it about community first and highly inclusive. Women of color in any branch of horror deserve recognition. If I did it all myself, I’d probably never sleep and most likely be an android.

This goes into why I ask for contributors. I have my peak interests when discussing women of color in the genre and that’s primarily in American film and television. I’m not a big fiction reader either, so it’s really great when horror authors or those who work in the publishing company want to interview Black female horror authors and send me these interviews for publishing.

 

While writing about Tambay A. Obenson’s article “A Call for Black Women Horror Film Directors”, you comment on ‘the institutional nonsense that tells us in patronizing ways that our stories, technical aptitude, and professional pursuits aren’t quite as important as anyone else’s. Or just ignored outright.’ How ingrained would you say this problem is in the horror scene?

When I wrote that, I was directly addressing the way non-white people, in particular Black folks, are treated by the entertainment industry, especially when they want to tell genre stories that center holistic Black characters with no white saviors or sidekick statuses. Throughout my on-going research, I am seeing many Black filmmakers utilizing the genre to tell stories that are universal yet imbedded in a Black social and political experience. They are crowdfunding, working hard in film school, and just generally going the independent circuit to counter these challenges.

It’s not a problem for the horror scene, in broader terms, it’s a problem for those who minimize the importance of the horror genre as a whole and reduce it to violent slashers. Many people don’t like horror and that’s fine.  I think the horror scene is very much open to narratives from Black filmmakers but like many other Black-oriented media projects, I don’t think those that hold (distribution/marketing capital) are.

 

In your interview with Tiffany D. Jackson she comments on the trouble she has finding funding as a Black filmmaker: ‘Most of the grants out there are given to films that “help the community,” or have big stars… if I want to make a film about a serial killer in the projects, I have to do it on my own.’ Do you have any comments on this issue?

Funding through foundations and other more established, organized channels is difficult, period. I’ve worked with a handful of great media/arts-based organizations we’re the idea was, ‘We’re a space doing great things!’ and receive nothing but rejection letters.

This is probably why many filmmakers are utilizing crowdfunding and other creative avenues to receive the money needed to make their films. I’m no expert on the subject but I do see the benefits when other doors are closed in front of them.

 

Are there any current filmmakers who you would like to give shout-outs to?

There are a few filmmakers out there who deserve some recognition and support for all their hard work:  Kellee Terrell, Kate Tsang, Mattie Do, Lary Love Dolley, Karen Lam, Cybel S F Martin, Nicole Witte Solomon, Sam Kessie, and I know I’m missing a few other women of color horror filmmakers!

 

What are your thoughts on the future of Black women in horror?

I hope simply to see more women in front and behind the camera and receive as much recognition, exposure, and support as many other independent artists in the community.

 

Thanks for speaking, Ashlee; it’s been lovely having you here.

 Thank you so much for speaking with me! I truly appreciate the opportunity.