Eternal ReturnBlacula and the Thematic
Aesthetics of William Crain
By André Seewood
Blaxploitation is a vexed description of all Black films made in the 1970s. It is a portmanteau emphasing how a white-controlled American film industry was exploiting Black audiences with action films that appealed directly to them.1 Yet the term is problematic because it lumps all Black films from this period into one generic category with no analysis of how the role of race has changed established Hollywood genres, such as the detective or horror film.2 The designation echoes the treatment of the many different African peoples brought to and enslaved within the U.S. without regard for heterogeneous differences in native language, religion, and culture.
Just as the Black body was evaluated solely on the condition of its Blackness in the antebellum period, so too were 1970s Black films evaluated solely on the identity of the characters within them, with little to no regard for the content, genres, or themes that differentiate the films. The devastating irony is that “blaxploitation” was coined by the Coalition Against Blaxploitation (CAB), a protest group comprised of several Black civil rights organizations. Tied to middle-class respectability politics, the protest against so-called blaxploitation films was a response to the portrayal of Blacks as pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, drug abusers, and hustlers in films that appealed strongly to Black youth.3
Critic and scholar Michael Boyce Gillespie claims that, “The belief in Black film’s indexical tie to the Black lifeworld forgoes a focus on nuance and occults the complexity of Black film to interpret, render, incite, and speculate.”4
Few films better demonstrate the complexity of the so-called blaxploitation genre, and the imperative to “interpret, render, incite, and speculate” beyond badassery, than Blacula, from 1972, directed by William Crain. It’s a work that might seem to epitomize the notion of a racial switcheroo, wherein Black leads replace their white counterparts merely to exploit an audience’s desire to see themselves on screen, but Crain’s work is more than just another vampire film.
Blacula tells the story of an eighteenth-century aristocrat, a European-educated African prince named Mamuwalde, and his wife, Luva. The couple travels to Transylvania to meet with European heads of state—with Count Dracula as their connect—demanding an end to the lucrative transatlantic slave trade. Unbeknownst to Prince Mamuwalde, Dracula has duped him into coming to his castle, where the prince is summarily beaten, bitten, cursed, and confined inside a coffin. His wife, Luva, held captive in the vault next to him, is left to suffer a horrible death of starvation beside him; the implied sadism here is that the prince listens to the unbearable end of his wife’s life.
Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) discuss stopping the transatlantic slave trade in Blacula.
Two centuries later, an interracial gay couple purchases the coffin, unaware of Mamuwalde’s remains inside of it, and brings it back with other valuables to sell in Los Angeles. While the men are celebrating their newly-acquired treasures, Mamuwalde rises, attacks them, and is released into the modern world as Blacula. During his nocturnal journeys, he crosses paths with a beautiful woman named Tina, who looks exactly like his long-lost wife, Luva, played by actress Vonetta McGee in a dual role. The film is then centered on Mamuwalde’s seduction of Tina, and his attempt to convince her that she is his wife, reborn.
Antique dealers Billy Schaffer (Rick Metzler) and Bobby McCoy (Ted Harris) are the signs of modernity in Blacula.
Mamuwalde’s seduction is initially rebuffed by Tina, before she gives in to his charms. Prophetically, he says, “I have lived again, to lose you twice.” This line foregrounds the Nietzschean idea of the eternal return, where one relives one’s life over and over again, with every detail, every pain, every joy.5 The theme of eternal return elevates Blacula beyond a story of reincarnation and beyond the constricting codes of the vampire genre. The search to regain one’s true love after having it taken in another, transforms Blacula into a tragic story of Black love ravaged by white supremacy in the past and in the present.
Crain mirrors the past and the present throughout Blacula. The identities of his central characters—heteronormative lovers Mamuwalde and Luva, and the interracial, gay couple working as antique dealers—call upon viewers to examine centuries-old societal and personal issues related to race and identity that persist today. Through a contemporary lens, the representation of Black resistance in one form or another; the deliberate lines of self-determined dignity drawn between an aristorcratic African prince and a modern working class Black society; and the duplicity of those who befriend, then betray, our protagonist, turn Blacula into a complex film, far more interesting than “blaxploitation” would suggest.
Seewood in Conversation with William Crain
An Interview from September 29, 2022
André Seewood [AS] So, were you in this UCLA film program where they were bringing in these young Black filmmakers and training them in the late sixties and early seventies? Were you a part of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers’ cohort?
William Crane [WS] You know, this is a story I haven’t told anybody, but I guess it will come out sooner or later. In high school, there was this girl I really had a crush on and every time I’d see her, I’d hit on her. But she had this guy she was going with. I said something like, “Leave him and go with me,” but I didn’t have anything to offer. Years later, this program at UCLA came up. I had a little background [in filmmaking] and I went off to Monterey and wrote a couple of papers … I thought I’d gotten accepted to the program. I mean, I had two professors that recommended me, and I was right there. Would you believe that I called in one day and asked, “Well, did I make it in?” and a guy answered the phone and said, “No, you’re not in the program; you didn’t make it.” It was a disappointment, you know, a catastrophe.
Thirty years later, I find out that the guy who controlled the money was the boyfriend of the girl I was hitting on in high school. I called one of the professors I knew at UCLA, and he said, “No, you’re not on the list,” and I just sort of backed off after that. I should have gone with it, but you know I left there and went to Canada, and I learned enough, I think. I found out much later through a friend of mine who worked on the program, she said, “I thought you were in it? Your name was all over the place.”
[AS] Oh wow, that’s breaking news! So jealousy is what we’re talking about then?
[WC] That’s exactly true … I can’t recall his name, but it was jealousy, you hit it. Jealous of me? I didn’t learn that until two years ago from a girl who worked in the office. I’ve never told anyone; this I’m sharing it with you. A heartbreaker.
[AS] I want to get to this notion of blaxploitation films, although I just consider them Black films because the term is rather derogatory. Was there a lot of controversy and backlash against Black films at that time in the seventies?
[WC] Oh, it was horrible, but let me go back to one more point that just came to me. Later in life, after I came back from Canada—and we can get into that—I ran into three people who were in that program. One guy took the money and bought a car … There was a second guy … There was this one guy who was in a little theater. He got into the program. He never directed a thing. And the other guy was … He did Penitentiary.
[AS] Yes, [Jamaa] Fanaka!
[WC] Yes. He was in the program. I don’t know what happened to the other guy. The reason I bring this up is that I think I had the moxie on all of those guys.
In terms of ‘blaxploitation,’ what do I have to say about that? It was an ugly name. But I had made the rounds. I spent seven years in Canada, so that’s where I really learned the f-stops, and the real stuff of directing and I latched onto a Canadian director who I thought was great.
[AS] What school or what place was that in Canada that you studied at?
[WC] I was in a theater group called Theater of Being, and that was run by Frank Silvera and his girlfriend—she just passed away, Nichelle Nichols, who was on Star Trek. We did a lot of original plays and one we did was The Amen Corner, which was James Baldwin’s work. I talked myself into being an extra, I mean an opening part, and I stayed with that theater, and we played all over. We played it in Los Angeles. We played in San Francisco. We played it in Oregon. And it came back to L.A. and Frank was a hell of a director. We had a theater that was just amazing, there were a lot of people in that group. A lot of people went on to do more episodic comedy shows and stuff. What I did was I stayed in Canada for seven years and I learned how to direct. I did car stunts. I did action roles. I did several acting roles in theater. I was a novelty, I guess. I was good enough because they kept hiring me.
[AS] So, it was by doing car stunts—that was your way into the film industry?
[WC] Yeah. Coming out of L.A. and knowing how to drive, they asked me to do some car stunts, which I did. I got my apartment doing car stunts. Then I finally reached a point where George McCowan had made me an offer to come to back to L.A. and he was a mentor. I stayed in Toronto for another day and I thought, you know, maybe I should go home. It’s time to go home. I sat on a couple of his [George McCowan’s] sets. I was able to sit in on The Mod Squad (1968-1973) and a couple of others. He introduced me to Aaron Spelling who said “let’s give him a shot at it.” The first Mod Squad I did featured Sugar Ray Robinson. He played a fighter, obviously. I got on, but it was kind of hard for me. Those crew members did not want me there. There were assistant directors who said, “You know, you come in here out of nowhere, but I’m directing the next show. I’m gonna walk all over you.” I got all sorts of that kind of stuff and then some time went by and I did another Mod Squad and another Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, and the list goes on …
[AS] How, under these hostile circumstances, did the opportunity come up to direct the film we know as Blacula?
[WC] Doing those television shows, I guess I’m not sure of this, but some writers came along and wrote about this Black vampire and a producer in town knew I was there full of energy … the next thing I knew I got this call from the head honcho at Screen Gems and he said, “You know you might want to go over to American International Pictures. They’re asking about you.” And I said, “Are they?”
I went over there and I met with the head of American International Pictures, Sam Arkoff. He said, “We got this vampire and we’re gonna call it Count Brownsencount,” and that was to go along with the other blaxploitation movies that were going on at the time. There was Fred Williamson, Jim Brown. I don’t want to belittle these guys ’cause they were doing the best they could. But that was the blaxploitation era. They wanted a ‘shuck & jive’er in a suit and he’d be a vampire. Jim [Joseph T.] Naar was the producer and we got along fantastically well. I asked him if he really wanted to do this and he said, “No. If you want to put some class to it, bring it on. It’s your movie.” So I went to Roscoe Lee Brown to see if he was interested. I went to Scoey Mitchell. I went through the whole roomful of actors. Oh, I tried Harry Belafonte. He didn’t want any part of it. Sidney Poitier didn’t want any part of it—and they both are cool people. I did a Sidney Poitier movie. I didn’t direct it, but I was on it as a practicing director.
Finally, I asked William Marshall if he wanted to do it. He said, “I’ll do it, if you direct it.” So I said, “That’s what I’m doing, I’m the director.” He said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, but can we make some changes?” We sat down for coffee a few times and re-wrote the script. This guy turned out to be an African prince and he had a reason for coming to Transylvania, which was to abolish the slave trade; that made him a different person from shuckin’ & jivin.’ His English would be proper. William Marshall was a tremendous actor. But Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson [owners of AIP] were in my corner a lot because making the movie was hard. Arkoff said, “Okay, make your changes,” but, he said, “you only have twenty days and two hundred dollars to make the movie.” No, I’m kidding … He was making blaxploitation movies and he was doing okay, but the company was in the red. He was losing his shirt. So he was going to take a crack at this Black vampire. He wanted to make the movie that he thought would be accepted in the Black community and it would be some ‘shuckin’ & jivin’ and it would make some money. I had a different idea.
[AS] I think ultimately your film is a classic because of that love affair. You can feel it. In other interviews you mention the suicide of the Blacula character at the end is because he has lost her, the love of his life, again. A second time. He says as much in that wonderful line, “I’ve lived again to lose you twice.” I just think that fatalism is why the film is so powerful beyond its genre. I mean, if you lost someone you love and they were reincarnated, for lack of a better word, who wouldn’t want them to come back? Here I’m thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; the Scottie character falls in love with this woman who is pretending to be someone else. She fakes her own death, then he finds another woman who looks very similar to her and gets her to remake herself into the image of the woman he lost, only to lose her a second time. So I thought of that second loss as I was watching that relationship in Blacula.
[WC] A classic theme. I agree with you. I certainly remember the Hitchcock movie.
[AS] Blacula was a big box office success, but how did it affect your career?
[WC] Well, first of all, American International Pictures was in the red. And Blacula pulled them out of the red. They were up in the millions. But the sad thing is—both Denise Nichols and I talked about this, we had just done an interview together on the fiftieth anniversary of Blacula—they paid her a little and they only paid me three grand or something. Just as every Black woman who was doing movies at that time had to have her clothes off and lay in bed. She said, “I had this movie and you were directing and I didn’t have to do that.” They didn’t pay us much money, but the film made a lot of money.
[AS] But that’s what I’m asking. You had made a successful film—why didn’t that translate into you being hot property, so to speak? Because that is how it’s supposed to be. You make a successful film and then the other studios should be at your door …
[WC] The studios should be at your door. Black people were making noises and I got to be chairman of the minority committee of the Director’s Guild. And that was difficult. I should have never done that because I had to go in front of the producers and pound on the table about giving us some work and they didn’t like it. I got blackballed … For example, somebody asked me to do a movie and they went back to the guy and said, “he’s on the do-not-hire-list.”
[AS] Even in that day and age, after the success of the film, this list that you were put on kept you from getting jobs, or rather, movie work?
[WC] They’d say, “we don’t have any openings.” So they put me off.
[AS] What you’re describing, this blackballing, is what put the brakes on Black film in the 1970s. Because if the studios were doing this to you, they must’ve been doing the same thing to other Black filmmakers.
[WC] Certainly. We would meet and have drinks and others were having a hard time as well. Some guys took offices on the lot and thought they would get over, but they never did.
[AS] Regardless of the blackballing, at least you made one classic film that stands the test of time and bears more fruit each time you watch it and that is more than most can say they’ve done.
[WC] Thank you so much for your kind words.
1. Laura Cook Kenna, “Making Exploitation Black: How 1970’s ‘Blaxploitation’ Discourse Marginalized industry History and Constructed Black Viewers’ Tastes,” Beyond Blaxploitation, edited by Novotny Lawrence and Gerald R. Butters (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016).
2. Novotny Lawrence, Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s (New York: Routledge, 2008) 3. Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993). 4. Michael Boyce Gillespie, Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 2. 5. Alex Ross, “Nietzsche’s Eternal Return: Why Thinkers of Every Political Persuasion Keep Finding Inspiration in the Philosopher,” The New Yorker, October 7, 2019. Available online at
André Seewood, Ph.D, is a writer, filmmaker, and musician.
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