Young, Gifted and Blacula
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not all bloodsuckers come from Eastern Europe.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Hollywood learns lessons and then unlearns them just as fast sometimes.
Case in point: making movies that look like the world that you expect to pay to see the movies.
Coming out of the 1960s, this seemed like a lesson studios were just about to learn, beginning with Shaft in 1971. That marked a discovery that African-American audiences hungered for something at the crest of civil rights and Black nationalism, and it noted that their concerns were worthy somehow of filmic consideration. What else did we promptly see? Oodles and oodles of quickly and poorly made formulaic films that folks started calling Black exploitation, or blaxploitation, flicks.
Which absolutely mattered not at all if you were 10 years old in 1972 and had cobbled together the less than $5 needed to see a movie whose appeal was as immediate and unquestionable as the name was genius: Blacula.
He promptly falls in love with a woman who looks exactly like his wife, and you have your classic vampire potboiler.
The plot involves African Prince Mamuwalde appealing to Count Dracula in 1780 for his help in stopping the slave trade. Dracula does what he does and turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, while also killing Mamuwalde’s wife. Then we find Prince Mamuwalde reconstituted in 1972, where he promptly falls in love with a woman who looks exactly like his wife. Mix all that together and you have your classic vampire potboiler. But what distinguished Blacula and extended it well beyond just “average,” even in light of its sometimes slack filmmaking, was the strength of Blacula himself.
Played by William Marshall, a super-well-poised 6′5″ actor and opera singer with the presence, gravitas and bona fides (trained at the Actors Studio and then later at the great Neighborhood Playhouse) to match, Prince Mamuwalde was even more than believable — he was downright terrifying. The remainder of the movie played out with standard blaxploitation tropes that included cops killing Prince Mamuwalde’s reincarnated wife. The film mined the perfect mix of social awareness and commentary and rode it all the way to being one of the biggest box-office draws of 1972, making over $1,000,000. All on a budget of about half that.
Those were respectable numbers in 1972. Respectable enough to spawn a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, and dozens more Black-themed flicks of lesser quality until people did what they do when stuff doesn’t pass the smell test: People stopped coming.
But for the briefest moment in time, nothing stood as tall as Blacula.
“For my money, it’s the best quasi-nonironic take on the genre,” says Bob Calhoun, film critic and author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor. “I mean the best of really maximizing something good into something great. Not a great film but a great piece of art, and there is a difference.”