“The only thing that separates women of color from everyone else is opportunity.”
At the 2015 Emmys, Viola Davis spoke in front of millions what women of color have felt and lived for decades. It is undeniable that entertainment media, especially the esteemed TV shows and films recognized at fancy gold-star award shows, are severely lacking in representation of minorities and women.
The presence of people like Viola Davis and Kerry Washington and Gina Rodriguez and Lucy Liu and Lupita Nyong’o and Mindy Kaling and thousands more are here to show that lack of representation isn’t due to lack of talented or passionate actresses of color. Lack of representation is the direct effect of Hollywood’s consistent whitewashing and casting of women of color in stereotypical roles. For instance, in horror movies, women of color and black women in particular are almost always portrayed as the elusive mystic or evil witch, while Asian women are depicted as the pale-faced, black-haired creepy girl in the woods.
In celebration of Halloween, I’ve tried to compile a short list of films that include complex portrayals of women of color in the horror genre.
- Everly (2014). Although Everly is a low budget film that has been criticized for thin writing, the stylistic direction is unparalleled, heightened through Salma Hayek’s role as Everly, a prostitute who works for (but is secretly attempting to bring down) a cruel criminal overlord. Everly is dynamic, complex, flawed. She isn’t the token “ethnic character” that is crudely inserted for the purposes of appeal, nor is she forced to be exemplary or her entire race. In fact, Hayak’s ethnicity in the movie is celebrated but not fetishized, and her heritage isn’t the defining feature of her character.
- 28 Days Later (2002). Naomie Harris stars as Selena, a multifaceted character who embodies strength and steadiness while still being a humanly flawed. The idea that women, particularly those of color, lack the ability to protect and defend themselves is vastly overused in the horror genre as a way to (whether intended or not) elevate the role of the heroic white male. This is why it is so refreshing to see that Selena further debunks the long-held “damsel in distress” trope by proving herself to be a survivor and a hero over and over again. Furthermore, Selena is a medically-trained pharmacist, and Harris’s portrayal of Selena overcomes Hollywood misconceptions, daring to highlight the abilities of women of color as intelligent and educated.
- Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995). Jada Pinkett Smith stars as Jeryline, who is intelligent, strong, and badass without being unrealistically perfect. She is capable of defending herself against the Collector, the antagonist, and proves to be strong enough to end the film as a coveted “Final Girl” that survives the horrors of the demon hordes.
- The Spirit Within. Meosha Bean, a brilliant visionist, is breaking barriers in short film. What Bean may lack in experienced technicality and expensive quality, she makes up for in intense passion and style. “The Spirit Within” is one of her best works and highlights the raw emotion and passion present in works that celebrate women of color in complex roles. In particular, the film underscores the core of Viola Davis’s impassioned Emmy acceptance speech: Women of color cannot win recognition or approbation for roles that just aren’t there. But when they are, these women consistently prove to be phenomenal.
If you’re interested in more films featuring versatile and honest portrayal of women of color, check out the list of 88 movies compiled by Indiewire.