This article is part of a series of University researcher profiles.
Growing up in Pittsburgh — a city often referred to as a horror movie capital — Robin Coleman, professor of communication studies and Afroamerican and African studies, spent her early years watching horror movies such as “Frankenstein” and “Godzilla.”
Coleman’s relationship with the media throughout her childhood, including the portrayal of Black people on television shows, inspired her interest in studying the role of African Americans in the visual arts. She said over time, she grew increasingly uncomfortable with how her peers perceived the representations of African Americans in television and film.
“I would hate that we were represented this way,” Coleman said. “It was so embarrassing and I really fretted how others viewed me based on those representations.”
In Coleman’s novel, “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from 1890s to Present,” published in 2011, she provides insight and analysis of a unique genre: Black horror.
Horror Noire focuses on Black horror films, which is distinct from mainstream horror films that may have African-American supporting or lead actors. Coleman said Black horror films often convey a political message to the audience.
“It is almost like a protest movement genre where they are talking back to society about social ills,” Coleman said. “You will see Black horror responses to police brutality and mass incarceration.”
One of Coleman’s favorite horror films, “Night of the Living Dead,” was set in her hometown of Pittsburgh and produced by George Romero in 1968.
“What is interesting about ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is that it is a mainstream film that has a Black hero,” Coleman said. “The ending of the film is very dramatic and speaks to a lot of the police brutalities that Blacks were facing.”
After personally viewing and analyzing hundreds of horror films for her book, Coleman also found that Black death in Black horror films differed from that in mainstream horror films. Coleman said typically it provides a political message, like police brutality, while in mainstream films, African Americans often take the role of the monster’s victim.
“There is a kind of disruption of the typical representations of Blacks in horror films, that they are essentially meat for some monster,” Coleman said. “They are much more than that; they are smart and resourceful and that isn’t the case in typical horror films.”
She pointed to “Jurassic Park” as an example of how African Americans are portrayed in most mainstream horror films.
“If you have this big, loathsome dinosaur monster, how do you show how wickedly bad it is?” Coleman said. “You introduce a Black character, and if the monster can beat that figure, then it must be badass.”
Having spent years studying African popular culture and media studies, Coleman said she has also found that there have been significant changes in how African Americans are being represented on television, pointing to current shows on network television, such as “Scandal” and “Blackish,” feature African Americans as leading actors. She said other media viewing sites such as Netflix and Youtube have the potential to provide a deeper look into African American life.
“Outside of network television, you see the most innovative presentations of Blackness that dig deep into Black life and culture in an interesting way,” Coleman said.
In class, Coleman said, she makes it a priority to challenge students to think critically about the content they are viewing on the screen, emphasizing the human lives behind the camera.
“I want them to be thoughtful about the things that they contribute to media or to discourses about Black life,” Coleman said. “I want people to be more thoughtful in how they represent who I am.”