“Blacula”: A Commentary on Vampirism, Slavery and Black Male Identity

The Blaxploitation horror film is a genre of horror that came into prominence in the 1970s. Drawing from the social, political, and racial state of America after the Civil Rights Movement, Blaxploitation horror films were created primarily for the identification of a black audience. Despite their target audience, these films appealed across different races and ethnicities. Arguably one of the most successful Blaxploitation horror films of the 70s, Blacula was released in 1972 and directed by African-American filmmaker William Crain. Blacula tells the story of Mamuwalde, an African prince from the 18th century who is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula after asking him to help stop the slave trade. Flabbergasted by this request, Count Dracula turns prince Mamuwalde into a vampire, trapping him in this permanent state of being neither living nor dead. Blaxploitation horror films like Blacula have been received by audiences and critics in a variety of ways. Scholars like Harry M. Benshoff have interpreted Blacula as a commentary on the debilitating effects of slavery, viewing vampirism as a metaphor for enslavement. Other scholars like Edward Guerrero viewed Blacula and Blaxploitation films in general as films that propagate negative stereotypes of blacks, reinstating African-Americans in the negative light that they are seen in by a racist white society. Both interpretations of Blacula have some validity; however, it is important to analyze this film based on how it treats race and how it addresses gender dynamics specifically between black men and black women. An analysis of Mamuwalde, the black monster and vampire of Blacula, will show that Mamuwalde’s enslavement as a vampire by a white male character essentially rips him of his masculinity, black identity and power; as a result, in an attempt to regain this lost masculine power and identity, Mamuwalde attacks and enslaves and those who can enhance his masculinity (black women) and those who perpetuate racism (white police officers).The racial and gender dynamics of Blacula allow for a dual interpretation of Mamuwalde as a heroic monster fighting against an oppressive racist patriarchal system and as a misogynistic villain enslaving black women in attempt to regain masculine power.

Understanding Mamuwalde’s monstrosity reveals a great deal about the comments Blacula is making on racism and gender and how they relate. Noel Carroll, philosopher on film, provides a very useful template to comprehend the construction of monsters in horror in his book The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. Carroll describes the creatures of art-horror and lists the different methods the creators of these creatures use in order to produce these threatening and dangerous monsters. According to Carroll an essential characteristic of monsters is impurity and “impurity involves a conflict between two or more standing cultural categories (Carroll 43).” For example, a monster being both living and dead like a vampire, is impure because it possesses these opposing characteristics. Carroll calls this specific method for creating impurity in monsters fusion. The core component of a fusion monster is “the compounding of ordinarily disjoint or conflicting categories in an integral, spatio-temporally unified individual” (44). A vampire’s horrific nature comes from the fact that it is a single entity with the ability to be both living and dead, which defies natural and acceptable societal limitations. Mamuwalde, the monster of Blacula, is a vampire so he fits Carroll’s description of a fusion character, but Mamuwalde’s fusion does not stem solely from his coinciding living and dead state.Mamuwalde’s fusion is also in his two identities; his lost identity as an African prince, and his new identity as Blacula. This identity was forced upon him by Count Dracula, the representative of a white racist patriarchal force. Blacula exposes how racism is tied to gender dynamics between black men and women through the multiple layers of Mamuwalde’s fusion.

W.E.B. DuBois, one of the most prominent African-American historians and philosophers in history, discusses his concept of “double consciousness” or “two-ness” in The Souls of Black Folk. Noel Carroll’s fusion model for horror monsters can be expanded and applied to DuBois’s concept of “two-ness.” In describing the experience of the African-American man, DuBois states, “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with a second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world…One ever feels his two-ness, and an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Pittman 150). The African-American man has to grapple with two clashing ideas, being of African descent and being American. Essentially, this is another form of fusion. Applying both Noel Carroll’s fusion concept and DuBois’s “two-ness” to Blacula, makes it indubitably apparent that Mamuwalde’s monstrosity is complex. His monstrosity stems from being both living and dead, from being both Mamuwalde and Blacula, and from being heroic and villainous. It is these conflicting identities that make him terrifying and cause a single interpretation of Mamuwalde to be problematic.

Mamuwalde is introduced to the viewer as an educated and highly respected African prince and ambassador advocating for the rights of his people. He is in a position of power, which is portrayed visually by his Westernized attire and his high manner of speech. Mamuwalde is accompanied by his wife Luva. Within the first scene of Blacula certain racial implications and gender dynamics are revealed. Visually speaking, Luva contrasts greatly with Mamuwalde. She wears very Afro-centric attire, adorned in face paint, piercings and tribal garments. Mamuwalde looks much more Westernized . He wears suit-like attire, implying that he is already a subject of white European influence to a certain extent. After Mamuwalde and Luva ask Count Dracula to stop the slave trade, Dracula responds in amused disbelief that Mamuwalde would even think of such a request. Dracula states that the slave trade has merit and he “would willingly pay for so beautiful an addition to my household as your delicious wife.” It is at this point that the gender dynamics of the film along with Mamuwalde’s demasculinzation is alluded to. By referring to Mamuwalde’s wife as a delicious commodity, the film sets up black women as an object of possession for men. These women will continue to be delicious nourishment for the male forces in the film by literally being bitten by Mamuwalde. Count Dracula essentially threatens Mamuwalde’s ownership of Luva, beginning the stripping away of Mamuwalde’s masculinity and power.  Judith E. Johnson states in her Women and Vampires:Nightmares or Utopia?, “the abuse of power for which the vampire is a metaphor thus includes abuse of women both as property and as tools in men’s efforts to control and abuse other men..The transaction among men in vampire fiction is, on an economic level, a direct metaphor of the control and exchange of women as property in the surrounding culture, and of men’s battles with other men over who controls the women” (Johnson 76).  Ownership and control of Luva is linked to male power.  The tension between these two competing male figures increases after Dracula’s comment about Luva, and this rising tension is visually portrayed by the increasing speed of the shot-reverse-shots between Dracula and Mamuwalde. Not able to take the belittling comments from Dracula any longer, Mamuwalde says that he and his wife are going to leave. Dracula does not allow this, and his white servants come out from the corners of the castle and attack Mamuwalde. As Mamuwalde fights off these white servants, Luva is held in captivity by Count Dracula. This scene is very reminiscent of the splitting up of families during slavery. Luva watches on in terror as her husband is brutally beaten by these white servants, who are representations of slave masters. Unable to protect his wife, Mamuwalde is bitten by Count Dracula and enslaved in a state of vampirism. In his essay Blaxploitation Horror Films: Generic Reappropriation or Reinscription?, Harry M. Benshoff expands upon this idea of vampirism as symbolic for slavery stating “Blacula’s vampirism is an explicit metaphor for slavery: bitten by the racist Count Dracula centuries, the curse of vampirism becomes the lingering legacy of racism” (Benshoff 38). After biting Mamuwalde, Dracula emerges with fresh blood on his lips. There is a long medium close-up shot on Dracula as he speaks to what is revealed to be Mamuwalde in a coffin. This close-up is tilted at a fairly high angle on Dracula’s face, reinforcing Dracula as the superior white racist force. Dracula exercises his superiority by cursing Mamuwalde to a life of suffering that “will doom you to a living hell” and by renaming Mamuwalde, Blacula. The renaming of Mamuwalde expands upon the idea of vampirism as a metaphor for slavery. During slavery, it was customary for the slaves to be renamed by their masters. The renaming of Mamuwalde to Blacula establishes him as Dracula’s slave and possession. Mamuwalde’s new slave state, portrayed through vampirism, results in the debilitation of his masculinity and identity. Mamuwalde’s inability to protect his own identity and masculinity along with his wife haunts him throughout the entirety of the film. In order to combat this demasculinized state, Mamuwalde places the abuse that he experienced at the hands of a white patriarchal force upon others by enslaving them as vampires. The film seems to suggest that slavery creates a cycle of abuse.

A very important part in analyzing Mamuwalde as a monster is to look at why and how he chooses his victims. An analysis of this conveys how he is a fusion between a heroic character killing perpetuators of racism and an objectifying villain killing black women in attempt to regain his masculinity. Mamuwalde’s attack and biting of his victims is not random. With every victim there is a reason for why Mamuwalde attacks them. These reasons are centered around his insatiable desire to regain some semblance of his masculinity and identity.Why and how these victims are chosen reveals a great deal about the racial and gender dynamics of the film along with whether or not the film legitimates or justifies these attacks. Mamuwalde’s first victims are an interracial gay couple who buy and sell antiques. The couple buys Mamuwalde’s coffin not knowing that the vampire is in it. While attempting to open the coffin, Billy the white gay man, cuts himself. Bobby, Billy’s black partner, runs over to help. As Bobby helps Billy wrap up his cut, Mamuwalde emerges from his coffin awaking from his 200 year-long sleep.The camera is set up so that Bobby and Billy do not realize that Mamuwalde is behind them but the audience does. There are a series of shot-reverse-shots between the unknowing Bobby and Billy, and Mamuwalde. There is also a sequence of point-of-view shots in this scene, interchanging between Bobby and Billy’s point-of-view and Mamuwalde’s point of view. These point-of-view shots set up the idea that Mamuwalde is exercising a form of power over the gay couple. When the audience is looking at Bobby and Billy from Mamuwalde’s point-of-view, the camera is tilted downwards.In contrast, when the camera is in the point-of-view of Bobby and Billy, the camera is tilted upwards. Mamuwalde bites Billy first, leaving him in an unconscious but vampire state. Then Mamuwalde smacks Bobby, strangles, and bites him. The way that Mamuwalde attacks Bobby is much more forceful and extensive compared to how he attacks Billy. It is almost as if Mamuwalde is expressing personal anger towards Bobby. Perhaps Bobby’s homosexuality can be seen as defiance against black heterosexual masculinity.  Mamuwalde responds to this defiance by killing and enslaving these gay men. It is also very interesting that the viewer does not see Billy’s funeral but sees Bobby’s funeral. The viewer watches on with Mamuwalde as Bobby sleeps in his vampire corpse. Mamuwalde is clearly focused on Bobby more-so than his white partner reinforcing this idea that Bobby’s rebellion against black male heterosexuality is not acceptable to Mamuwalde.  It is difficult to tell whether or not the film justifies Mamuwalde’s attack and enslavement of this gay couple; however, the fact that these are his first victims points to their significance. The problem with this attack is that it challenges the interpretation of Mamuwalde as a justifiable character killing those who perpetuate racism. His first victims are not racist, and the fact that Bobby and Billy are an interracial couple can actually be seen as an example of cooperation between blacks and whites. Mamuwalde’s attack on this couple implies that they threaten his black heterosexual masculinity. The film is able to passively justify this killing by presenting the possibility that the couple was killed because they brought Mamuwalde to this new racist society thereby participating as agents in racism; however, one cannot ignore the intentional decision on the part of the William Crain in making these first victims gay men. The most plausible explanation is that homosexuality in men, especially between a white man and a black man, threatens Mamuwalde’s identification as a heterosexual black man and his hatred of anything white.

Mamuwalde’s second victim is a female cab driver by the name of Juanita Jones.Juanita represents another threat to Mamuwalde’s masculinity and authority. Once again, this victim is intentionally chosen by Crain in order to convey a broader theme. While chasing Tina, a woman who the now sex-crazed Mamuwalde thinks is his reincarnated wife Luva, Juanita accidentally hits him with her cab. Juanita gets out of her cab and with a lot of attitudescolds Mamuwalde. She even yells at him “chasing tail can get you killed you know!” foreshadowing his death at the end of the film. Juanita then goes on and calls Mamuwalde a “boy.” This belittling comment sends Mamuwalde over the edge. There are a series of shot-reverse-shots between Mamuwalde and Juanita with the speed of these changing shots increasing as Mamuwalde’s anger grows. Before Juanita refers to him as a “boy” it does not seem as if Mamuwalde will attack. One can conclude that it is the demasculinizing tone of being referred to as a “boy” that incites Mamuwalde’s rage. In an attempt to regain his male power and punish Juanita for threatening it, Mamuwalde grabs Juanita by the face and bites her neck. Before Mamuwalde attacks her, Juanita tries to ameliorate this situation by changing her tone with him. Mamuwalde ignores this and follows through with the punishment for his demasculinization. This attack is not supported or legitimated by the film in any way.This almost misogynistic killing challenges Benshoff’s claim that in Blaxploitaiton films “audience sympathy is often redirected away from these figures and toward the figure of the monster, specifically black avenger who justifiably fights against the dominant order—which is often explicitly coded as a racist” (37). Mamuwalde’s killing of black women goes against this idea, and instead the viewer’s sympathy is toward Juanita. The film does not present Mamuwalde’s attack on Juanita in a positive light. Audience sympathy is aligned with this black woman who was not responsible for Mamuwalde’s demasculinized and enslaved state but receives the bulk of his aggression. In contrary to Benshoff’s statement that “Unlike the classical Hollywood horror film narrative, there is no need to punish or destroy the monsters,” there actually can be a growing sense in the viewer that what Mamuwalde is doing is barbaric. In this sense, Edward Guerrero’s perception of the monsters in Blaxploitation horror films as a negative reinstatement of black male stereotypes in his book Framing Blackness: The African-American Image in Film is somewhat valid. Mamuwalde’s attack on Juanita aligns him with the portrayal of the “brutal black brute” in D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. This stereotype characterized black men as “a barbaric black out to raise havoc…the black brutes, subhuman and feral, are the nameless characters setting out on a rampage full of black rage” (Bogle 13). Mamuwalde fits almost perfectly into this negative stereotype of black men due to his unwarrantable attack on the black woman in attempt to regain his masculine identity.

Mamuwalde’s third attack takes place after he meets with Tina, his love interest, in a dance club with Tina’s sister and her husband Dr. Gordon Thomas. This scene reveals more about the film’s take on the objectification of black women by black men in Blacula. In this scene, The Hues Corporation, a soul trio with one female vocalist and two male vocalists are shown performing in the dance club. The camera focuses multiple times on the female singer’s waist as she dances. The camera cuts to long shots of other women’s waists and bottoms as they dance also. The camera positioning and long shots on the female body foreshadows that this scene will be one in which women are objectified by black men and more specifically that clubs are a place where women are objectified by a male gaze. As Mamuwalde uncomfortably sits with Tina and the others, he offers to buy Tina’s sister Michelle champagne since it is her birthday. Dr. Thomas, Michelle’s husband, immediately interjects saying that buying her champagne will not be necessary. Mamuwalde’s offer to Michelle is responded to in a way that suggests that Dr. Thomas’s masculinity and ownership of his wife is being threatened. Even though the tension between the two male characters is subtle, it is clear that it exists. After this small altercation, Nancy, one of the waitresses at the club, begins taking pictures of Mamuwalde and the others at the table. Mamuwalde gets up in frustration, knowing that the photos will expose him as a vampire since he will not appear in them. Tina follows him out begging for him to stay, but Mamuwalde insist that he must go. As they embrace, Nancy takes another photo of them. Mamuwalde leaves in anger. The camera cuts to the Nancy walking home alone. The shot is set up as a point-of-view shot away from Nancy’s home, so the audience gets the feeling that Mamuwalde is looking on as Nancy enters her home, almost like a stalker. This type of shot creates a very uneasy feeling in the viewer. A woman is walking home by herself while a threatening force watches on, creating this implication of danger. The camera cuts to Nancy developing the photos in dark room in her house. She is wearing the same outfit that she wore at the club, a revealing corset styled leotard. As she develops the photos, she notices the picture she took of Tina and Mamuwalde and looks at it in disbelief. She runs out of the black room and is attacked by Mamuwalde. He grabs her and bites her neck, turning another black woman into a vampire. He annihilates another threat to his repossession of Tina (a reincarnation of his wife Luva) and masculinity. Nancy stumbles out of her home after being attacked. Without knowledge of what occurred in this scene, one may think that Nancy was raped. The parallels between this scene and a rape scene are deliberate which suggests that Crain wants the viewer to see this scene as a rape scene just without the sexual component. Nancy is essentially raped of her identity by being bitten by Mamuwalde and transformed into a vampire. This scene marks the highest point of the objectification of black women by a black man trying to reclaim his masculinity and power.

It is not until the final moments of Blacula that Mamuwalde attacks clear perpetuators of racist ideology. In this high paced final scene of the film, Mamuwalde flees with Tina to an abandoned warehouse. Dr. Thomas along with the LAPD finally figure out that Mamuwalde is the vampire responsible for all of the murders, and attempt to kill him. Mamuwalde outsmarts these LAPD officers, appearing in random places almost supernaturally and killing them. The film justifies the killing of these officers by framing them in a negative light earlier on the film when Dr. Thomas states “Funny how so many sloppy police jobs involve black victims.” It is at this point where the audience can view Mamuwalde as what Benshoff calls an “agent of black pride and power” (Benshoff 37). The viewer takes pleasure in seeing these racist officers drop like flies. The shots in this scene consist of quick cuts between the officers trying to find Mamuwalde in the warehouse and Mamuwalde appearing from corners and killing them. There is something quite enjoyable about watching Mamuwalde walk unscathed as bullets are shot at him. He is able to beat this racist society and give it a taste of its own medicine.

In conclusion,William Crain’s Blacula presents vampirism as an extended metaphor for slavery and shows how the tearing away of the black man’s identity through slavery has forced him to objectify black women in attempt to regain his masculinity and power. Mamuwalde as a monster complicates a conclusive interpretation of him as simply a hero fighting a white patriarchal society. He is a compilation of different fusions in polar opposite identities, grappling with sets of “two-ness” and “double-consciousness.” Blacula uses Mamuwalde’s characterization to portray the plight of the African-American man who must function in a racist society that has fundamentally stripped him of his identity and left him powerless.

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