(CW: Homophobia, including the F-slur.)
When you sit down to watch a movie called Blacula, no matter how hard you try not to pre-judge things, you find yourself not wondering so much whether it’s going to be racist, but instead just how racist it’s going to be. So I was a bit floored when the answer was actually somewhere in the neighborhood of “barely.”
Before I wave Blacula along with its surprising passing grade on that question, let’s dig into where it does fall short. Its title, which was almost certainly selected for its immediate comprehensibility and thus marketability (which makes it pretty understandable) relates to an epithet that a clearly racist Dracula bestows on Prince Mamuwalde, his intention being to “curse him with his own name.” While you might go into the movie thinking “Dracula? More like Blacula!” is going to be a subtextual connotation, this actually pushes it directly into the realm of textual denotation. The thing is, Dracula’s racist ass is forcing this narrative onto Mamuwalde, so it’s more than a little uncomfortable that this is the centerpiece of the film’s marketing, and that Mamuwalde is in fact referred to as “Blacula” in the film’s credits.
Fortunately, in spite of all this pretty shitty window dressing, Mamuwalde continues using his own name throughout the film, and is never referred to (even as a gag) as “Blacula” by any of the characters he encounters in the 20th century. And if we can rewind a bit, the whole ordeal with Dracula is actually as racially conscious as the rest of the film. Before we even get to this scene, Dracula “compliments” Mamuwalde and his wife Luva in ways that fetishize their racial identities, and is offended when Mamuwalde doesn’t consider his lecherous comment that he would love to own his wife a compliment.
It does have to be said that where this film does painfully fall short is that it’s homophobic as fuck. The first two victims of the awakened Blacula are two gay men who come into possession of his coffin. And when there are irregularities with the investigation into their deaths, protagonist Dr. Thomas berates a lieutenant for how unsurprising it is that the investigation of a young black man’s death has been mishandled. Yet moments later he refers to this same young man as a “faggot.” A slur which I counted being used on at least three other occasions in the film, but one which is particularly striking here as it’s a total 180 from defending the boy from one way in which he as been marginalized to thoughtlessly enforcing another.
When I thought the film was going to be Dr. Thomas helping the (almost entirely white) police catch and kill Mamuwalde, that’s when we still had some problems. This is even visually alluded to when Thomas rushes into the warehouse where Mamuwalde is hiding out, flanked by literally all white police officers. Fortunately, the film is driving at a much more complicated resolution than that, one which continues to play Mamuwalde as a sympathetic figure throughout. Had it failed to do so, we would be having an entirely different conversation right now.
What really strikes me about Blacula, though, is it’s an underratedly great vampire movie! (I seem to be bumping into a lot of those this year, and I love it.) I think a lot of people expect it to be pretty campy because of the transparently ridiculous title, but instead it’s a pretty straightforward vampire movie that happens to also come with a side helping of racial consciousness. I’m specifically interested in the fact that all of the bite victims in this become vampires, not just ones that the attacking vampire decides not to drain completely. We’re explicitly told that the vampire population expands geometrically, meaning that if left unchecked they would follow a pattern more akin to a zombie apocalypse than your usual “vampire who hides out and occasionally kidnaps ladies he thinks is pretty and maybe has a thrall or two.” (If I haven’t mentioned it, if any of you happens to become a vampire, I have absolutely no objection to becoming your thrall if I like you. So like, hit me up.)
Lastly, and most inconsequentially, if I run into many more movies that give me pangs of anguish by reminding me that we can no longer have dramatic photograph development scenes except in period pieces (or modern settings with hipster protagonists, I guess), I may have to make a list.