Posted on March 28, 2020

Blacula (1972): Flawed But Important

Guest Post

Blacula (William Crain, 1972) is an interestingly complicated watch; unlike many films at the time, Blacula was the product of a black director and was born out of and into the 1970s political terrain and within the explosion of “blaxploitation” as a subgenre. Blacula is arguably a pioneer of black horror, which might be thought of as the reinvention of the genre “from the vantage point of Blackness.”[i] More particularly, Robin Means Coleman offers that “in ‘black horror’ specifically, mainstream or White monsters, such as Dracula or Frankenstein’s the Monster, were purposefully transformed into ‘agents’ of Black power.”[ii] Due to the lack of representation of blackness with the film industry at the time, one can hardly refute the impact Blacula had on the audience and the industry, setting a “gold standard,” as Means Coleman puts it.[iii] I want to argue, though, that in spite of Blacula’s attempts to interrogate racism and embody black pride, ultimately, the film articulates a very limited definition of blackness, presenting the dichotomy of an African identity that is primitive and brutish and an African American identity that is respectable and professional. Both depictions of blackness are masculine and predicated on the violent reinforcement of stereotypes and the maintenance of hierarchy.

Check out the awesome original trailer for Blacula here:

Despite my critique of the film, Blacula has its moments. For starters, the film begins with Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonette McGee) travelling to Transylvania to contest Dracula’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade. This moment of overt resistance to white supremacy is quickly undercut by Dracula’s refusal to do so. To my own surprise, a critique of policing makes a few appearances later on in the film, including the reference to “sloppy cops and black victims.” Additionally, throughout the film, white cops become the victims of vampirism and death.

Other moments of potential black pride might include all the instances when Mamuwalde introduces himself as such, as opposed to his “slave name” of Blacula. Despite Dracula’s attempt to make him do so, Mamuwalde never seems to forget where he came from. The ending of the film is hermeneutically ambiguous, which raises the question of whether Mamuwalde’s suicide is empowering. Perhaps the question should be, is his suicide a more progressive ending than his murder? In either case, it seems as if the black body is limited by an inescapable, violent, and graphic death. Whether or not this display is harmful or merely a relatable representation of black struggle remains an open question.

Mumawalde (William Marshall)

Blacula has a large cast of black actors, yet the story provides representations of blackness that seem stereotypical and limiting. Mamuwalde exhibits the primitive exotic African royalty trope, which stems from and reasserts the “dark continent” myth mapped onto Africa. In 1956, German philosopher Hegel professed that “Africa is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.”[iv] Seemingly representing this common idea, Blacula does not evince the need to situate Prince Mamuwalde more specifically within the historical context of an Africa prior to the Scramble for Africa (1884-1914). In other words, his identity is not seen as important outside of his African-ness.

Mamuwalde himself tells Tina that “we are of the Abani tribe, you and I, Northeast of the Niger Delta.” While this seems positive at first glance, as Mamuwalde is able to recall and share a kind of cultural memory, his statement is followed by “our people are renowned hunters,” which seems to inscribe a fantasy of Africa produced by a racist imagination. After all, at the beginning of the film, Dracula had demanded that Mamuwalde go back to the “jungle” from which he came. This claim, along with Mamuwalde’s own statement about being a “hunter” suggests he is primitive and beast-like even before he is turned into a monster. After he is bitten, Mamuwalde is both enslaved and dehumanized, literally. Or as Means Coleman would put it “enslaved by vampirism and auctioned off.”[v] Through all of this, Blacula is defined by his masculinity, which is understood through his romantic relationship with women and his violent attacks, mainly against the more marginalized (gay men and women).

Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala)

Alternatively, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) symbolizes the African American identity and is positioned as the civilized male antithesis to both African Mamuwalde and non-human Blacula. Dr. Thomas’s attire signifies his professionalism and respectability. As a doctor, he is to be trusted; he is the good and intelligent black man. He is the hero. This juxtaposition of Dr. Thomas and Blacula within the movie subtly asserts that African Americans are more civilized, and respectable than Africans.

Blackness as an identity, moreover, is wholly framed by masculinity and patriarchy. Throughout the movie, gay men are referred to by slurs even after their presumed death. Moreover, the queer romantic partnership of a couple of antique dealers, Billy (Rick Metzler) and Bobby (Ted Harris), is not recognized, as they are referred to as “associates” (when they are not being slurred). The female characters are largely understood through their relationship with the central male characters. In fact, Tina’s character is constructed as “Luva recreated” by Mamuwalde. Ultimately, Dr. Thomas, like Blacula, becomes just an iteration of black toxic masculinity within a plot that is largely a faceoff between two hyper masculine characters.

Tussle between two exemplars of black masculinity

Blacula’s first victims are two gay men, Billy and Bobby, who embody the weak and effeminate gay male stereotype. Blacula’s first female victim is a cab driver, Juanita (Ketty Lester), who serves as the epitome of the irrational, aggressive, and angry black woman. Her audaciousness and smart mouth get her into trouble—indeed, get her killed. Here, harmful stereotypes are reproduced within the film. At least Dr. Thomas provides a counter narrative to Blacula and the definition of black manhood, although both characters pivot around violence and male entitlement.

The angry black woman, Juanita (Ketty Lester)

In Blacula, a scarcity model is at play, leading marginalized individuals (black men) to prey on the further marginalized. This violence is not just reserved for the monster; let us not forget that Dr. Thomas stabs Billy after he and his wife dig up his grave. Tina is horrified by this violent act, and Thomas immediately reassures her that they did Billy a favor in murdering him. The film also, though, engages in justifying the attacks against the gay couple and the cab driver by highlighting their non-normative identity as a way to minimize their presumed death and disappearance. That is to say, what happens to them is not taken seriously because the film questions who would want those bodies anyway. This is another way to tell the audience that those characters and their identities are not a priority; they are just subplots helping to move the main story along.

Disposable characters, who nonetheless get some revenge

A black vampire seems to be a much bigger threat than a white one; Blacula infects far more people over the course of the movie than Dracula did. In fact, Blacula seems so demonized over the course of the film that we, as viewers, might forget he was the film’s very first victim. But finally this is a story that seems to end, like all classic horror films, with the defeat of the monster, in this case of his own volition, and normality is restored. Or is the idea of normality as it relates to classic horror troubled by the presence of black characters? Is the true monster defeated or the real threat dispelled? Is normality actually restored?

Kevelis Matthews-Alvarado is a graduating senior at Lehigh University majoring in Africana Studies and minoring in Latino Studies and Philosophy. In the fall, she will pursue an MA in the English Department at Lehigh University. Her academic endeavours are diverse and she has received numerous college awards scholarship including: Student Achievement Award, Class of 1904 Award, and the Presidential scholarship.

Blacula is streaming on Amazon:


[i] Robin Means Coleman, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 119.

[ii] Means Coleman, 120.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ihediwa Nkemjika Chimee, “African Historiography and the Challenges of European Periodization: A Historical Comment,” TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, July 31, 2018.

[v] Means Coleman, 121.

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  • Rich Dishman August 2, 2020 at 5:13 am


    I enjoyed your piece on Blacula. I think a unique aspect of this vampire film is that the title character always sees himself as Mamuwalde. Objectively, he is a monster. But he is also that same courageous figure from the film’s prologue. His nobility and grand passion for Tina / Luva complicates his status as “other” by highlighting his lingering humanity. I, for one, could not root against him.

    That is why in Blacula normality remains upset. At the film’s end Mamuwalde is brokenhearted but not defeated. He circumvents the typical climactic horror movie confrontation by simply vacating the premises to face his fate alone.

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