By Melanie A. Marotta.
The difference between Prince Mamualde and Blacula is indicated by Blacula’s bushy eyebrows, fangs, and pork chop sideburns. The costuming of Prince Mamualde—in a suit and cape—however is befitting a prince. It is this prince and his anti-racist message that should be honored on Blacula’s 50th anniversary.”
In the year of the film anniversary, where is Blacula’s?
The vampire genre, as with zombies and other supernatural elements, is cyclical, tending to make a resurgence during a pandemic. From the AMC adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (starring Game of Thrones actor Jacob Anderson) to Marvel’s Morbius (Jared Leto in controversial casting) to Reginald the Vampire (Jacob Batalon, Spider-man: No Way Home), the vampire is again making a comeback, and the timing could not be better. Popularized by John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the character of the marginalized Other is much needed at this moment of worldwide strife.
Casting for the upcoming television series reflects viewers’ need to have an update to the more traditional White male vampire. Challenging this vampire characterization has already been done in the 1970s with William Crain’s Blacula (1972), a Blaxploitation film facing an unrecognized 50th anniversary this year. In the year of big cinematic anniversaries—Nosferatu (1922), The Hunger Games (2012), and The Godfather (1972)—an investigation of Blacula’s neglect is necessary.
But what about the first cinematic Black vampire? Is the film merely a product of its time and should be relegated to the past, or does it continue to have merit for the twenty-first century audience?
To summarize, Blacula revolves around the transformation of the Prince Mamuwalde character—expertly played by William Marshall—into Blacula, the vampire. In 1780, Prince Mamuwalde and his wife, Luva, go to Dracula’s Transylvania castle to tell him that he must cease the Transatlantic Slave Trade. While horror films are not ofteh known for their in-depth character development, Marshall asked if Mamuwalde/Blacula could have more of a backstory. It is this characterization and superb acting by Marshall that makes the film meaningful today despite its many problems.
Upon Prince Mamuwalde’s demand that the slave trade be stopped, Dracula, a symbol of white supremacy, makes lurid advances towards Luva (the sexualization of the enslaved Black woman) and has his fiends attack the duo. Both Mamuwalde and Luva re-take to the dungeon where Prince Mamuwalde is forced into a coffin and renamed Blacula by Dracula. This renaming is emblematic of the enslaved person’s identity being stripped from them and of forcing a new name on them when landing in the enslavers’ colony. After his coffin is purchased by Billy and Bobby, a moment meant to channel Blacula’s enslavement, and transported to the Port of Los Angeles on a (slave) ship, Blacula wakes disoriented lacking connections to his old life of freedom. Marshall brilliantly shows the struggle between both identities, that of Prince Mamuwalde and the newly-enslaved Blacula. In the end, after he attempts to recreate his old life with Tina (also Luva; played by Vonetta McGee) fails, he lumbers to the rooftop of a warehouse to commit suicide in the L.A. sunlight, the maggots on his cloak the only proof of his existence.
Blacula was released as part of the original wave of Blaxploitation films in the early 1970s. From action films (Foxy Brown and Shaft) to adaptations of horror (Blackenstein), Blaxploitation was an attempt by Black filmmakers to place Black actors directly in front of the camera rather than in background playing supporting roles, roles which are notorious for their discriminatory content (Gone with the Wind’s Mammy character). On the one hand, the plan was successful, enabling Black actors and filmmakers to take control of productions, showing that there was more to Hollywood than White-led films. On the other hand, the films were littered with misogynistic portrayals of women, homophobic remarks, and stereotypical characterizations of Black people. The use of the n-word, the homophobic f-word, and the misogynistic b-word throughout Blacula contribute to the reasons as to why Blacula’s anniversary may be all-but-forgotten. Billy and Bobby, the interracial gay couple that purchase the contents of Dracula’s castle including Blacula’s coffin are “antique dealers,” and symbolically are the first victims to Blacula’s thirst for blood. The message sent by the deaths of the gay couple is troubling, to say the least. As the viewer ventures further in the plot, the other vampires are primarily women—Juanita Jones, the taxi driver that accidently hits Blacula with her car; Nancy, the club photographer who takes Blacula’s “photo” (he’s a vampire therefore there is no image); and Tina, the born-again Luva who agree to become a vampire because she is in a trance (symbolic of rape). The characters selected for a living death are controversial and may be problematic for audiences. .
Because when Blaxploitation began there was not a lot of money, Blacula looks low-budget and the hand-held cameras work which is typical of the genre made certain scenes difficult for the viewer to watch. The fight scenes are not well choreographed, and the makeup is cheaply done (the vampires are green). The difference between Prince Mamualde and Blacula is indicated by Blacula’s bushy eyebrows, fangs, and pork chop sideburns. The costuming of Prince Mamualde—in a suit and cape—however is befitting a prince. It is this prince and his anti-racist message that should be honored on Blacula’s 50th anniversary. Despite its many offensive flaws, Blacula is an important addition to the American cinematic canon.
Melanie A. Marotta is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Language Arts at Morgan State University (Baltimore, MD). Marotta’s research focuses on American Literature (in particular African American), Young Adult literature, the American West, Science Fiction, and Ecocriticism. She has a monograph, African American Adolescent Female Heroes: The Twenty-First-Century Young Adult Neo-Slave Narrative, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi and part of the Children’s Literature Association Series. She co-edited Critical Pedagogy: Diversity, Inclusion, and the Visual in Higher Education (Routledge, 2021 with Susan Flynn) included in Routledge’s series, Race and Ethnicity in Education. Her collection, Women’s Space: Essays on Female Characters in the 21st Century Science Fiction Western, was published in 2019 as part of the Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy Series. Marotta is originally from Ontario, Canada.