In recognition of Black History Month, TVOC is going to focus on notable figures throughout horror history. Horror has not been a key place for diversity, but there is progress being made. These are the trailblazers that signified and enacted change in the genre. These figures made active progress to fight against harmful tropes and stereotypes that horror films have perpetuated. Therefore, we have to celebrate them and thank them for their work and impact.
The first one we will focus on is the man behind the first Black protagonist in a horror film: Duane Jones. Jones did more than just play Ben in Night of the Living Dead; he shaped his character the way he wanted to be. However, he never wanted to be remembered only for his first role, so let’s get into his life, career and legacy.
Life Before Night of the Living Dead
Duane Jones had quite the career before starring in Night of the Living Dead. He received his B.A. from the University of Pittsburg. He went on to be an exchange scholar in Niger and taught English at Long Island University. On top of this, he developed the English-language training programs for the Peace Corps and had a hand in developing the Harlem Preparatory School. He was the head of the English department once the school was operational.
In addition to his educational work, Jones was also heavily involved in theater and acting. He directed at the Maguire Theater at the New York State University and served as artistic director at the Richard Allen Center in New York City. He had many theater roles while in New York City. After many years and at age 31, he decided to take a knack at film auditions.
Night of the Living Dead: Ben
George A. Romero has been clear for several years; Duane Jones got the role because he was the best at the audition. There was initially no political agenda with Night of the Living Dead. It was originally written as a sci-fi movie with flesh eating aliens. The original concept of Ben was a blue collared truck driver–gruff, stern and surviving using brawn, not brains. However, after Jones nailed the audition, the image of Ben started to shift instantaneously. This started with the script.
Almost all of Ben’s lines were reworked by Duane Jones himself. With Jones’ expertise in theater and literature, Romero and co-writer John Russo gladly gave over the reins. With these reworkings comes nuance and depth to Ben’s character, all of which was completed by Jones’ acting and expression. Instead of the original rough-and-tough trucker, we got a layered, complex protagonist who was aware of his Blackness in a late 1960s setting. The way that Ben was rewritten in conjunction with the original ending Romero and Russo wrote led Night of the Living Dead to accumulate a social justice message as time went on.
Ganja and Hess: The Age of Blaxploitation
Years after his pivotal role in Night of the Living Dead, Jones went continued his work in the education and theater scene. He got his master’s in communications during the filming of Night of the Living Dead. His next starring role was in a Blaxploitation film written and directed by Bill Gunn known as Ganja and Hess. If that name sounds familiar, Spike Lee recently remade this film as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and experimental hip hop group Clipping. developed their album “There Existed an Addiction to Blood” around the film.
Duane Jones played Dr. Hess Green, who is stabbed with an ancient dagger by his unstable assistant. Due to the stab, he is turned in to a blood craving vampire. Ganja is the assistant’s wife, who is widowed soon after the maiming. Hess is quickly infatuated with her and determined to turn her so they can be together. Both Jones and his co-star Marlene Clark knock their respective roles out of the park. The vampirism in this movie is a brilliant metaphor for addiction, it comes through in both of the tragic protagonists. In the few films Jones’ starred in, this is one of his breakout roles.
His Later Career: Losing Ground, Vampires, TO Die FOR
While Losing Ground is not a horror film, it needs mentioning when discussing Duane Jones and Black film history in general. Losing Ground was the first feature film directed by a Black woman since the 1920s and was recently selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. After Losing Ground, Jones focused primarily on theater. He worked heavily with the Black Theater Alliance to promote work around New York City. His last two films were two other vampire flicks in which he carries but weren’t truly notable: Vampires and To Die For.
Duane Jones died suddenly due to cardiac arrest at the age of 51–way too soon. In terms of legacy, it is undeniable that he is a trailblazer through and through. However, it took ages for another key horror film to have a Black protagonist at the helm of their movie. Duane Jones’ name lives on today. The recital hall at New York State University is named after him as well as a character in The Walking Dead. He is truly a legend.
That wraps up the brief overview on Duane Jones. There is something in the works to discuss Night of the Living Dead overall given the 55th anniversary is swiftly approaching, so stay tuned for that. Visual media has been on a pause as of late. However, you should go check out TVOC’s TikTok as more content will be coming shortly. There will be a week pause next week for articles. However, expect more articles following that break. 2023 is turning out to be a great year for The Void of Celluloid, so be sure to stay tuned.
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