Reading Circle Pages

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The toxic racial imagery in Fear the Walking Dead -- and why Black Lives Matter on TV too

DeRay Mckesson (left) and Ferguson protesters in Missouri in 2014. No photo credit provided. 
1-12-19 update: This post refers to early episodes of this series. The racial inclusivity changed significantly, but I have left this post up to inform and educate other horror television creators on how to avoid pitfalls of racial imagery common in horror. --TD 

As a lifelong horror lover who has co-written and co-produced a short zombie film, I've often pondered why zombies have so taken hold of the public imagination. An uncomfortable revelation dawned on me in 2014 as I watched the police army amass in reaction to protesters in Ferguson:

We--people of color, and black people in particular--are this country's zombies. We are the horrifying shadow suburbia is afraid will slip through the window at night. We are the reason for the U.S. history of stockpiling guns, dating back to fears of slave rebellions. Terror over the nation's "browning" make us the shambling masses who drive people to lock their doors and fantasize about barricades and sudden flight. It's not true for all of us who love zombies, obviously, and it's usually not conscious--but it's the simmering social subtext.

Recently, science fiction author Greg Bear echoed my observation during a lunch with me and my husband, author Steven Barnes, at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon): American horror, he said, has its origins in fear of The Other.

Which brings me to the new AMC series "Fear the Walking Dead," which had so much blatant anti-black imagery in its first two episodes that even white reviewers took notice. The word The Hollywood Reporter used was "polarizing," but I'm comfortable with "racist." This week, Vanity Fair published the rhetorical headline "Has Fear The Walking Dead Inherited The Walking Dead's Race Problem?"  Another blogger wrote yesterday on how the show is angering fans. And this post from a black writer: "Why I'm Quitting Fear the Walking Dead: It's Kind of Racist."

If you've been paying attention to the show's predecessor, "The Walking Dead," these charges of racial bias against black men in particular are far from new. My husband stopped watching it with me after the strong Alpha from the graphic novels, Tyreese, was killed off after being rendered utterly ineffectual on the TV version. (This after the insulting creation and sacrificial death of "T-Dog," who was even more ineffectual.) We've heard the dismissive "Who, us?" responses from showrunners, basically, "Hey, it's the zombie apocalypse--everybody dies!"

The parade of dead black men from "The Walking Dead" 

But "Fear of the Walking Dead" shows its hand in ways that even its predecessor did not. During a moment in Episode 2, I said to my husband, "Oh, God--do you think they would...?" And his response, even as someone who had disavowed "The Walking Dead" was: "They wouldn't. It would be too obvious."


One of the frustrations that led to me making my own horror short film was the tropes around black characters, particularly how often black characters die first. It's a kind of "death lite"--not the real people, but just enogh to scare us for the real characters' safety.  Blacks also tend to appear as Spiritual Guides or Sacrifical Negroes (or, in the case of the film Annabelle, as both). I blogged about this while we were crowdfunding in 2013: "Eulogy for the Sacrificial Negro."

So what did "Fear the Walking Dead" do?

The first character killed off was black. Not just black--but a black drug dealer. And a weak black drug dealer who is fought off by his jonesing white client. So, yes, from the very start, the show has introduced an ineffectual black thug as the first zombie to die. A thug's black body laid out on the street. (As a culture, that's how we like men's black bodies: laid out dead on the street.)

But it doesn't stop there, oh no.

Episode 1 also managed to throw in a good old-fashioned black man jump scare with the school principal, a la the weak Candyman sequels.

Then came Episode 2, which doubled down on the imagery. Because, boo-hoo, the white teenage girl's black boyfriend is INFECTED. (I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief as she was forced to leave him suffering in bed before he could bite anyone--or turn into a more serious relationship.)

And then came the moment when my husband said "They wouldn't."

While scavenging for supplies, survivors run across the shambling form of--you guessed it--the black school principal, who must be violently dispatched with a fire extiguisher. So all three of the black men the main characters have in their circle, the only black people we know, are either zombies or infected. In the first two episodes.

The showrunner, Dave Erickson, blamed it on casting. And then, even after they realized what had gone awry (assuming they considered it "awry"),  they said they wouldn't change it because the story is the story. So, whatever.

I might have been able to swallow all of that without being so angry I could barely get to sleep if not for the cynical use of protest imagery as a backdrop to the zombie storyline. So now, all of a sudden, they're so politically astute that they can throw in a protest against a police shooting that turns into a riot. Because, hey, that's what would happen, right? Never mind that these are real issues and real crises based on the same societal fear of black men the show feeds upon.

I wrote off the issues in "The Walking Dead" as a "blind spot," i.e. what happens when you have a show with a diverse cast without a diverse writing room. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there are any black writers for either show. I would LOVE to know if there are; clearly, they need some backup.) But despite the protestations of the showrunner of "Fear the Walking Dead," the use of black male death in this show FEELS much more intentional. More like the desired effect.

What is also maddening in both shows is a kind of divide-and-conquer use of diversity, i.e. the Asian-American character in "The Walking Dead," Glenn (played by Steven Yeun) is tough and sexual, and the black FEMALE character, Michonne (played by Danai Gurira) is dynamic and singular, so we're not supposed to notice the way the black men are treated. Likewise, "Fear the Walking Dead" features Maori actor Cliff Curtis and several Latino/a actors, including one of my very favorite performers, Ruben Blades.

In these shows, the successes of other marginalized groups come at the specific cost of black men.

 I admit it: I kept watching "The Walking Dead" because of Michonne even after my husband quit. I have a Michonne action figure on my desk. And I wanted to like "Fear the Walking Dead." It's exactly the origin story I've been waiting for, and so much of it could work for me except for the blatant visual hostiliy to my race.

What we call "just entertainment" is never that. I have an 11-year-old son, and I believe that the imagery on shows like this makes the world less safe for him (although he does not watch it). Gives solace to people who do not like him, or might want to hurt him, based on his skin color. Makes him seem like more of a monster because that is the way society is ready to treat him.

I also have some specific suggestions for the teams behind "The Walking Dead" and "Fear the Walking Dead": stop your deny, deny, deny strategy. Your shows have a problem. Face up to it, say it's not all right, and vow to fix it.

And this is a message to all TV: Since you now love featuring actors of color because of the shifting Nielsen demographics, add more writers of color. Hire more black showrunners.

Stop the lazy line "There aren't any black writers who write horror." I have appeared in anthologies full of black horror writers, I know other black horror screenwriters, so there are many. Look around. If you must, do a national search like "Saturday Night Live" did.

You'd be surprised at the gems you can find when you stop denying and decide it really matters.

Tananarive Due is a novelist and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. She has won an American Book Award and an NAACP Image Award. Her website is at 

1 comment:

  1. Post-script: I didn't have room in my post for this anecdote, but we had some race issues on the set of our short film--but from the other end. One involved a Confederate flag that was originally hanging at Mike's Trading Post: was supposed to be a bumper sticker on a car outside, but we couldn't find a bumper sticker, so ended up with a flag hanging inside. One white crew member from the South thought we were denigrating the flag, another white crew member thought it made Mike look like a jerk. (We'd planned to have the bumper sticker as a corner-of-the-eye kind of thing, like the thick rope inside: imagery from history to put viewers ill at ease.) We ended up taking the flag down, which was the right call because it was way too big. We used a smaller one on the saddle, but you really can't see it well. Doesn't matter. Second issue: the mannequin. The director forgot to get the "coverage" of the mannequin they were using for target practice in the woods, so for a long time the shot was literally "add mannequin here." We even entered it in Sundance like that, unfinished. So when the mannequin shot was finally inserted, we had a bit of color shock: since the mannequin was white, the line "Remember what THEY did" felt more political than it was intended. (And we heard about it from a white woman at the screening, who was offended.) So whether or not you agree with my Fear the Walking Dead post, I've been on the other side of it: and even when I don't agree, I take objections seriously and use them as food for thought in the future.