Last summer’s blockbuster Nope was Jordan Peele’s third movie since the 2017 release of Get Out. Like Peele’s previous films, Nope had movie watchers everywhere speculating about symbolism and deeper meanings hidden in the movie. It especially sparked excitement about the ending because (spoiler alert) Keke Palmer’s character, Emerald, survived. Palmer is on an elite list of Black actresses who got to be the last girl standing. In horror speak, that is known as “The Final Girl.” Nope marked Palmer’s third time as a final girl, but it was her first big screen moment as such (she was previously the final girl on the TV version of Scream and Scream Season 3).
Being the final girl is a big deal in horror. In short, the term was created by Carol J. Clover, a college professor and author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. She explored the theory that the final girl exists in the context of patriarchy. Patriarchy dictates that women can’t be independent, and that women must be virginal and as close to pure as possible so no smoking, drinking or drugs either. Final girls are women that through a patriarchal lens, are worthy of being saved because they’re clean. Stereotypical final girls are usually white and fall into the above categories, it’s something that was even parodied in the movie version of Scream. However, when she saves herself she defies that system of oppression by defining her own freedom and survival.
There are a lot of final girls across the board, but especially Black women, who defy those stereotypes. Black final girls can be traced as far back as the 30s. Take Georgette Harvey in Chloe, Love is Calling You, for example; so there is a large pool to choose from when exploring the Black final girl trope. However, because it’s spooky season, and for the sake of brevity, let’s take a look at a short list of Black final girls and how their characters helped propel horror writing forward by flipping that trope on its head.
1. Keke Palmer in Nope
Emerald was the free-spirited little sister in Nope, who also happened to be queer. Queer final girls are an emerging nuance in the horror genre as they have been getting more visibility in recent years. However, Emerald’s queerness wasn’t a defining characteristic of the role. It was presented in passing, when she mentioned “her little lady.” It was so quick that you could almost miss the reference, but it was important because it didn’t define her. As the movie played out, we got to see other elements that made her human, even down to when she talked about how her father hurt her feelings because he chose to teach her older brother more about horses and the family business than her. It was something that she mentioned talking about in therapy. So here we have this young woman who is smart, and tough, but also still vulnerable and not in a goody-goody kind of way. Final girls often have to discover who they are and what they’re capable of, but Emerald always knew.
2. Marki Bey in Sugar Hill
Marki Bey starred as Sugar Hill in this campy 1974 Blaxploitation film with a twist. The twist was zombies. It was probably the only Blaxploitation zombie movie. The title character was a woman seeking revenge against the mobsters who killed her boyfriend because he wouldn’t sell them his bar. It turns out that a heart broken Sugar Hill decided to seek help from beyond. She tapped into the magic of a local voodoo priestess, who then summoned the lord of the dead, Baron Samedi, and raised up an army of zombies to slaughter her enemies. There are a lot of elements that make this movie ridiculous and it’s not without stereotypes. However, what Sugar Hill did for the Black final girl lore was show a woman who was smart enough to seek help. She didn’t need that help from a man, and she didn’t need anyone to save her.
3. Carol Speed in Abby
Abby was initially released in theaters in 1974, but it crashed and burned quickly. That was because its distributor, American International Pictures, felt the wrath of Warner Brothers, which released The Exorcist in 1973. WB felt that Abby was a rip off and filed a lawsuit. Abby faded into obscurity until clips of it resurfaced in the digital age, and now it is available for viewing. In case you didn’t know, Abby centers around a woman (the title character) who is sweet, wholesome and pious, but then she gets possessed by the spirit of an Eshu that lived in an artifact brought home from Nigeria by her father, and literally all hell breaks loose. Abby becomes the complete opposite of who she used to be and starts going on escapades in pursuit of sexual pleasure and mayhem. In the end, Abby gets saved by her husband, father and friend — three men who had to tame the wicked woman and save her from herself. However, on a deeper level, Abby’s possession metaphorically represents society’s worst nightmare — a sexually free Black woman taking agency of her desires and pursuing them without restraint.
4. Lupita Nyong’o – Us
At the end of Jordan Peele’s 2019 movie Us, we find the Wilson family having narrowly escaped death at the hands of their doppelgängers, also known as tethers, but with a lot more clarity about who is who. Lupita Nyong’o played Adelaide Wilson, a woman who we thought experienced trauma as a child after an incident where she went with her parents to a fair. She went missing for a spell and returned, but completely mute. It took her a while and lots of therapy to start speaking again, and no one knew exactly what happened to her. It turned out that the Adelaide we had come to know throughout the movie wasn’t the real deal. She was actually the tether, and in a cruel twist of fate for the original Adelaide, they came face to face at that fair when the original Adelaide wandered away. The tether version of Adelaide took it upon herself to make the switch by trapping the original in the underground forgotten world of doppelgängers who eventually planned a rebellion. In the end, doppelgänger Adelaide wins by killing the original once and for all without her family realizing what happened — so we thought. The movie ended with the Wilson’s driving off to their next destination and with her son staring at her with a strange look on his face because you can assume that he figured out who she really was. Basically, his mom was the bad guy. Final girls aren’t usually the bad guy and this is an odd situation given the way the viewer is set up to empathize and sympathize with tether Adelaide, even when the truth comes out.
5. Jada Pinkett Smith – Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight
On the surface, Jada Pinkett Smiths’ character, Jerilyn, could seem stereotypical. She’s an ex-con on a work order release. This is typically the type of stereotype that Black actors like to avoid, and that often doesn’t get much valuable screen time in movies. But in this case, the underdog became the victor when Jerilyn turned out to be the one to save the world and presumably have a happy ending — something that doesn’t often happen to characters like that in movies.