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BONES: Ernest Dickerson’s Buried Horror Classic

By Dani Bethea, February 29, 2024

Bones. 2001. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“2021 marked the twentieth anniversary of Ernest Dickerson’s Bones and there was hardly any fanfare. No big commemorations from the big horror magazines, no think-pieces from the horror/pop culture writers across the zeitgeist, just…nothing.

A quiet BluRay release occurred in 2020, but other than a single podcast from the lovely folks at Horror Queers, it’s been radio silence. This is indeed a travesty because there are so many iconic horror genre tethers (outside of Black filmmaking) we can trace back to this film narratively and visually, as an aesthetic, and as an anchor point between homage to
Black horror of the past and the present. Bones may have been an homage to the Blaxploitation era, but the film was a harbinger of where Black stories were headed…away from ‘the hood’, the echo of the plantations, and onward to
Class Matters and Respectability: The Great Migration in Black Horror by Dani Bethea

The above quote was from a piece I wrote in 2022 that ruminates on poverty, ‘the South’, and other tales of our marginalization that Black people would much rather forget…even though there are still plenty of us here and plenty of us that have come back in recent years…

I am a child of two Black American parents — one from Florida and another from North Carolina — both tethered to some of the most enthralling Black (horror) history imaginable. They are states interconnected by the history of the ‘golden age’ of piracy, at least 20 indigenous tribes combined, powerhouse states of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Gullah Geechee peoples, the French, the Spanish, and the British. To say I know this history is an understatement; this history knows me. In the South, history like this creeps like the Kudzu or waves hello eerily like the moss, it’s in the air like the
humidity of our summers, it’s passed down via oral tradition, in the structures that still stand, and the places your elders warn you about.


Director Ernest Dickerson.

Bones by Ernest Dickerson acts as a time capsule…a snapshot wherein class mobility was changing, the blurring of socio-political blackness was shifting, the emergence of the new Black middle and upper classes drastically increased (e.g., affirmative action, degree accumulation, etc.), the beginning and cataclysmic outcome of the war on drugs
reached a crescendo, and the policing of poverty (e.g., affordable housing, welfare, etc) became a permanent fixture of wealth stratification.

The focus on drugs, especially crack-cocaine, being the named and unnamed subject of scrutiny throughout the film and one of the many driving factors for the destabilization of various Black communities across the United States that dually coincided with the over- policing and economic disinvestment into those communities is a reality that the film attempts to untangle without preaching but by being factual in the cause and effect to Black lives.

Aside: The irony that this retrospective coincides with the premiere of Netflix’s Griselda (2024) which tepidly explores the ruthless cocaine queenpin of Miami and Colombia is truly something. She was a violent ruthless ‘black widow’ master of disguise who was influential in ‘the war on drugs’ that I previously mentioned whose story was softened in
various ways into this ‘girl-boss’ feminist lite narrative that leans into sensationalism and glamorization of its subject that really needs to stop happening at Netflix…*cough cough* The Jeffrey Dahmer Story…but I digress.

The story begins in 1979 (in the early days of the crack cocaine epidemic as seen by an individual getting high in broad daylight behind a building) before gang violence as a result of said drug war really tore through some communities, and where children still played clap-games and jumped rope while doing so; a deleted scene shows the fallout
of this violence where the same children became victims with their blood running into the streets bisecting the community alongside the death of the neighborhood protector Jimmy Bones (Snoop Dogg). My sincerest apologies, how have I written this far and not introduced you to the eponymous Jimmy Bones: “Black as night and hard as stone, gold plated deuce like the King of Siam, got a switchblade loose and a diamond on his hand.”

Note: Eagle-eyed viewers and weapons aficionados will tell you that he does not wield a switchblade but a butterfly knife. I think someone just liked the rhythmic sound of Switchblade in the scriptwriting process.


Bones. 2001. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

How the character is presented blurs the lines between myth and everybody’s favorite Uncle. Every community knows a man like this who’s always impeccably dressed, with a dazzling car, and who was a benevolent giver to the community…whether or not they were involved with a criminal enterprise was up to speculation. Jimmy Bones, however, is a numbers man and has boosted the community’s profits with internal community betting or gambling. The money circulates back into the community; the jump-rope (turned conjure) rhyme we hear about him does elude to some possible violence if he’s pressed or that if necessary he will fight others for the community. We are not privy to scenes of him being violent which was a nice and welcome surprise but also follows the pattern of many Black horror films where the titular character at least has a morally
good center and they are slain in the prime of life; the only exceptions of violence being when he’s double-crossed in the film and slashes out to protect himself and then when he returns as a vengeful spirit. That distinction and juxtaposition is always important and powerful, i.e., the monsters that people are turned into…


Bones. 2001. Pam Grier & Snoop Dogg. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

He was beloved and respected by everyone, young and old alike; another deleted scene shows after the heyday of the community, in the present, many elders and kids- now-adults remember him fondly. More than anyone, his beloved girlfriend Pearl (Pam Grier) loves and grieves him the most, especially because she was there the night of his murder — her dress torn off and used to clean his blood in the aftermath — and most heartbreakingly they were going to have a child together. So now she’s a widow and a single mother raising their daughter Cynthia (Bianca Lawson) alone across the street from her lover’s tomb. The beautiful gothic brownstone that he owned was never torn down but was left to languish with his grisly remains buried in the basement.

His killers, a cop turned detective with the name of Lupovich (Michael T. Weiss), a powerful drug dealer named Eddie Mack (Ricky Harris), and his childhood friend Jeremiah Peet (Clifton Powell) is responsible for the untimely demise of the community lynchpin. They wished to turn the city into another area flooded with drug money, crack cocaine being the untapped financial market, or so they thought. Bones wasn’t interested; it’s implied that because business was good with what the community
already had or he’d heard about this new drug that was wreaking havoc elsewhere. Regardless of the ultimate reason, Bones didn’t want it, politely thanked them for their time, and kindly asked for them to leave. They, being Lupovich and Eddie Mack, didn’t like that answer and forced him to try the drugs and shot him in his drug-induced delirium afterward. The way things escalate so quickly with Pearl coming to see him (after she read his palm with an ominous warning) to them shooting him and stabbing him with his infamous butterfly knife is so intense to watch. In total, four of them stab him that night, albeit reluctantly by his bodyguard (Ronald Selmour), and when his beloved Pearl wouldn’t join them he leaned forward into the knife so she wouldn’t have to bear the burden of the act. As his soul leaves this world, we see his spirit hovering above the scene transforming into something else…something malevolent…something seeking retribution.

In the present, the house has become an accursed place, looming ominously by itself, a dark silent sentinel (when there aren’t screams pouring out of it by unwitting trespassers). The film employs phenomenal horror tropes of the haunted locale, object,
and vessel to brilliant effect. The house, his knife/ring, and ‘the dog’ that acts as an extension of himself also act as living entities, with the house having a heartbeat and the demon/soul-eater dog acting as a shapeshifter. Breaching the sanctity of his domain is an act of grave desecration and woe be to anyone who happens to intrude, note — the still-moist human jawbone and bloody fingernails where a welcome mat should be at the front door.

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The Gothic House of Jimmy Bones. Bones. 2001. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

His legend has lived on past the clap games of childhood youth and is now in the realm of conjure via oral tradition through the next generation. Good rhymes like that don’t just fade away into the ether. In modernity, the house has a new set of soon-to-be occupants who wish to flip the space into a nightclub, named Illbient (which comes from the hip-hop electronic scene that blended the words of ill and ambient). The idea and capital come from the unknowing Jeremiah Peet’s son Patrick (Khalil Kain) with his brother Bill (Merwin Mondesir), white stepsister Tia (Katharine Isabelle), and best friend
Maurice (Sean Amsing). These characters like most horror characters that grow up in the suburbs have no sense of self-preservation, dismiss blatant warning signs of danger, and do the worst thing imaginable: split up in a haunted house.

Aside: I just have to address something culturally and state the obvious that the two brothers once upon a time had a Black mother as children and now have a white stepmom…yikes it was giving Clarence Thomas and Virginia, but that was probably a deliberate wink to the audience.

None of them get got in the moment wandering separately through the house, but they most certainly get their comeuppance later except for Tia who is relegated to stay home with the white mom when the sh!t really hits the fan. It would have been fitting and morbidly on the nose if the demon dog bit that hand that fed him, aka her, who fed it and kept it as a pet…but Ernest Dickerson probably couldn’t get the scene approved back then.

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The Dog. Bones. 2001. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Speaking of not knowing history, this part in the film made me sit all the way forward and you might miss it if you aren’t paying attention to the dialogue. The two brothers wish to call themselves ‘the resurrection brothers’ when the club opens…if they knew their Black history they wouldn’t dare use that name for themselves with its grisly connections to actual white resurrection men who were body snatchers that frequently exhumed Black graves to sell the bodies to medical schools, anatomy specialists, and morbid collectors.

Keeping the full truth from younger generations about real history or them not cracking open the books to research the history of things makes for moments like this in the film and the broader culture where they have no language to voice the visceral underbelly of racism that permeates everything…or just not being foolish to tamper in dark-sided
stuff. They should know and respect their haunted places; we all have or know places that shouldn’t be desecrated like this. My sister and I upon watching this film (in the theater back then or on DVD when it came out) shook our heads because we knew those characters were not going to make it.

Some of the specific highlights within the film Bones are its worldbuilding, especially its mythology of two houses/two worlds, and how the horror bleeds (literally and metaphorically) out from the entombed Jimmy Bones. The character Maurice even

mentions that the floor feels like it has a heartbeat. The violence committed against Jimmy, Pearl’s dress as a conduit that kept his blood tethered to this world, and the vengeful wall of past spirits from the city of the dead were chilling pieces that helped the whole narrative shine.

There’s something about the violence in the genre that we as horror fans are so familiar with but the history-horror films or the violence against women/revenge pieces hit very differently and we critique them in a very pointed way. It’s not just the nostalgia for me with this film or the fact I live for some good special effects and monster costumes, but I
personally love horror that tackles the heavy stuff with the seriousness that it merits.
Knowing that there were things that were cut from the film or not given the go-ahead
continues to make me ponder what the fully realized Bones film could have been.


Where two worlds meet. Bones. 2001. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

What if we could have explored the interiority of the violet-pink ‘city of the dead’ and the monsters that lay therein…and what if we’d had ‘the shining’ intergenerational powers aspect of mother and daughter explored more fully? This film could potentially receive the Candyman sequel treatment and I’d be seated for it but sadly more people don’t even know this film exists let alone have the reverence for it that I do. Thus, the few of us that have shall sing its praises.

The film Bones does not specify its location. Truly, it could be anywhere (outside of the South) in any metropolitan city USA but the optics of it being a place where the visual- monetarily prosperous outcome of The Great Migration has occurred is indisputable. Moreover, the Blackness of this space, place, and time speaks to the reality of thriving Black neighborhoods and economies. Gentrification was not in full swing…yet…but when the film shifts to its modern setting one can see the skyline with new buildings and high-rises in the distance gradually encircling the place (e.g., Cabrini-Green). We know that these various transition periods greatly impacted Black lives — many times in a horrific way — but what if that place was also haunted and marked as a place where the dead could not rest? We’ve seen that story in films like Candyman (1992/2021) but Director Ernest Dickerson not only paid homage to that film and many others that showed the Black man as a ghost or undead vengeance seeker (e.g., Blacula) but thought broader and made his own history-horror piece of cinema. The film
debuted in October of 2001 with a $16 million budget but sadly only received a little over $8 million of said budget back. In the Shudder documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), Dickerson speaks to the fact that New Line Cinema did not know how to properly promote the film without veering into stereotype or marketing it as something broader than just a ‘Black movie’.

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Snoop Dogg & the city of the dead. Bones. 2001. Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Small budgets once upon a time did not necessarily equate to small movies. Instead, the limitations challenged the directors, set designers, costumer's, and SFX departments to think outside of the box to achieve cinematic gems. This film employs: the bright unnatural blood reds of Giallo in its kills and set pieces, and boasts beautiful living ‘Black Plague’ frescos of the undead while incorporating various mythologies of witchcraft, dogs as vessels of evil, and a new but cozily familiar underworld.


Bones truly has so many artistic and historic reference points that it’s just a sumptuous feast that must be seen by the broader horror community. There’s an awesome body-regrowing sequence ala Hellraiser when Bones is fully resurrected, a brief 90s/early 2000s reference to the House of the Dead arcade game (that I spent way too many quarters on back then), and if you love Tales from the Hood (1995) this film feels like a tale from Mr. Simms himself. Ernest Dickerson truly blessed us with an homage blast from the past. Moreover, he bridged the gap between the legendary screen queen Pam Grier
and the new era of hip-hop Snoop Dogg made an incredible piece of cinema that should be a must-watch in the horror canon.



It’s on the Internet now, so do yourself a favor and dig it up.

Dani Bethea (she/they/them) is a Pop Culture Writer, Horror Editorialist and previous EIC of We Are Horror Magazine. They have featured in books such as The Women of Jenji Kohan: Weeds, Orange Is the New Black, and Glow: A Collection of Essays, and Studies In the Fantastic: Lovecraft Country; podcasts like Anatomy of a Scream, Horror Queers and Pop Literacy.

You can find their work on Medium here.

And on X

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