The whitewashing of ‘IT’ is proof that it’s past time to start centering Blackness in horror
"I wonder what phenomenal work might have been done if IT had let a Black kid shine in the way that he deserves."
In the years between Victor Halerpin’s White Zombie (1932) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Blackness in the horror genre has largely been a myriad of hidden slavery narratives featuring gendered anti-Black violence and racist dehumanization. Excepting the stories that include Black characters as tokens or magical negroes who ensure the survival of white characters—usually through either reluctant death or martyrdom—and stories that happen to forego the “Black character always dies first” trope, many of these horror stories have been about the ghosts of history and are often specific to Black pain.
Of course, I am not speaking of the far too few quintessential Black horror staples like Vampire in Brooklyn, Tales from the Hood, and Bones. I mean projects like Candyman, The Skeleton Key, Jessabelle, Bag of Bones, The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, American Horror Story: Coven, etc. As mainstream horror stories, they all rely on historical anti-Blackness in order to couch many of their scares and most unsettling moments in the very real pain Black people experienced during and after chattel slavery.
Despite relying on violence against Black people, all of these stories are told for the audience through the lens of whiteness, placing white characters at the center. These mainstream horror tales, told by non-Black creatives, have a perverted obsession with anti-Black violence and the history of Black genocide and institutional racism, yet Blackness itself is never centered within them. I think that it’s past time for that change.
Andy Muschietti helmed this year’s IT, a remake of the 1990 film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name. It follows a group of children in Derry, Maine who call themselves the Losers’ Club. Haunted by an inhuman spirit which has taken the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the group must work together to defeat this phantasm to save themselves and the town. Mike Hanlon is the sole Black child among the group, and he should be its central character.
Not only has the vivid history of Mike’s family been removed from the film—a history resembling that of most Black families in predominantly white towns in the twentieth century who must constantly navigate the white terrorism of their neighbors who commit acts of stalking, violent intimidation, assault, murder, and arson—but so has his role as the historian. In the previous story, Mike is a researcher who pieces together the mystery of IT, bringing the group the knowledge necessary to defeat the evil force. This role has been taken from him and bestowed upon one of the white children in the newest film.
In King’s original tale, when IT has risen from the sewers to wreak havoc again twenty seven years later, it is Mike who gathers the Losers’ Club once more and urges them all to return and help him rid the world of IT forever. Feeling the weight of this responsibility, Mike is the only member of the group who has remained in Derry while the others have matriculated out into the world and forgotten all about their epic battle against the killer clown in their youth. Mike is the only one who remembers. He has to, because no one else will. By far, he is the most important player in King’s story.
Muschietti’s film instead moves Mike to the furthest margins, reducing him to a token character with minimal visibility and involvement. So much so that the outcome of the film would arguably be completely unaltered if Mike were removed entirely.
The recently greenlit second installment will reportedly restore Mike’s initial significance afforded to him by King’s novel as it focuses on the Losers’ final battle against IT as adults. If so, it will be out of sync with its first chapter. Still, here’s hoping that Muschietti will deliver.
But I wish this remake of IT had used Mike Hanlon’s character to contemplate Black people’s connection with a sort of social librarianship as the descendants of those who were once enslaved and forbidden from learning to read. We are charged with keeping the memories that others beg us to forget. We keep these ghosts because we have to, not because we want to. Others use them for shock value and trauma porn in the horror genre, never fully taking advantage of opportunities to seriously investigate them.
In the past, I have used my work and personal passion projects to ask questions about what kind of impact narratives like The Skeleton Key and Candyman might have made if they had placed Black characters at the center rather than on the margins, or what great potential there is in exploring The Walking Dead’s resilient Michonne now mothering white children after being denied the privilege of mothering her own Black baby, or whether Get Out and The Girl With All The Gifts have set forth an impetus for deeper and larger understandings of Blackness in zombie narratives the same way that Beloved did for Black ghost stories.
Now, I find myself wondering what phenomenal work might have been done if IT had been made by someone willing to take advantage of the now-missed opportunity to tell a truly compelling story that lets a Black kid shine in the way that he deserves.
Imagine IT as a fantastical modern horror tale about an isolated Black boy in a world imbued with anti-Blackness, carrying with him memories of racialized terrors passed down through generations, hungrily pouring over the history of his little town in library books and family albums, and harnessing all of this to fight back against a terrifying and otherworldly genderless shape-shifting alien entity more ancient than time itself.
I wonder how many stories—horrific or otherwise—might become richer, more satisfying, and more honest if whiteness was de-centered and instead afforded Blackness the spotlight.