Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Photo Courtesy of the Everett Collection
If you’re like me, there’s no difference between Freddy Krueger, Jigsaw, or Pennywise—you hate them all. But there’s one character that I can appreciate, and who transformed the way scary movies are made today: Brenda Meeks, the rambunctious around-the-way girl played by the hilarious Regina Hall in Scary Movie. The film, directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans and released in 2000, mocked teen slashers like the Scream franchise and I Know What You Did Last Summer—including, crucially, the lack of diversity of those casts. Brenda is the Scary Movie franchise’s voice of reason, the only character with the courage to vocalize what we as viewers are thinking: Don’t go in there! Run!
Brenda plays a supporting role in much of Scary Movie, but her standout scene—sharing her every thought about Shakespeare in Love at the movie theater aloud—produced enough gifs to last us a lifetime. She knows that sneaking your own food in is better than paying for overpriced popcorn and boxed candy. When she’s not handing moviegoers their ass (“out of my face, out of my face!” was a staple in my school at the time), she toggles back and forth between her Nokia phone and a camcorder—a time capsule of bootlegging culture before streaming. She’s always a reliable, believable stand-in for the audience: Later in Scary Movie 2, “How come every time some scary shit happens and we should stick together, you white people always say, ‘Let’s split up?’”
In the two decades since the first Scary Movie, the most talked-about horror films are often less about hair-raising masked murderers. Instead, they reflect our anxieties as a society—particularly in films created by Black directors like Jordan Peele. Peele’s psychological thrillers take a crucial cue from Scary Movie: You can see traces of her suspicion-as-comic-relief across his films, like in Get Out’s Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery), the quick-witted TSA agent; Us’s Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), the bashful yet protective father; and Nope’s Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), who is so authentic and charismatic she is almost a direct descendant of Brenda. Brenda Meeks appealed to the skeptic in all of us, and without the mega-success of Scary Movie—which spanned five installments—some of our favorite characters in the Peele universe wouldn’t exist.
Because Scary Movie is a pastiche of teen horror subgenres, Brenda isn’t an entirely original character. She’s actually based on Maureen Evans, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, in Scream 2. In its opening scene, Maureen and her boyfriend Phil (Omar Epps) are on a date to see Stab, or, as Maureen puts it, “A dumb-ass movie about dumb-ass white girls getting their white ass cut the fuck up.” When Maureen points out that Black people are severely erased from the horror genre, Phil can’t help but tease her: “Tonight we’re going to have an all Black movie, all Black cast, all Black wardrobe. Black eyes, black eyed peas, and black cats.” The banter between Maureen and Phil is Wes Craven’s way of addressing Scream’s all-white cast—but however self-aware, in retrospect it only accentuates the fact that in 1997, the concept of an all-Black horror film was far-fetched—laughable, even.
In Scream 2, Maureen and Phil are used as sacrificial pawns in the film’s larger agenda, upholding the cliché that Black characters die first. While Phil is in the bathroom meeting his untimely demise at the hands of Ghostface, Maureen is hate-watching Stab, offering restless commentary along the way. Dressed as Phil, Ghostface climbs into the seat next to Maureen before he stabs her repeatedly. Onlookers cheer on her death as if it were a part of the show.
The fundamental difference between Maureen and Brenda is that Maureen was created for white audiences, and Brenda wasn’t. Maureen’s cynicism is what gets her killed, and Brenda’s is what brings her to life. “It was huge to have an African-American director open an R-rated comedy that was that big,” Regina Hall told Entertainment Weekly in an oral history of Scary Movie. “It broke the ceiling for what was possible. It was a movie that was really diversely cast, and we saw young audiences gravitate toward that. It wasn’t a white film, it wasn’t just a Black film… It was just a movie.” Audiences responded: The film outperformed Scream during its opening box office weekend, grossing over $278 million worldwide.
In Scary Movie’s sequel, Brenda is even more outspoken in her endeavors. She fears the film’s antagonists like everyone else, but she’s practical. When Cindy, the aloof protagonist, is running from a skeleton, Brenda is unnerved. “This is bones! Would you run from Calista Flockhart?” she asks. Despite that Hall is just one member of an ensemble cast, Brenda’s function was different from those of the other Black characters in the film, played by Shawn and Marlon Wayans. Shawn’s character, Ray, who was Brenda’s boyfriend, often resorted to suggestive (and problematic) jokes about his sexuality, while Marlon’s character Shortie, who was Brenda’s brother, was typically too stoned to say much.
In a genre that sorely overlooks Black characters, Brenda was the first who wasn’t afraid to say what we’re all thinking. So you can keep your monsters, stalkers, and final girls. Brenda Meeks is my true queen of horror.
Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer at VICE.
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