Scream 2 and the African American Element

Scream 2 is one of those rare, wonderful sequels where one can easily argue that it is at least as good as its predecessor. I used to be dogmatic about this movie. It’s clearly better, just look at it! Over time, I’ve mellowed out. The truth is that Scream and Scream 2 are very different films to such a degree that comparing them isn’t helpful. They feel and look dissimilar. Scream has a grittier, edgier aesthetic than its sequel. It feels lived-in, more dangerous. A bunch of like-minded folks hunkering down to make a horror film, you know? With Scream 2 it looks like the budget got upped considerably. It’s bigger, glossier, and in some ways more fun. So I think which one I prefer basically comes down to what kind of mood I’m in that day.

When I set out to write the Scream article I meant to comment somewhat briefly on the invisibility of race in that movie. Unfortunately that article ballooned into a term paper and needed to be focused, for all of our sakes. There’s not much to say about race in Scream aside from that fact that it just isn’t there. It’s so conspicuously absent that it almost feels intentional. Did Kevin have a white flight suburban town (as if there’s another kind, am I right?) in mind when he crafted Woodsboro? They were all rich as hell anyway. Remember those houses?

I guess all Scream tells us about race is that even in 1996 a lot of white folks lived in enclaves where they didn’t have to deal with minorities. Scream 4 isn’t out yet, so I’ll reserve judgment, but apparently in 2011 Woodsboro has only managed to find one (1) black best friend. If Kruger made him into Tyson, The Sequel, I’m going to have an aneurysm. More on that when we get around to The-Sequel-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Scream 2 opens with “She’s Always in My Hair” by D’Angelo. The song’s bombastic opening immediately sets a bigger, bolder tone for the film. Additionally, by using a recognizable song by a black artist as popular as D’Angelo, Scream 2 is already signifying race. It’s commenting on the fact that the film itself is more diverse. If you need any more proof of that, after a small crane shot the film introduces the first two black characters in a Scream movie. And they’re great characters. Phew!

I’ve always wondered why Scream 2‘s opening is so specifically about race. Is Kevin responding to criticism of his whitewashed first film? Was he attempting an earnest critique of the exclusion of minorities in horror films (and Hollywood in general)? Maybe a bit of both? It’s impossible to say for sure, but Jada’s character vigorously and rightfully tears apart horror movies in just a few lines that could be aimed directly at the original film. That’s smart writing on Williamson’s part. It shows that he is not just tossing black folks in his film, but actively engaging with their presence. Something to be appreciated.

Maureen and Phil are excellent ten minute characters, just like Casey Becker. We get an understanding of them as people. One detail I liked about Maureen is that even though she blasts horror films for ignoring African Americans, the other reason she doesn’t want to see Stab is that she’s afraid of scary movies. I think that makes her very endearing, and a bit sad, because she’s already uncomfortable watching the film, and her death is a foregone conclusion.

The cliché is that black people always die first in slashers. Scream 2 holds to this cliché, and subverts it. While two black characters are indeed the opening victims, their deaths don’t feel meaningless. The violence done to Maureen and Phil bluntly asks us why we like to watch people die. These two people were innocent, smart, funny, etc. and we watched them get murdered, just like the audience in the film. The lingering focus on Pinkett’s face makes us confront this fact. As I rewatched the movie for this article, I wondered if the audience would have reacted differently to a pretty white girl possibly being cut up in a movie theater. Just a thought.

Black people are everywhere! They’re in your film theory class! They’re your best friend, or your cameraman! Look, one is sitting next to you in the library! Boo! Black folks are all over this film and it feels very deliberate.

Joel is the only smart character in this movie. He sees shit about to go down and he gets out of there. “I’m done!” He’s smartly written without being a caricature (Tysonnnnnn!). Duane Martin’s comedic timing is great, and it’s safe to say he gets the film’s biggest laughs.

Hallie is a less interesting character, but that’s not to say she’s a bad one. Just a little thin. She feels a bit like an afterthought, but I know she was one of the killers at some point in the script development. I suppose it’s possible that her character got whittled down during that process. Her relationship with Sid is believable though, in the same way that Sid’s friendship with Tatum was. They seem honestly concerned and helpful with one another. They talk about things other than men (another Bechdel pass here). She also has some great moments, including the look she gives when Sister Lois and Sister Murphy ignore her for Sidney.

Scream 2 isn’t really a film about race. It’s much more concerned with violence. But it does feature black characters whereas Scream did not, so we can make some comments on representation. I’ll end by saying that Scream 2 does a fairly good job of representing black folks. They aren’t caricatures. Though they may not be the most fully realized characters in the film, they are as funny and charming as the rest of the cast. Scream 2 makes an earnest attempt at including black people, even with a searing critique of white-dominated films, and that’s pretty cool.

Also, the best shot of the film is of Jada Pinkett. What a gem.

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