The Development of Racism Within

Night of the Living Dead and Jackie Brown.

Steven Russell

Talking Pictures alias






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Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968) and Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) both comment upon race relations, with main character Ben and the eponymous Jackie (along with the films' other black characters, who are examined later), representing and dictating attitudes towards racism in both films and how they change over the three decades between the films. Night of the Living Dead is a landmark film for the reason that is was the first made to feature a black actor in the leading role regardless of the fact that he was black. Yet it remains that in the construction of this media text, the film’s main protagonist is still a black man; the connotations of this cannot be underestimated or ignored.  Night of the Living Dead also relates itself to black culture history, with the narrative of the film acting as an allegory for black civil rights issues in late-1960s America. In a similar fashion, Jackie Brown is indebted to the history of black media and the film genre of blaxploitation movies, with blaxploitation actress Pam Grier playing the role of Jackie. Both films are suited to this study as ‘there are inevitable associations of white with light and therefore safety, and black with dark and therefore danger, and that this explains racism’ (Dyer, 1993, p.142) as well as the use of race as a tool in cinema, a visual medium constructed essentially of light and dark and all the points in-between.

It is within the narratives of both films that we see the interaction, and distinction, between black and white characters; it is this that allows the films to make conclusions on issues of racism.  Racism can be defined as ‘the belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others’.( We see difference in both race and individual characteristics within Night of the Living Dead and Jackie Brown but to what extent can these be seen to be related and do they amount to racism, a meaningful distinction between the races that changes at all over twenty-nine years?

Night of the Living Dead enables us to make conclusions on the different representation of black and white by using a multitude of white characters but just one black character and their subsequently connoted characteristics.  We see the white population of the film to be stubborn (Mr. Cooper), immature (Johnny), passive (Barbara), fatally sentimental (Judy) and murderously systematic (the zombies and the zombie lynch mobs, both exclusively white).  As the film begins, when we see siblings Johnny and Barbara on a trip to visit their father’s grave, he proves himself to be cynical as to the sentimental and religious aspects of visiting his own father’s grave, childlike in asking Barbara for sweets and teasing her for being scared in a graveyard.  Yet Barbara herself is passive and equally childlike in her interaction with Johnny. Both are dressed in overwhelmingly light clothes, starting the cinematic theme that makes the distinction between light and dark.  Johnny and Barbara are the only two characters that we see in daylight (save for Ben, emerging into daylight at the end of the film, examined more later) and both are fatally flawed; Johnny is the first zombie victim that we see and later in the narrative, as zombies over-run the house, his zombie returns to claim Barbara.

It is this action that links Barbara and Johnny with the Coopers, the white family that barricade themselves in the basement of the house and only emerge when they are sure there are no zombies in the house above. When we first meet Harry Cooper, he immediately attempts to reject Ben’s authority and his plans to survive, attempting to assume the position of dominance in their relationship. It is Harry that, opposing Ben’s plan to stay in the house, plans to return to the basement despite Ben and Tom’s insistence it will be impossible to escape from. Yet Harry returns down there, because he wants to and because Ben wants him to; we see a white character both willingly and forcibly subdued by a black character.

Night of the
                  Living DeadDespite this, he soon re-emerges at the insistence of Tom and finds himself taking orders from Ben in an attempt to refuel the truck. Throughout the narrative, Ben is placed above Harry in terms of significance, as it is Ben that ‘possesses’ the house but Harry has the basement. This hierarchy of their relationship is also epitomised by the fact that Harry leaves Ben locked outside the house in a vain attempt to assume power inside the house. Ben breaks his way back in and reasserts his power over Harry first by beating him up and later by killing him. Ben then has to kill his zombie too, essentially robbing Harry of life twice.

It is this intriguing relationship between the various white characters and Ben, the sole black character, that allows Night of the Living Dead to be the proficient text that it is. It is Ben that is constructed as both saviour and victim; he voluntarily retreats to the deserted house, where he is equally safe within and trapped within the house. We first meet Ben in the film when Barbara meets him; he arrives at the deserted farmhouse in the ethereal blaze of the truck headlights, descending from above into the frame, connoting him as a saviour from above. He is well dressed in overwhelmingly light clothes and he immediately takes charge of the house; his successes include gathering food, finding the nails and wood to board up the windows and doors, switching on the radio and finding the television, lighting fires to scare the zombies, finding a rifle and bullets and providing replacement shoes for those that Barbara lost in the graveyard. It is also Ben that turns on all the lights in the house, distinguishing ‘his’ territory from the dark territory of both Harry Cooper trapped in the dark basement and the zombies, trapped outside the house in the night. We see Ben as practical, using a car jack as a murder weapon to kill four zombies. Yet he is also a murderer, killing Harry. As the narrative concludes, we see all those people Ben had tried to protect, including himself, are dead.

Night of the
                  Living DeadIt is Ben’s relationship with Barbara that sees him constructed as far more of a success than Johnny; whilst Johnny antagonised his sister, Ben protects her. Or rather, as we see her act rationally (trying to phone the police from the farmhouse) before Ben arrives but quickly become almost comatose when he does so, Barbara seems to be allowing Ben to protect; she takes care of herself until she has someone to do it for her, at which point she chooses Ben. He finds her new shoes, he protects her from Harry Cooper and from the zombie that silently staggers into the house. Yet he cannot save her from herself; it is her unwillingness to admit Johnny is dead that allows his zombie to drag her out the house to her death.

Despite the fact that Ben is the only member of the house that survives the night and in spite of his success against white zombies, he is killed quickly and cleanly by the living white, the zombie lynch mob, as he emerges into daylight. We see the uprising instigated by Ben against the mass of white zombies to be supported by incompetent, selfish and stupid white characters and doomed to failure. Despite Ben being brave and intelligent, he is ultimately subdued and killed by the living white that we see ‘represents not only rigidity but death’ (Dyer, 1993, p. 145) and against whom Ben stands no chance of survival.

Jackie Brown makes the further distinction between black characters (Jackie, Ordell) and white characters (Louis, Max, Melanie, Ray), effectively a more complex study that reflects how race interaction has developed in the thirty years since Night of the Living Dead. What remains consistent is that we are presented with a black hero, this time a woman, in Jackie. What is different is that she is now surrounded by both white and black ‘zombies’. We see Jackie engage in power struggles with Ordell and with Ray, an illegal gun dealer and an FBI agent, as well as engaging in the film’s most meaningful relationship with Max.

Jackie Brown does make a definite distinction between black and white characters, and their inherent qualities that reflect on the film’s communicated message about racism. We see white characters to be sexually inadequate (Louis), drug addicts (Melanie) and, to a certain extent, institutionally racist law officials (Ray). We can see black characters to be violent (Ordell and Winston) and stupid (Beaumont, tricked into being killed by Ordell). What marks the difference between the colours is that the film places white characters as suffering from afflictions, whilst it places black characters as causing their own afflictions. Whether this means that Jackie Brown is a racist text is a complex issue due to the multitude of characters both black and white. We see that some black characters are successful and some fail, some white characters are successful and some fail.

Pam Grier as
                  Jackie Brown.In terms of a hierarchy, we again see Jackie place herself above both Ordell and Ray, black and white, by deceiving them both. Ordell does not get the $500,000 he is promised and is killed by Ray; Ray does not get to arrest Ordell for his crimes but murders him. It is Jackie that constructs both relationships for her own benefit and is pro-active in the way that we saw Ben to be; she steals Max’s gun, pre-empting Ordell’s attempt on her life. She adapts her plans to steal the money with each new development, such as the death of Melanie at the hands of Louis, who is in turn himself killed by Ordell, and, as the narrative concludes, Jackie is the only character who is truly victorious.

The other main black character, Ordell, is more distinguished and similarly flawed, more so than Jackie. Whilst we see Jackie to frequent black bars and listen to black music groups, we see Ordell surround himself with white people, such as girlfriend Melanie and his henchman Louis.  When we first see Ordell, he is dressed in white clothes in his overwhelmingly light apartment, showing Louis (dressed in overwhelmingly dark clothes) a video named Chicks with Guns, featuring solely white women). However, we also see Ordell retreat to his black identity at various points in the film, dressing in dark clothes when he kills Beaumont and attempts to kill Jackie. We see him inhabit dark spaces, sitting in darkened cars although still departed from his black identity by listening to country music. We see him enter Jackie’s lit apartment, only to switch off all the lights, plunging it into darkness. It is Ordell’s ultimate failure that he does not receive his money and that he is killed.

The only other character that we see to make exceptions for his colour as Ordell did, is Max; as we see Ordell at his ‘best’ moments, Max inhabits light and open spaces. His office has a large window and the crucial bag swap takes place in the shopping mall, very much Max’s space. Max, again like Ordell, engages in truly meaningful, cross-colour relationships. Unlike the subordination that Melanie suffers at the hands of Ordell, Max and Jackie become a couple, albeit briefly, based on equal terms and mutual respect. If anything, we can see that Max serves Jackie, taking her money from the mall and returning it to her later. It is also Max that, this time like Ordell, works with a black assistant Winston, where Ordell has Louis. In a similar way to the fact that Ordell listens to country music, Max makes exceptions for his whiteness by buying a Delfonics tape after he hears Jackie listening to it.

Jackie Brown.It is this trio of Jackie, Max and Ordell that allows us to make the most definitive conclusions of the messages that Jackie Brown presents to us about race; we see the success of these relationships to vary, with Ordell and Jackie’s relationship failing and Max and Jackie’s successful but ultimately futile, as Jackie leaves to move to Spain. It is also Max and Ordell’s relationship, different from the equality of Max and Jackie, that sees the struggle between black and white to gain power. It is Max, as the rich, white and intelligent bail bondsman, that is placed above Ordell, as it is Max that deduces Jackie’s scheme long before Ordell does. Yet it is Ordell that attempts to place himself above Max, interrogating him at gunpoint whilst sitting above, resting on the back of a chair. This desire of Ordell’s to defy the constructed power hierarchy, much like the same desire of Harry in Night of the Living Dead, is Ordell’s fatal flaw.

It is in both films that we see our heroes, Jackie and Ben, as deserving of their status and unable to truly savour it; despite the fact that Ben survives the night of the living dead, he is killed in the morning by the living. Despite the fact that Jackie outsmarts both black and white characters, she is still denied the companionship of Max. These experiences communicate that, regardless of colour, all characters can achieve success or suffer failure, especially for Jackie and Ben.

Yet the very fact that both protagonists are black shows that, ‘in the relative absence of black images, those which are available take on iconic dimensions, signifying in one constructed image, the complex of diverse and heterogeneous communities.’ (Ross, 1996, p. xxii). This is the role of Jackie and Ben; regardless of their success or failure, they represent a black existence that is as flawed as a white existence. Ben dies at the hands of a white man, Ordell dies at the hands of a white man. Harry Cooper dies at the hands of a black man, Louis dies at the hands of a black man. Both films share similar connotation of black existence. They make the same differentiations and the same, simultaneous conclusions. Existence that is defined by colour leads to segregation and it is this segregation that we see in the films, between Ben and Harry’s spaces, between Max and Ordell’s. It is also this segregation that results in racial distinctions but not necessarily racist conclusions in the films. Whilst the difference between race is appreciated, it is not blamed for the failures that we see, this is more due to the individual characteristics of Jackie, Ben, Harry and Max. Racism becomes a mark of distinction, not conclusion. It is the lack of changes over time that is notable; we see success and failure of both black and white characters, in 1997 as well as 1968, shared by both films.



Corrigan, T. (2001) A Short Guide to Writing About Film.  Addison Wesley Longman: New York, NY.

Dyer, R. (1993) The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations.  Routledge: London.

Maltby, R. (1995) Hollywood Cinema.  Blackwell: Oxford.

Mast, G. & Kawin, B. F. (2000) A Short History of the Movies.  Allyn & Bacon: Needham Heights, MA.

Mercer, K. (1994) Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies.  Routledge: London.

Reid, M. A. (1993) Redefining Black Film.  University of California Press: Oxford.

Ross, K. (1996) Black and White Media: Black Images in Popular Film and Television.  Polity Press: Cambridge.


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