This year, Abertoir Film Festival, in partnership with Bristol Black Horror Club and as part of BFI’s In Dreams are Monsters season, a UK-wide celebration of horror on film, marked 50 years of the cult Blaxploitation movie.
Abertoir Film Festival is an annual horror and horror film festival held in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in Ceredigion, Wales in November. It is Wales’ only horror festival and is a member of the European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation. Every year in November, Abertoir Horror Festival welcomes filmmakers and audiences in Aberystwyth, Wales. This year, in partnership with Bristol Black Horror Club and as part of BFI’s In Dreams are Monsters season, a UK-wide celebration of horror on film, Abertoir dedicated an entire day of their program to deep dive into Blaxploitation film.
Within a packed schedule of cult classic horror films both old and modern, Saturday 19th November 2022 was officially the blaxploitation day. The day consisted of four screenings – I Walked with a Zombie (dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Beast Must Die (dir. Paul Annett), Sugar Hill (dir. Paul Maslansky), and Bones (dir. Ernest R. Dickerson), as well as an event introducing Blaxploitation Horror presented by professor of Gothic Studies and visiting lecturer at the University of Sheffield Maisha Wester. The main event however was a 50th anniversary screening of Blacula directed by William Crain followed by a Q&A – for which he travelled all the way from the US – which was broadcast to cinemas across the UK.
While the Blacula screening was the main event the day was shaped around, Maisha Wester’s introduction to blaxploitation horror was incredibly important and well placed in the middle of the day, just before the film. Her session was funny and educational, a whistlestop tour through how the era came to be, its legacy as well as some of the things wrong with it. Without this moment of insight, the day would have been incomplete – a celebration of blaxploitation horror without the contextual understanding behind the movement.
There was clear excitement for the Blacula Q&A with director William Crain and everyone in attendance was fully engaged with the conversation and his anecdotes about the film and his life (including his desire to get back into writing and filmmaking!).
In her session Maisha touched on the importance of context both on and off screen which is important when discussing blaxploitation as the movement and its films only truly make sense when there is an understanding of the time they were made.
Firstly, exploitation films were typically low-budget films that played at grindhouse theatres, made to create a fast profit by referring to or exploiting current trends or genres. Within the exploitation label you have sexploitation films, Ozploitation films, slasher films, hixploitation and of course, blaxploitation films.
Secondly, and perhaps in more direct context to how the movement came to be, Black creatives always struggled finding their place within the film industry; in the early days of film, rather than hiring Black actors, white actors performed in blackface and as distribution houses emerged, Black filmmakers struggled getting distribution for their films. This led to independent movements like race films (1915-1950s), blaxploitation (1970s), and the LA Rebellion (1960s-1980s) taking place, all of which involved Black creatives paving their own way and creating their own stories.
The difficulties Black filmmakers in particular faced in production and distribution, the result of which usually left them working with low budgets and little faith from execs, set the scene for a lot of discussion in the Q&A with William Crain, as he explained some of the abusive acts he experienced while creating Blacula. For instance, the slow-motion scene where Juanita attacks Sam in the morgue – arguably the standout scene of the movie – almost didn’t exist. As Crain explained, while he knew exactly how he wanted to shoot the scene and the kind of camera he would need, it was an uphill battle trying to get the equipment as he kept being denied it. It got to the point he attempted to work around not having the right camera but thankfully, just as they were about to shoot the scene, the camera arrived right on time.
Blaxploitation films were all about empowering Black people, placing them at the forefront of their own stories as they overcame oppressive, antagonistic forces- typically white authority figures. The films were commentaries on their times, entertaining yet complex in what they were trying to say about Black life, culture, and people. The schedule for the day was a well thought out, clear journey through blaxploitation film: it was great to be able to experience such a variety of films, explore each of the monster archetypes (werewolf, vampire, zombies, ghost) and how they speak to societal anxieties and racial issues.
Maisha’s session provided some great food for thought and a welcoming environment to discuss different opinions on blaxploitation. There’s a lot to be said for the era and getting an actual, iconic blaxploitation director’s insight into the legacy of the movement felt really special.
Since Abertoir, Blacula has travelled around the country, complete with a pre-recorded Q&A as part of the In Dreams Are Monsters horror season screening at 13 venues including Watershed in Bristol, Chapter in Cardiff, Queens Film Theatre in Belfast, Pontio in Bangor, Quad in Derby, Phoenix in Exeter and many more – a testament to Abertoir, Bristol Black Film Club and the UK-wide #InDreamsAreMonsters activity, and the never-dying love for cult horror classics such as Blacula!
Blacula was screened as part of In Dreams Are Monsters, A Season of Horror Films, a UK-wide film season supported by the National Lottery and BFI Film Audience Network.
Louise Giadom is a social media marketer with a background in Events Management and an MA from the National Film and Television School. She currently works at All3Media International. Louise has experience writing reviews and articles for The New Black Film Collective and Birds Eye View. Louise is a FAN Young Consultant.