How the Black Guys Got to Kill All the White Guys and Still Be Good: An Essay on the Changing Dynamics of Race in American Action Cinema

38 Pages Posted: 8 Apr 2009

See all articles by Gretchen Bakke

Gretchen Bakke

Wesleyan University, Center for the Humanities

Date Written: October 8, 2008


There was a time, not so long ago, when a black man - a good black man - killing a white man in an action movie was tentatively accomplished. Not the killing itself, which was as bold and as marked by "righteousness" as the killing of bad whites by good whites. The tentativeness was, rather, both formal and narrative meaning that it was most evident in the careful unfolding of story and character within the limited universe of the film itself. Whites were changed a little, at first, becoming evil, faceless, and generic in new ways and blacks, the good blacks charged with dispatching these new bad white were, at least in the beginning, always flanked by more heroic heroes - white men - wilder men willing to kill and killing more effectively than their darker skinned counterparts. But that was only the beginning. What began as tentative within the narrative structure and characterization of action films has since exploded into a new pattern of race relations evident in, if not governing, a good many of the action films of the new millennium. Black men now are not only buddies paying second fiddle to the rampages of their white counterparts (Pfeil 1995); they are not only expendable characters sent off by whites, like a canary in a cage, to test the efficacy of unseen adversaries, nor are they merely scenery, filling up streets or starships - a silent fluid and chromatic backdrop against which the action takes place (Wallace 1995). Black men now are also, and often, heroes in their own right. They are cast as vengeful and lively characters, both likable and utterly fantastic, and they kill, as all action heroes must, with indiscretion. Who they kill is the topic of this essay, and not only who they kill, but how that killing has come to form the very ground - the necessary premise - of both their heroism and their goodness. Or to put it another way, we know them to be heroes not despite the fact that they kill white characters but because of it.

Keywords: Race, Film, Zombies, USA

Suggested Citation

Bakke, Gretchen, How the Black Guys Got to Kill All the White Guys and Still Be Good: An Essay on the Changing Dynamics of Race in American Action Cinema (October 8, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Gretchen Bakke (Contact Author)

Wesleyan University, Center for the Humanities ( email )

Middletown, CT 06459
United States

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