Netflix’s First Kill Raises the Stakes for Representation
First Kill is part Romeo & Juliet, part Buffy - but gayer, fresher, and more representative of our modern world.
We’ve seen plenty of young adult vampire stories in film and television from Twilight to Vampire Diaries (and its spinoffs, The Originals and Legacies). There’s also been hunter-centric Shadowhunters, where vampires heavily feature, and we all know the OG Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Vampires and their hunters have been gracing our pages and screens since Dracula hit the presses in 1897, yet most modern takes have focused on white protagonists—human, hunter, and vampire alike. Black folks and other people of color have often been relegated to sidekick, or worse, the Magical Negro trope. First Kill puts a young Black hunter and her hunter family in the UV spotlight alongside the traditional pale, white bloodsucking aristocrats.
We talked to showrunner Felicia Henderson about First Kill, bringing the short story to life, and making room for Black folks in genre storytelling.
“I felt very strongly that if Netflix is going to bring me on to this thing, then I am going to bring all that I am, as a Black woman, as a member of a big Black family,” Henderson says, “I was going to make sure that we felt welcome, that we felt that we saw ourselves, that we felt that we recognize ourselves.”
First Kill does just that with its depiction of Calliope Burns and her family of Black hunters, including mom Talia, dad Jack, and brothers Theo and Apollo. If you’ve watched Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha, and other iconic Black shows that Henderson has written on, the Burns family will feel familiar. The opportunity to represent Black folks in genre and fantasy was one of the things that attracted Henderson to the show.
“We haven’t seen ourselves enough in this space. We’ve seen ourselves a lot in horror as the first person who gets killed,” she says. “It’s still different to just see a Black lead, and see where they come from.”
Black folks aren’t non-existent in sci-fi and fantasy, but there is still a dearth of representation for BIPOC in genre storytelling aimed at young adults. In contemporary vampire stories like Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and even more adult fare like The Strain, there are very few characters of color—who are not white-passing–and even fewer who are centered in the story. Bonnie Bennett (Vampire Diaries) may be one of the most fleshed out Black characters in vampire TV, and she was largely mistreated by the white characters surrounding her, and the writing itself. Henderson was excited to see Black folks in the genre space, and hopes to normalize fully developed Black leads.
“Black monster hunters?! Come on, I’m in! Often if you see a white lead, you get to know who they are, who their parents are, what the mythology is, what their origin story is, all of that, but not so much if it’s a Black lead, which is still rare,” Henderson says.
The Burns aren’t the first Black family to fight supernatural threats. They’re preceded by the Hastings from Superstition, a show about a family of Black hunters that aired on SyFy for one season in 2017. The show featured a majority-Black lead cast and writers room, but didn’t reach a large audience. Which leaves room for more storytelling centered around Black families and the supernatural.
“To see a whole Black family be everything that that means; to be loving, be arguing, having the young sister who just wants to be like her big brothers, having a mother and father who love each other,” Henderson says. “Having a Black mother who is kick-ass and is also not about the bullshit with her kids. In a Black household like Mama is it!”
Henderson wanted to bring Blackness into the story in an authentic way. Indeed, First Kill introduces us to a Black family of monster hunters, and they capture so much cultural nuance that’s often missing when shows cast Black talent in front of the camera, but not behind the scenes
“I know there’s no monolithic Black family, but there is such a thing as representation that we recognize,” she says.
Folks seeing themselves reflected in the media they consume has always been important. And it’s even more powerful when folks see themselves in characters who are strong, capable, and fully realized.
“It’s three-dimensional and accurate representation,” she says of what drew her to the show.
It wasn’t just important to have representation for BIPOC, but for queer folks as well.
“For all of the queer women that I know and love, I wondered what their lives or their coming out would have been, or how they would have felt about themselves coming up at a different time than this, had they had this representation.”
Henderson also wants the current generation, who are the age of the characters, to not have to know what it was like to not be reflected. She talked about wanting this for her goddaughter.
“A decade ago, when she was 16, she tried to end her life rather than come out. So what would have happened for her if she had this show to normalize who she loved, and who she was.”
First Kill is the shit not just because it’s an angst-fueled sapphic romance between a vampire and a hunter, but because it is a genre show that spotlights its characters of color, and it has a handle on big, tragic storytelling that would make the bard proud.
“To have this big Shakespearean drama and tragedy at the center of it all, it was everything that I love, everything that I like to write about love and genre and family. This show is the sweet spot of all of that.”
Whatever your entry point is, whether it’s the romance, or the monsters, there is something for you— and likely somewhere you are reflected.
“This show is in a lot of important ways, the beginning of my commitment to my own creative conscience. And that means stories about a multicultural world where there is specificity in the cultural representations and the ethnic representations and the racial representations,” Henderson says.
First Kill succeeds as an embodiment of these principals, and it does so while being entertaining and accessible.
All eight episodes of First Kill are available to stream on Netflix now.