The following tribute is from Ashlee Blackwell, Founder & Managing Editor of Graveyard Shift Sisters honoring the legacy of Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead).
Dr. Robin Means Coleman, author of Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present reflects on George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in the book’s opening preface. As a Pittsburgh native, his imprint on the streets she walked and buildings she occupied was omnipresent, and Ben, the film’s leading man is noted with an exclamation point; “a complex, emboldened Black starring character who was calm under fire, completely took charge of a deadly situation, and who surprisingly kick some (White) butt and took names (after all, Ben does slap around and shoot a White man).”
Played by theater actor and teacher Duane Jones, Ben’s 7-page long homage in such an extensive work lead by the title, “A Night with Ben” begins with the announcement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968. The film was already in the can. Romero was just heading to New York City in search of distribution. The mirror demise of a renowned Civil Rights leader and his film’s protagonist, a Black man who is mistaken for a ghoul and shot dead by a white man a part of a group of other white men trying to control the reanimated may be a huge risk for any distributor to patch their label on.
The political firestorm of the times was just beginning to bleed into what the film industry was producing for mass audiences. This was brand new territory where a new generation of filmmakers with Romero in the pack wasn’t looking to create whimsical escapism from reality, but rather gave the stain of America’s ills a celluloid infected symbol. Ben arguably became film history’s greatest unintentional casting. His identity as a Black man was both inconsequential to Night of the Living Dead’s plot yet the most blatant, impactful critique on race in America in the late 1960’s.
This impact is still felt today by artists of all stripes who love the horror genre. Jones’ brilliant performance has lead to a watershed of commentary, its ripple effect seen and inspired by much of the words, visual art, and personal ideologies expressed today by those who worked with Jones and fans alike. Actor Ken Foree, star of Dawn Of The Dead described Duane Jones as “intelligent” and “kind”. Foree was extremely honored to know him as well as appreciates Jones for being a both a man and a figure for exemplifying
Tarik R. Davis, a writer, screen and stage performer in New York City has worked for years on passion projects that pronounce his love of the horror genre and simultaneously grapple with the destruction of the Black body. He first saw Night of the Living Dead when he was about 12, 13 years old with a tender apprehension due to Ben’s famously known demise. “I avoided the movie for awhile,” Davis told me. “Then I finally saw it in my early teens and I remember watching the movie and I remember enjoying it. I remember enjoying and taking note of Duane’s commanding presence. My father watched it with me and talked about how crazy it was seeing this Black guy take charge when he was a teenager. But then the end of the movie happened. And then I remembered why I stayed away from the movie. And even though I’m a fan of the movie, there was a sense of dread before I saw film. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pick up a movie where the Black person is not okay. That fear was justified.”
Today, we have unlimited access to global awareness of the disproportionate number of Black and non-white people vulnerable to systemic destruction like no other time in the past. Bleeding into his own work as an actor and writer, Davis works on unpacking Ben’s allegorical presence in Night to this portion of our newsfeeds. “We also live in a country where Black people are still getting killed and I can’t remove Duane Jones and the life he brought to that character, I can’t remove the death of that character from the movie. It’s the most impactful thing for me. This guy dies and I don’t know why. It messed with me when I first saw it and it still messes with me. And I’m at the point where that’s my thesis, where I’m trying to desconstruct this with my own art. Why are we so bent on the destruction of the Black body?”
Page One, Davis’ latest short horror film satirizes what happens when the Black male actor who dies on the first screenplay page of every horror film he is casted in becomes the unlikely hero of a real-life monster invasion on set. Davis looks to remix our notions of Black death in horror. This project comes with an accompanied reflection on Duane Jones as a man whose presence in various roles including Night consistently made him a force to turn Black male stereotypes on their heads. “He was definitely a person who was fighting,” Davis continues. “Similar the way in which the character of Ben was fighting to stay alive, I feel like Duane Jones was really fighting to maintain a very strong sense of self. He was consistently, whether on purpose or not, outside of the system and I think that’s fighting and defining his own style. I feel like Duane would have a hard time now as an actor. This is a guy who is making an artistic choice that is inextricably linked to who he is as a person.” Davis isn’t the only one who recognizes the synergy with Jones and his portrayal as Ben.
Mark H. Harris is a writer living in Los Angeles and creator of Blackhorrormovies.com. The focus of this comprehensive website covers the ways in which Black people are depicted in horror via movie reviews, essays, and more, balancing a thoughtful and humorous approach to varying nuances within this topic. One of the origins of his horror fandom came in the form of Jones’ Ben. “He was brave. He was take-charge. He was intelligent. He was handsome. He was heroic. And he was black. It was the latter in particular that drew me to him, because he was somebody who looked like me, and people who looked like me historically didn't play roles like Ben,” Mark discussed when noting how remarkable it was for a Black actor to receive such a role during the time Night was made. “It was this plucky black man who inspired my awe and showed me how a genre as critically reviled as horror could actually be socially relevant and, dare I say, revolutionary…It's hard to overestimate the importance of Ben's role in normalizing black leads in Hollywood movies (granted, that remains a work in progress). Its popularity helped paved the long, circuitous route towards what some have called a new Harlem Renaissance in cinema today, boasting an unprecedented mix of commercial and critical success for movies with black headliners.”
Even as maligned as the horror genre still remains, it manages to heavily influence cinema and pop culture entirely. There is no history of Blacks in American films that can overstep Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead and what it meant for audiences from 1968 to 2017. And there’s no sign of the impact Jones managed to bring to Ben ever being lost. While recently working on a small feature about Jones’ legacy, I made note of the bridge Ben carved while watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), an ending with every potential of being just as bleak because 1968, 2017, and every year in between would always carry the shadow of the Black male hero as a perceived threat. How and to what, is completely up to everyone’s individual consciousness.
But what is a generally collective commentary on Duane Jones and Ben as horror’s reverenced figures is the concept of the human tragedy of survival; the ghouls we all face in a myriad of symbolic ways and the fact that some conflicts don’t have a happy ending. Night of the Living Dead exposed that in one of America’s most vulnerable citizens. And Ben will always be known as a dynamic, powerful touchstone, an indelible transition into the new wave of genre storytelling that challenges the darkness outside and even more so, within.
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