About Robin R. Means Coleman, Ph.D.: Robin R. Means Coleman is the Ida B. Wells and Ferdinand Barnett Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. An award-winning author and filmmaker and accomplished editor, Dr. Coleman’s work centers on questions of race and cultural identity in genre films and practices of audience receptions. She is the author and co-author of books like African-American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (now published in its second edition as Horror Noire: A History of Black American Horror from the 1890s to Present) and, most recently, The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar. Her most recent edited collection is the forthcoming The Oxford Handbook of Black Horror Film.
Dr. Coleman’s documentary film adaptation of Horror Noire won a number of awards, including the Rondo Award for Best Documentary in 2020 and the Online Film Critics Society award for non-theatrical releases. Its follow-up, Horror Noire: Six Stories of Black Horror, an anthology of horror shorts by Black filmmakers, premiered in 2021.
At Northwestern, Dr. Coleman is also Vice President and Associate Provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion. Dr. Coleman’s administrative and leadership credentials include a Certificate in Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell University and training from the University of California – Berkeley Executive Leadership Academy, the American Council on Education Leadership Academy, and the National Intergroup Dialogue Institute. Dr. Coleman was a Fellow of the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University and the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education Standards of Professional Practice Institute. In 2021, she was named one of Diverse Magazine’s Top 25 Women in Higher Education.
Dr. Coleman received her Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University, her M.A. from the University of Missouri, and her B.A. from Chatham College. Prior to joining the faculty at Northwestern, Dr. Coleman was faculty at a number of institutions including the University of Michigan, where she was also Associate Dean of Social Sciences in the Rackham Graduate School, and Texas A&M University, where she was Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in media studies, and, in particular, in critically examining representations of race and gender in film and popular culture?
[Dr. Robin Means Coleman] In my qualitative research methods classes, when students say, “I can’t figure out a topic, I don’t know what to study,” I always encourage them to really find their authentic selves and stay in their authentic space. When I was a graduate student, my dissertation was supposed to be in the Everett Rogers tradition of studying health communication campaigns. I was going to study farming practices in India with respect to crop cultivation and the impact of fertilizer and run off on the physical infrastructure of communities and their water supply.
What’s important about this, I tell the students, is that there was a lot of excitement about me taking up this research. It felt a little STEM to my advisors. It was squarely within quantitative methodologies. I had senior leadership at my university coming up to me, shaking my hand, and saying good job. This was, in part, because I was Black, I was a woman, and I was doing this international project. But when I would go home and take a break from that work, I would write about Black participation in popular culture in front of and behind the screen. I was writing about Black situation comedy and Black people in film during my, “Okay, let’s bring it down,” moments of decompression.
All day I was sort of like this: [furrows her brow and groans]. But, in the evenings, I was like this [smiles excitedly]. I started presenting at Popular Culture Association conferences. It was terrific, and it felt great, even as everyone was telling me that other work was important. Finally, without much support or guidance, I stepped away from that work and more robustly into this work, which everyone thought was just bananas — just the nuttiest thing to do. People called me “girl.” They said, “Do you really want to be the sitcom girl? Do you think you’ll get a job going on the market saying I know everything there is to know about Sanford and Son?”
While I have focused on the genre, my work was really about how Blackness is constructed in and through media, not just what we consumed but also how we informed that construction of Blackness. I thought those questions were important, and studying them has let me be authentic to myself, as I advise my students to do.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research on film and Black popular culture has advocated for and made important contributions to studying the reception practices of Black audiences. How does your work explore the agency that audiences have in shaping the racial and cultural politics of a film?
[Dr. Robin Means Coleman] Audience interpretation of Blackness in entertainment spaces has been top of mind for me for years. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about a Dave Chappelle bit. When he’s doing The Chappelle Show, he’s both creator and a performer, but there is a moment when he steps out of that in his storytelling, and he says that he is hearing the audience reaction, and he doesn’t know if they are laughing at him or with him.
This is the same story that we heard around J.J.’s character in Good Times. After J.J. becomes a central character, he dominates or overshadows the family story of the show, which was originally almost a dramedy. The more comedic, buffoonish character surfaces and develops because of audience reaction to that character. We see this in Family Matters as well. Family Matters was not supposed to be the Urkel show, it was supposed to be more Cosby-esque.
The commonality between these stories is that it is white audiences’ reactions to Black performances that are shaping their content. You see this with Samuel Jackson in a different way with the film Snakes on a Plane. There, you see, not just an audience reaction, but film producers leading with fandom, and telling the fans, “Give Samuel Jackson dialogue and we promise we’ll put it in the film. Have at it.” All of these things that surround the ways in which audiences interpret Blackness — Black history, culture, and lived experiences — and also invite Blackness to be performed in a particular way, interest me. In all of these instances, we are talking about predominantly white and non-Black audiences.
Contrast that with what I understood from Black audiences who were consuming sitcoms and horror films. Their interaction is very different. Their meaning-making is very different. They are looking at these texts, not just as examples of representation, but as sociopolitical interventions into Western understandings of who we are.
I am mindful of those who talk about over-investing in representation and how representation is not a sufficient solution to exclusions in media. I am not arguing against that at all, but I am saying that, when we look at a trajectory of discourses about who and what Blackness is, representation is one of the tools in the tool belt to understand that discourse.
Black audiences have said that some representations are more favorable than others, some certainly present us as more whole and full than others, some do more harm than good, and then some blow people’s minds in interesting and necessary ways. I am thinking about everything that has to do with Star Wars, everything that has to do with The Little Mermaid. These are all audience reactions to the ways in which we show up. The most important thing, I think is, that we show up.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What methods or approaches have you found most useful for studying audiences and how do they reflect your larger commitment to feminist media studies?
[Dr. Robin Means Coleman] I am a qualitative researcher. Not only do I do qualitative research, I also do it as a constructivist. Constructivism is always qualitative, but not all qualitative research is constructivist. What comes with constructivism are important ethical imperatives that I think are deeply embedded in the kinds of respectful, inclusive approaches that we see both inside and outside feminist media studies. This aspect of constructivism really resonated with me.
Constructivism views society as a co-created relationship. It is not hierarchical, or top-down–it is very much emergent, or what some people would call grassroots. It invites qualitative approaches where research participants are far more empowered and, most importantly, it stresses accountability to your participants. You don’t just go in, snatch their data or information, then bounce.
You have to say to your participants, “There needs to be something in this for you. We’re not just stealing your data or your labor. This has to be a mutually beneficial relationship.” I think that is absolutely essential. Methodologically that is where I start, and not just in research methods. Every part of my lived experience, my administrative role, everything I do leads with those values and principles.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your critical analysis of film tends to focus on genre pieces, from situation comedies to science fiction and horror films. What is it about genre films that have captured your scholarly interest and how are they particularly interesting or important sites for researching the relationship between race, class, gender, and media?
[Dr. Robin Means Coleman] I love this question because I had not thought about it that way. There is something personal about the way my brain works that has made me always take an interest in boundaries, in orderliness, and the way things exist within these guardrails. But what I am really interested in is not how we stay within those boundaries. What I am fascinated about is, once we have identified these generic qualities, how do we disrupt them? What does disruption look like? We make these boundaries languageable, but then when we explode these boundaries we don’t quite know what to say or how to describe it. That is fascinating to me.
As my work shows, with genre study, particularly around race, class, and gender, comes an interesting inquiry about not only how we do research, but also the way we show up for social justice, even though I was not using that language 30 years ago. I was not talking about social justice then, but the throughline across all of these genre inquiries was a subtext about justice. We had not talked about justice as a sub-genre or a subcategory, but I think in the end, upon reflection, that is what captured my imagination.
You see these themes come up so frequently in sci-fi and horror. These genres evoke Candace Delmas’ debate about uncivil disobedience. There is civil disobedience and uncivil disobedience, and the historians have got interrogations of civil disobedience down. Horror is where we get to talk about the uncivil — where the zombie comes up and bites your jugular, and there is blood all over the place. That’s as uncivil as it gets. There is something fun and interesting and instructive about that. I think that is the power of studying genre.
[MastersinCommunications.com] The genre that you have engaged with most consistently over the course of your career is horror. For example, you are the author of the books Horror Noire: A History of Black American Horror from the 1890s to the Present and co-author of The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar. Are there key findings you would highlight from across your work on race and horror films? Are there areas where you feel like Black horror has changed over the course of your career, perhaps with respect to its representations of Black characters, or the visibility of Black creatives who are making horror movies?
[Dr. Robin Means Coleman] I just had two books come out on Black horror. There’s Horror Noire’s second edition. That is a pretty substantive rewrite because the first edition of Horror Noire came out in 2011, and a lot has happened in a Black horror space since then, and we know so much more about the films I was writing about in 2011. With the first edition of Horror Noire, I literally created a name for a genre. Now people and media companies are calling Black horror “Horror Noire,” and individuals are building up their archives and scholarship, and I am benefiting from that. They are bringing my attention to things I just did not have much access to in the early 2000s, which is great.
The second book, The Black Guy Dies First, which I co-authored with Mark Harris of blackhorrormovies.com fame, is also out. This book is fun and funny as it contextualizes the modern Black horror “renaissance.” We delve into the themes and tropes prevalent from 1968 to modern day, with a combo of a bit of dry wit and thoughtful analysis.
There is also an edited collection from Oxford, The Oxford Handbook of Black Horror Film, that is coming out in the spring that looks at how Blackness shows up in the global landscape in horror, particularly in places where people do not identify their work as “Black Horror.” The genre is different in different contexts. Do you call it Black horror in Sudan where the cultural politics of Blackness is very different? That is the third book, which is an edited collection.
What I would say about all of these examples of genre study is that they are interested in themes about inclusion, social justice, and internal conversation within Blackness that not everybody gets to have access to. These are often FUBU moments – “For Us By Us.” You may get it and great if it pulls you along, but Black horror in and of itself is for Black people. We don’t interpret our work for white audiences. Much of it is social justice themed, but it is important for me to highlight that that is not a part of the definition of Black horror. It does not have to have this extra responsibility of talking back to society.
A lot of it does. Particularly after George Floyd, you see a lot of reflections on the Black Lives Matter movement. But sometimes Black horror is truly purely entertainment. I think about Tananarive Due’s work. She has a horror short in our anthology [Horror Noire, 2021], called “The Lake.” It is a suspenseful film where you do not know what is going on or what this Black woman has been up to, but there is no police brutality theme or any of that. Sometimes we show up in purely entertainment forms, but audiences tell us that even that is powerful. It is important, it is resonant, and in some cases it is also politically powerful because we are there and, until recently, we have been excluded from the horror genre, and certainly from mainstream productions.
The emergence of Black horror as a genre is a big deal. With Night of the Living Dead, George Romero cast Duane Jones as the lead. We thought, “Oh my gosh.” You can point to Romero as having a more multicultural cast. With films during the 1970s we got Black horror proper, but it was kind of low quality and very social justice themed. Then Jordan Peele hits and everything changes. It is just pandemonium. Everything is about Black horror, but it is also quite elevated or “woke” horror. We have gone through all of these permutations of Black horror, and I am just here to try to capture it all.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to your academic writing, you are also a filmmaker, and recently co-wrote and co-executively produced an adaptation of Horror Noire into a documentary, as well as an anthology. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience working with film in this capacity?
[Dr. Robin Means Coleman] Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror was directed by Xavier Burgin, who is amazing. He has been a terrific colleague and friend. In these projects you are suddenly stuck together forever with your colleagues, so you hope it is great, and it has been great. We are forever connected. I also want to point to Ashlee Blackwell. I wrote Horror Noire the book in a fairly accessible style. It is a little bit funny and very clearly my voice. Ashlee Blackwell is a horror scholar as well and has a famous podcast and website. She adapted the book and storyboarded it as a script. I give that as a shout-out, and I want to shout-out the co-executive producer, Tananarive Due.
The three of us became the face of this project. I was over the moon about it because we were three Black women working together, and that is something you just do not see. We show up at film festivals together. We show up on panels together. Xavier has been super generous. He says, “I directed it, I’ve got some other things, but this is their project.”
For us three to show up and lock arms as experts — media experts and horror scholars — I think has been powerful for audiences and for the industry in subtle ways. The people in the audience are paying attention. Honestly, it is amazing to me that, when we started this around 2019, people had not seen that before. We were a show. We were smart, and we were funny, and we also knew our stuff and had great ideas. It just had never dawned on the industry to pay attention in the way that we did. I always have to share the space and say that it was me, it was Ashlee, it was Tananarive, together.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there things that you wanted to communicate with the Horror Noire project that you feel like the documentary format uniquely allowed you to realize?
[Dr. Robin Means Coleman] I hoped it would come across in the documentary that these films were good, serious, smart “edutainment.” We really wanted to make sure that it was accessible. I never thought that it would become as big as it did.
This is the first documentary that went up on Shudder, which is a streaming service connected to AMC Networks. We almost single handedly built Shudder. It reminded me of the sitcom days when UPN and WB started with Black sitcoms, built the audience, and then the genre exploded. It is the same thing with Shudder. Horror Noire did for Shudder what all of those Black sitcoms did for those startup networks in the ‘90s. It was, for a time, their top show, which was huge.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Over the course of your career, you have been a committed advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. You currently serve as the Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Northwestern and are the University’s Chief Diversity Officer. Would you highlight some of the work you are currently doing in these positions? How does your background as a critical scholar of race and gender influence how you approach this work or your goals for these positions?
[Dr. Robin Means Coleman] People ask me all the time how my work as Chief Diversity Officer, on the Provost team expanding the role of the Chief Academic Officer, and as Vice President connects to horror. Remember, and I can’t emphasize this enough — Black media does not have to have a social message. It does not have to have a political purpose. It does not have to resolve things. But there is something interesting about the lessons and messages that horror and sitcoms offer up about social justice.
Two of the most powerful series that really focused on the ways in which Black people show up, whole and full, were Frank’s Place and A Different World. They also invited audiences to reflect on our relationship to Blackness. If I was teaching a leadership course, or if I was teaching a course on Black history, Black culture, or Black popular culture, those would always be the two series I would go to as examples of sitcom dramedies. Then, similarly, you add a film like Get Out, Eve’s Bayou, or even the Bernard Rose and the Nia DaCosta Candy Man films to the mix. They capture what we are navigating at those intersections of race, class, and gender in this society. They are the perfect kind of heuristic to explore those questions.
That is the work. That is my job: to hold my institution to a higher standard of accountability and to make sure that we are always centering these kinds of conversations. This has nothing to do with compositional diversity. It is not about how many. It is about, when we are here, how the university is ready to support, to include, to be sensitive. We should never have a student have to raise their hand and say, “I’m here, are you ready for me? Are there resources? Do you understand who I am?”
Messages come out of the media we have been discussing that say, “Here’s what happens when you fail to recognize the diversity in your social world, when you fail to be prepared when people walk through the door.” We are no longer talking about accommodation. We are no longer talking about assimilation. We are talking about meeting people where they are and being prepared to do that. That is the work. Those are terrific lessons and messages that come out of those films in those series.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in critical scholarship on media studies and popular culture or critical work on race, gender, and cultural difference who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Robin Means Coleman] I have three pieces of advice. First, narratives around return on investment really scare me. You see higher education leaning into those narratives and investing in professional degrees in a particular way. Sometimes they will not say it. This is not pitting one discipline against the other, but it is easier for some institutions to talk about STEM — to talk about engineering or technology or medicine — or to talk about law, because there is a narrative that makes sense to parents associated with these disciplines. All of these are valuable disciplines, but these are return on investment narratives, and in some ways our institutions have fallen into that trap.
I want to stress how valuable the humanities and the qualitative social sciences are. It is not about what you can do with the degree. The question is, “What can’t you do with this degree?” I am hard-pressed to think of an example, short of careers that require training, licensure, or certification in a very specific area, like being a surgeon. Even then, maybe I cannot do a heart transplant, but I can write about those who are going through the process, the survivors, the support those involved need. The type of work we do is relevant to everything. So, my first piece of advice is please do not get discouraged. Follow your authentic self. Think about all of the things that you can do and how brilliant this kind of training makes you.
Second, the late, great James S. Jackson — a brilliant scholar who was at the University of Michigan for a good bit of his career and directed the Institute for Social Research — was one of the first to say that people did not have to do comparative work to be legitimate. He argued there was enough diversity within whatever it was that you were studying that you did not need to do that for people to accept your work. I think that that’s an important reminder, and sadly we need to continue to say that today.
I think it might show up (fingers crossed) less when we are talking about studying Blackness, but I certainly still see it showing up around gender and sexuality. There’s an impulse for advisors to say, “Well, can you compare that? What about this other group?” We need not do that. There is enough diversity within. We do not have to make broad comparisons between groups.
The third is where our conversation started. I think we can all stand to be reminded throughout our careers that we should show up with our authentic selves. Our first impulse should not be to ask who will be impressed or who will love or celebrate this research question. The MacArthur Fellows were just announced at the time of this interview, and one of the things that I think I interpret as a thread through those fellows is every single one of them showed up authentically and pursued a passion that nobody else did.
In some cases, there may be a dozen other people out there who wanted to do it, but somebody dissuaded them and said, “No. Writing your biography in this way and interrogating the self in this way and showing up as an artist in this way is ‘me search.’” The “genius grants” prove those naysayers wrong every year.
I think there’s something useful about taking an inventory of your values and saying at every point, “Is this in alignment with my values?” I ask this about the questions that I am asking and the ways in which I am approaching my work. There are a million-and-one ways I could have studied sitcoms, but I knew that constructivism was the one that was in alignment with my values.
The question is, do you feel the same way if you don’t find success? What if it does not work? What do you say to those folks? I think it is a question of value alignment. If it worked for you, if it felt good for you, if you completed it and it felt true to you, I think that is really important, and we underestimate that too much.
Thank you, Dr. Coleman, for sharing your insight on race and genre, Horror Noire, your institutional work for diversity and equity, and much more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.