“One look at the magnificent six feet, five inches of William Marshall, one echo of that profound, reverberating voice and one feels an anticipatory tingle of majestic things to come. He has a strange quality of solitariness…he is as awesome as a tiger in repose…Marshall stands quite still, then his arms rise, trembling and he groans. It is a sound to empty the world.” –The Irish Times on Marshall’s performance as Othello, 1962
Once proclaimed by the London Sunday Times as “the best Othello of our time,” William Marshall is best remembered by stateside audiences as that Black Prince of Shadows, Dracula’s Soul Brother– Blacula. The Gary, Indiana native’s theatrical success failed to launch the Hollywood career that he deserved. In addition to the absence of roles — especially desirable ones — for African Americans in the 1950s and ‘60s, Marshall had been named “an active supporter of the two most important fronts set up to entrap Negroes in the Communist movement [Committee for the Negro in Arts and the National Negro Labor Council]” by the right-wing journal Counterattack.
At the time, Marshall had just signed on as the lead in the ahead-of-its-time 1953 TV series Harlem Detective, but station officials let him go immediately following the accusations, citing scheduling conflicts. Marshall told another story. Denying any “Red” affiliations, he reported to Jet that he had been “fingered” and effectively banned from radio and TV (Jet, Jan. 21, 1954, pg. 59). Though the red scare accusations proved damaging, the classically trained actor still found occasional roles in television and a few substantial roles on screen, including supporting roles in the Victor Mature and Susan Hayward vehicle Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) and Something of Value (1957) starring Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier.
By the end of the 1960s, the cultural tide had turned against the red-scare witch hunts, but little racial progress had been made in Hollywood. Well into his 40s by this time, Marshall seemed a particularly unlikely candidate for movie stardom. The Blaxploitation craze of the early 1970s, however, created new possibilities for Black actors and directors seemingly overnight. At first, Marshall hesitated at taking the role of Black Dracula, finding the script too rife with common Hollywood cliches of Black culture that he sought to renounce in his own work. Instead of capitulating for the chance at a lead film role, he suggested substantial script rewrites to add a compelling backstory for the title character and a subtext of social critique. The stock “Black Dracula” character became the African prince, Mamuwalde, who fell into vampirism unexpectedly while visiting Count Dracula in Transylvania. He hoped the morose count would help him put an end to the slave trade in Africa. Instead, Dracula curses Mamuwalde and christens him “Blacula.” Two centuries later, Mamuwalde/Blacula awakens in 1972 Los Angeles, encountering bell bottoms, afros, and night clubs on his search for blood and his lost love, Luva. Slavery seems a distant memory at the epicenter of 1970s liberation, yet Mamuwalde’s presence serves as an embodiment of its remaining oppressive shadow.
Blacula became a major box office success for American International Pictures, and spawned Scream Blacula Scream in 1973, co-starring Pam Grier. Critics found little to love in the low budget sequel, with the exception of Marshall and Grier’s performances. After a long list of criticisms, Rober Ebert wrote, “Against these disadvantages there are a couple of reasons to see the movie anyway. William Marshall, who created the Blacula role, is back again with his terrifying dignity.” Marshall also starred in the “Black Exorcist” film, Abby, though Warner Bros. effectively shut down the AIP film for copyright violation.
Marshall hoped to use his new success to produce a passion project about King Christophe of Haiti, former slave and leader of the Haitian revolution, which successfully gained independence from Napoleon’s France. The production plans coincided with Marshall’s art and culture programs in Watts, where he presented free community concerts with the Pan African Peoples Arkestra under composer Horace Tapscott. Also inspired by the Haitian leader, Tapscott wrote “Ode to Christophe,” which Watts schools began using as music for graduation ceremonies (press release from the William Marshall file at BFC/A, dated Nov. 25th, 1975). The film never came to fruition, but Marshall remained committed to activism in both his career and personal life.
On stage, Marshall never ceased to thrive, promoting Black arts and culture by portraying seminal figures such as Paul Robeson and Frederick Douglass, a role he continually returned to throughout his career, eventually turning his traveling solo-show “Enter Frederick Douglass” into a critically-acclaimed PBS docudrama in 1982. His career spanned several generations and appealed to eclectic fan bases; while some know him as Blacula, Othello, or Frederick Douglass, another generation may know him best as “The King of Cartoons” on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Marshall was among the first inductees honored by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in its inaugural year. BFHoF Co-founder Mary Perry Smith donated 300 linear of written records, audiovisual materials, publications and memorabilia from the organization to the BFC/A in 2014. Currently in processing stages, the collection includes valuable research resources for both Marshall and Blacula director, William Crain.
The term “Blaxploitation” partially refers to Hollywood’s short-lived attempt to cater to Black audiences in urban areas during the early ‘70s. Facing steadily decreasing box office receipts, major studios and independents alike recognized that their audiences were disproportionately African American due to white flight in urban areas where the majority of theaters were located in the era before the suburban multiplex. The press kit for Blacula emphasizes the desire to appeal to Black audiences. The exploitation suggestions page includes a section entitled “Negro audience appeal” which reads: “a host of approaches can be used to stimulate response from Negro patrons. These include use of space in neighborhood journals catering to Negro readers and time on radio programs aimed at their market. The churches, food markets and stores they patronize are excellent locations to catch their interest.” The use of “they” throughout this text emphasizes the “us” and “them” mentality of white producers (and publicity copywriters) and the assumed whiteness of the exhibitors. Moreover, it connotes the subordination of African Americans to the role of consumer, despite the range of “above the line” Black talent involved in the production at hand.
Blaxploitation also refers to the exploitative aspects of turning topical race relations into fantasy and entertainment. While scholars disagree on the origin point, pointing alternately to the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis, 1970) or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971), it was MGM’s box office success with Gordon Park’s Shaft in 1971 that ensured studio investment in black-themed cinema, at least until the successes of “New Hollywood” brought young, white audiences back into the theater, paving the way for the international blockbuster model (as the story goes). Most discussions of the genre or cycle focus on Shaft and its followers– movies presenting Black male supermen (and, with Grier, superwomen) getting payback against oppressive Whitey and looking fly doing it. These films are bold and stylish, incorporating the accoutrements of Black power blended with pimp culture fashion. Their soundtracks are timeless, outlasting and outselling the films themselves. Yet these lasting style icons and soundtracks of Shaft, Superfly, and Coffy have loomed so large in the cultural imaginary that they’ve caused us to lose sight of the broad range of Black-themed, Black-cast, and often Black-directed cinema of the 1970s. The Blaxploitation Horror of the 1970s series seeks to correct such oversights, serving as a reminder that Blaxploitation in its brief heyday featured genre-bending explorations. As Nzingha Kendall noted in the BFC/A & IU Cinema program notes: “Blaxploitation horror films often turned the over-the-top conventions of horror into critiques of the genre’s white-supremacist subtext of the ‘monstrous Other’.”
BLACULA screens for free on Halloween, Oct. 31st, 9:30 PM at the IU Cinema. Preceded by a vintage 35mm trailer for SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, courtesy of the American Genre Film Archive.