Logline: In the late 1700s, African prince Mamuwalde travels with his princess to Transylvania to seek the help of the renowned Count Dracula in his effort to end the global slave trade. What the Count gives him instead is a bite upon the neck and a tomb to cool his heels in for the next two centuries as a starving vampire. 1972, Los Angeles: Mamuwalde's coffin has been mistakenly transported to the City of Angels, where he soon awakens and wreaks bloodsucking havoc while pursuing the love of a woman resembling his long-dead wife.
William Crain's Blacula, a relatively early entry in the blaxploitation genre, created a secondary strand of horror-themed blaxploitation pictures, many of which reinterpreted classic horror stories and tropes by replacing the normally white Anglican characters with black characters and occasionally exploring contemporary social issues relevant to the black community. Unfortunately for Blacula's popular and critical regard, the film's most interesting bits of racial commentary occur within the first five minutes and are more or less abandoned for the remainder. A distinguished and gentlemanly prince, Mamuwalde (William Marshall) is first shown appealing to Dracula to lend his well-regarded name in the fight to give Africans their basic human rights by abolishing the slave trade. Mamuwalde desires to go even further than achieving this freedom from enslavement by also expressing his desire to see his continent's cultural customs introduced to the global community, rather than erased through assimilation. He is, in a sense, a diplomat, and he carries himself with poise and dignity, expecting the same respect from white men that he gives to them. But in a bizarre inversion of Stoker's version of the Dracula story, in which Dracula himself is the victim of some thinly veiled racism (recall that at one moment Stoker's Dracula bleeds money), Blacula's Count-- an effete, flamboyant aristocrat-- takes offense to the presumptions of equality coming from this personage of "the Dark Continent." While a slave may find slavery barbarous from his own point of view, Dracula believes that slavery-- from the perspective of a wealthy white man-- certainly has "some merit," it being both "intriguing and delightful" to exert baseless control over an entire race of people for personal gain. After making this statement, Dracula tastelessly calls Mamuwalde's wife "delicious" and counters her husband's anger by arguing that any such statement from someone of his own "station" to someone of a lower station like his vistor's must be viewed as a compliment.
But it's important to note that someone of Dracula's "station" is, in addition to being a privileged white man, a bloodsucking monster. In this moment Dracula is a representative of the entirety of the white race, acting-- as Mamuwalde points out-- like "some sort of animal," hungry for its own sense of entitlement. Dracula attempts to argue the opposite by pointing out that old racist standby: "it is you who comes from the jungles." Yet, the Count proves the peaceful, civilized Mamuwalde correct in the next moment by having his thugs savagely attack the prince and princess. Dracula bites Mamuwalde, transforming him into a vampire like himself and imparting to him a "gnawing, animal hunger" for the blood of others, which Mamuwalde-- as a normal black man-- did not possess. But Mamuwalde is no longer a normal black man after this moment: he is black man in the thrall of a white man, forced to suffer change to his fundamental nature and relinquish his own cultural and personal identity for that of the white man's (an identity synonymous with "bloodsucker"). In the fashion of a slave owner, Dracula even renames his new pet "Blacula," stripping that last vestige of his independent racial identity from him. From this point on, Mamuwalde's actions as a growling, blood-lusting animal are defined by white perceptions of black actions, regardless of how contrary they are to reality. Our vampiric African hero spends the rest of the film learning to release himself from the destructive stasis of white perception and regain his humanity. Blacula's poignant moments of racial consciousness display an understanding of how strained interactions and miscomprehension between the races can, regrettably, cause problematic alterations in racial identity.
The rest of the film isn't consistent enough to derive any other sort of race-based messages from (though it is curious that Blacula's black, blood-deprived victims develop a paler complexion). Rather, Blacula's present-day action is overly conventional, casting its lead vampire as a romantic anti-hero (a role for the character that would reach its schmaltzy, operatic apex in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)). The action moves briskly, but the script is plagued by odd attempts at humor (much of it homophobic in nature) and a bland supporting cast. William Marshall is a commanding presence in the lead role (even if he's given little to actually do) and the film has one of the best (and funkiest) opening credit sequences of the 1970s, but otherwise Blacula is probably more famous for its title and concept than its execution.