Before Duane Jones came along as the zombie ass kicking Ben in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, African-Americans were consistently cast in roles pertaining to their ethnicity. Before Ben was brought into America’s living rooms, virtually no one had seen a black actor portrayed as the hero in a major motion picture. Even more groundbreaking is the fact that Duane was cast as the hero among a cast compromised solely of white actors.
Due to the subject matter of the film, the zombie metaphors and how it has to do with the idea of fearing “ourselves”- many thought that the casting of Duane Jones was a significant and intentional casting choice made on Romero’s part. This however has famously been regarded as untrue as Romero has stated several times that Duane “simply gave the best audition”.
That statement rings true as Ben’s character is one of the best in any horror film. I just couldn’t get enough of his quick thinking, resourcefulness and especially his patience in dealing with the highly annoying, catatonic mute Barbra.
How he managed to not kill her, we’ll never know. Cast intentionally or not, Duane Jones’ role as Ben was extremely groundbreaking and changed history.
One of my favorite facts about Duane Jones is that originally, the character of Ben was written as an uneducated, mindless, truck driver. Jones himself an educated and well spoken individual refused to portray his character in such a way and turned the character of Ben into the powerful, intelligent Ben we see on the screen today. And thank god. Who were we suppose to identify and like in this film if Ben wasn’t suppose to be as awesome? The Coopers? Gross. (Yes I know Mr. Cooper’s idea about the basement was technically right- he still is an asshole).
After Night of the Living Dead, Jones taught acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and later became a professor of theatre at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. On July 22nd, 1988 he passed away at the age of 52 due to cardiopulmonary arrest.
Since Ben’s death is one pretty tragic event at the film’s conclusion, many reviewers pointed out that the shooting of Ben easily resonates in the minds of Americans and forces them to recall the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Whether you choose to see this as a parallel or not- Duane Jones’ role as Ben should always just stay fresh in your mind, adding to the idea that black or white- we are all humans and all have the potential to be zombies. (or to be mistaken as one)
“It never occurred to me that I was hired because I was black. But it did occur to me that because I was black it would give a different historic element to the film”
More interesting facts:
Prior to being cast in Night of the Living Dead, Duane Jones was just an unknown stage actor.
After his starring role, Duane never saw any of Romero’s other films- especially Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead claiming that Night of the Living Dead was “his” time.
Duane Jones never vocalized to his students about his past and his career as the star of Night of the Living Dead. In fact, no one ever found out until during a group meeting at a café where they happened to being playing the film on the TV there. The student’s sat in awe and after this particular occasion word quickly spread about how famous the theater professor really was.