Black Friday: The Evolution of African-Americans in the Friday the 13th Series

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The early 1970s saw the rise of the Blaxploitation film, which was geared primarily toward African-American audiences. Beginning in 1970 with COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, the Blaxploitation sub-genre hit its stride the following year with SWEETIE SWEETBACK’S BADASSSS SONG and SHAFT. By the mid 1970s, after hundreds of films had been made, the Blaxploitation cycle swiftly began to taper off. By the end of the decade, it was pretty much dead.

It was around this time, that a new sub-genre of cinema was on the rise: The slasher movie! Though I personally regard PSYCHO as the grand daddy of slasher cinema, many consider John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN as the film that kickstarted things. Others may contend however, that Mario Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD is the major precursor to the modern slasher film. Regardless, it was HALLOWEEN that would really get the ball rolling.

After the success of Carpenter’s classic film in 1978, other filmmakers scrambled to capture a share of the glory with their own slasher movies. In 1980, a young film producer named Sean S. Cunningham (coming off of several kid-friendly sports movies) decided to take a stab at making his own, resulting in FRIDAY THE 13TH.

As of my writing this, it is now thirty-five years later, and Cunningham’s flagship movie is still popular, and has generated nine sequels, one franchise crossover, a remake, and if rumors are true, an upcoming TV series. There’s no denying that FRIDAY THE 13TH is a cultural phenomenon and without it, a hockey mask would still just be a hockey mask.

Aside from giving us one of horror cinema’s most recognizable, and beloved icons, the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise was a constantly evolving series. Though the films all share many similarities, each entry brings something new to the table. One of the things I noticed, was that the role of African American actors and actresses changed greatly over the course of a dozen films.

Initially, the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies featured groups of good-looking white “teens” getting brutally slain by a stealthy killer, with a “final girl” besting the villain during the final act. This of course occurs in the classic original, and many of its sequels. While the formula remained the same, something interesting happened in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3D (1982): Jason donned his iconic hockey mask!

Also interesting was the fact that it was the first film in the series to include African-American castmembers, namely Ali (Nick Savage) and Fox (Gloria Charles). Though they are just minor characters that are only around to jack up the film’s body count, it was a new beginning for the fledgling franchise, and for slasher cinema in general.

Ali gets "stumped" by Jason!

Ali gets “stumped” by Jason!

Speaking of A NEW BEGINNING, the fifth installment of the series features more African-American characters than any of the other films in the franchise. (If I am wrong in stating that, please let me know.) Directed by the late, and awesomely sleazy Danny Steinmann (who’s previous directing credits included an X-rated film called HIGH RISE, which culminates in a massive orgy at the climax), this sequel featured a copycat killer that attacks a halfway house full of troubled teens.

Though the majority of the black characters are only present to become victims of the film’s crazed killer (including RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD’s Miguel Nunez Jr.), one survives until the climax and becomes a hero in his own right. I’m speaking of course about Reggie “The Reckless” played by Shavar Ross.

Eager to avenge his grandpa (Vernon Washington), Reggie plows into the film’s faux-Jason with a front-end loader. While it doesn’t stop the relentless killer for long, it does some major damage, and allows Tommy Jarvis (John Shepard) to save the day.

Though A NEW BEGINNING takes a lot of flack for it’s “Scooby Doo” ending, and lack of the real Jason Voorhees (who as you may recall, died in THE FINAL CHAPTER), it now has a large cult following, and in my opinion was ahead of its time. In a series that had relegated black actors/actresses to mere victims, this was the first film in the series that featured a black character (in this case, a fourteen year old kid) who took the fight to Jason.

Jason better check himself before he Reggie Recks himself.

Jason better check himself before he Reggie Recks himself.

The next two installments in the series would relegate African-American actors to secondary roles as fodder for the zombified Voorhees death machine. 1986’s JASON LIVES featured a character named Sissy (Renee Jones) whose head is twisted off by Jason, while 1988’s A NEW BLOOD, features a black couple named Ben (Craig Thomas) and Kate (Diane Almeida) who are killed after fornicating outdoors in the back of a van.

In 1989, the role of African-Americans in the FRIDAY THE 13TH series would suddenly make a drastic, but welcome change, with the release of JASON TAKES MANHATTAN. While it is currently my least favorite film in the franchise, I will give it credit for presenting us with the series’ first strong black protagonist!

Julius Gaw (played by Vincent Craig Dupree) is a tough-talking amateur boxer who gets backed into a corner later in the film. This results in an impromptu boxing match between he and Jason on the roof of a building. Julius throws everything he’s got at Jason, and slowly drives the silent slasher backwards toward the edge of the rooftop. Julius soon tires and can’t throw any more punches, allowing Jason to (quite literally) knock his block off.

You can scope it out in the following video; it’s probably the best scene in the entire film!

This hailed the end of Paramount’s run with the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise, which then passed to New Line Cinema. (a.k.a. “The House that Freddy built!”) Though there were some major changes to the character of Jason Voorhees during his brief New Line run, the series would continue to maintain the presence of a tough black character that was ready to duke it out with the hockey-masked killer. And speaking of dukes…

JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (1993) introduced us to the bizarre concept of a demonic, body-hopping Jason Voorhees. Though not a great entry in the series, this sequel boldly ventured into new territory. It gave us a cool Afro-American antihero in the form of Creighton Duke (Steven Williams). He’s a bad-ass bounty hunter that talks the talk, walks the walk, and has the wherewithal to bring Jason down for good.

JASON GOES TO HELL also features actor Richard Gant as the unfortunate coroner who becomes Jason’s first vessel for demonic possession. In a sub-genre where there is only one predominately black slasher villain (i.e. Tony Todd’s THE CANDYMAN), it’s refreshing to see another ebon-skinned antagonist slaying fornicators. Especially when it’s ROCKY V’s very own Don King parody, George Washington Duke!

Eight years later, Kane Hodder would don the hockey mask for one final time in New Line’s insane JASON X. Set centuries in the future, Jason reawakens on a spaceship and begins hacking away at horny futuristic teens. Standing in his way are a sexy ass-kicking android named Kay-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder), and a tough team of space marines, led by Sgt. Brodski (Peter Mensah). When everything seems lost after Jason becomes a cyborg at the film’s finale, it’s the tough-as-nails Brodski that saves the day.

Decked out in an EVA suit, Brodski collides with Jason in the void of space, then rides the cyborg Slim Pickens-style towards the surface of “Earth 2.” Both are burned up as they enter the planet’s atmosphere and another brave soul brotha is lost in the war against Voorhees.

Two years after JASON X barely turned a profit, New Line made the huge decision to pair their newly acquired horror icon against their homegrown boogeyman: Freddy Krueger (played by the inimitable Robert Englund). The resulting film, FREDDY VS. JASON was a mixed bag, but easily became a huge financial success, proving that there was indeed still more blood to be squeezed from Jason’s tombstone.

In the film, singer Kelly Rowland portrays Kia Waterson, one of the most poorly written characters in cinematic history. I probably shouldn’t be so hard on Kelly, because the film’s script is atrocious, but she is just awful in FREDDY VS. JASON. So bad in fact, that seeing Jason grand slam her into a tree with his machete is extremely satisfying.

After besting Freddy (or did he?!) Jason would appear once more in the 2009 FRIDAY THE 13TH remake from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company. This film features a group of partying teens in a secluded cabin, who run afoul of a very territorial Jason Voorhees. After their friend Chewie (Aaron Yu) goes missing, Lawrence (Arlen Escarpeta), the sole black member of the besieged group, ventures outside to find his buddy.

Armed with a trash can lid and a fire poker, Lawrence heads outside to the nearby workshed and stumbles upon Chewie’s corpse. In a panic, he throws down his makeshift weapons and rushes back to the cabin. But halfway there, Jason steps out of the shadows and makes a Hail Mary pass with a double bit axe, and buries it in Lawrence’s spine. Left alone to scream for help and hopefully draw out the others, Lawrence is eventually put out of his misery with a brutal stomp from Jason’s boot.

Jason prepares for the Summer camp slasher Olympics!

Jason prepares for the Summer camp slasher Olympics!

FRIDAY THE 13TH was always, in my opinion, the best of the slasher franchises because it somehow managed to remain fresh, even though it continuously fell back on the same formulas and tropes time and time again. It built a lasting mythology and an unforgettable character, and also showed us some of the most inventive deaths ever committed to celluloid. But it was also a notch above its fellow slasher brethren, because the producers and filmmakers began casting African-Americans before it became a common trend.

Sure, Freddy battled trash-talking Kincaid (Ken Sagoes) in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. 3 & 4, but typically it was a petite white girl that defeated the dream demon throughout that series. HALLOWEEN? It began including black actors during the final handful of films. Rappers L.L. Cool J (HALLOWEEN: H20) and Busta Rhymes (HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION), were placed in secondary roles to cater to the “urban demographic.”

Warwick Davis’ LEPRECHAUN? After visting Vegas and outer space, he finally visited THA’ HOOD in his final two films. (Which featured Ice-T and Sticky Fingaz respectively.) Heck, even when you look at THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE series, the only black actor that comes to mind is Ken Foree, who portrayed a hardcore survivalist in LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III.

But then you look at FRIDAY THE 13TH films, and watch as black actors emerge as machete fodder, develop into more complex characters, then eventually become heroes. It’s like bearing witness to a successful cinematic civil rights movement, full of memorable characters like Reggie the “Reckless,” his brother Demon (“Damn Enchiladas!”), Julius Gaw, Creighton Duke, and Sgt. Brodski.

FRIDAY THE 13TH has proven to be a film franchise that isn’t above empowering women, or African Americans. Therefore it’s easy to see that the next step in its continued evolution should be a strong black female lead to square off against Jason Voorhees. Will it happen? Well, I suppose we’ll just have to wait to find out!

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