“Black history is Black horror.” – Author Taranarive Due
For a genre that has found much of its footing from being loved by a culture of rejected, misfit fandoms, horror has always struggled with playing fair when it comes to its equal inclusivity of shades of people within its films. Women, LGTBQ+, and People of Color alike have always questioned their worth within horror– as so much of it has both glorified and been created by straight, White men– and in Shudder’s exclusive documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, we gain thought-provoking perspectives from a group of Black Americans that have worked in horror, about what it means to be a fan of a genre that has not always been so good to them.
Bookending with scenes from arguably the most important horror film containing Black protagonists in the 21st century, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Horror Noire— based on professor Robin R. Coleman’s book of the same name– takes us quickly and efficiently, step-by-step, through each decade of the progression of Blacks in horror. The doc leaves few seeds in Black horror unturned, as we learn about the cringing, all-too-real portrayals of Black face and lynching within 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, to the monstrous, animalistic metaphors of Blacks in 1933’s King Kong, to the first-ever Black horror hero within 1968’s The Night of the Living Dead, to the 1970s Blaxploitation films like Blacula, and to the first majorly impactful (albeit problematic) Black slasher, 1992’s Candyman.
Breaking up the “talking head” documentary style of filming and opting for an intimate variation on the trope that Blacks are always yelling at the movie screen during stupid horror film decisions, Director Xavier Burgin has his guests– including Candyman‘s Tony Todd, The Craft‘s Rachel True, Tales From the Hood director Rusty Cundieff, Jordan Peele, The Thing‘s Keith David, Black horror academics and critics, amongst many others– sitting side by side in movie theaters, watching clips from Blacks in horror films, and sharing conversations about their experiences within participating in and watching horror films. National treasure Tony Todd reveals how he feared that he would only ever be considered as the “Candyman” character for the rest of his career; Rachel True talks about the importance of how her The Craft character Rochelle’s spells focus on eliminating the racist White girls in her class; Author Tananarive Due enthuses over a young Black girl being cast as the lead in 2016’s The Girl With All the Gifts, after decades of Blacks being confined to tropes such as the “Magical Negro,” the “Sacrificial Negro” and the “First to die.” Some relay stories of studios disagreeing with their visions, while others were just happy to be in a film at all, no matter how problematic its portrayals of Blacks were.
Unsurprisingly, Get Out receives a lot of discussion in the doc’s 77-minute run time. After its critical praise, box office success, and Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Peele, the interviewees explain how the film will likely serve as its own timestamp within Black horror history, possibly as “pre-Get Out” and “post-Get Out.” Peele himself talks about how he made the film specifically for Black audiences who rarely see themselves depicted as the protagonists; Tananarive Due expresses relief for the film’s optimistic ending, after Peele originally penned a bleaker one; Rachel True mentions how some Get Out fans missed the analogies for main character Chris picking cotton to save himself and killing the White antagonists with a Buck (a historical reference for Black men.) Others comment on the film’s lack of the “White Savior” trope, as not one single White person is a good guy. All at some point talk about the progression of White audiences rooting for the Black protagonist, after decades of Black audiences rooting for primarily White protagonists.
For the tried and true horror completists out there, (some) of Horror Noire‘s history lessons may feel like repeated information. While the conversation about Get Out is completely necessary in the doc, most of us who gushed over the film’s release in 2017 have already been well-aware of these analyses. (Nothing wrong with a little reiteration though.)
Additionally, if I had one small complaint, I would request some time spent with American Horror Story‘s Angela Bassett or Gabourey Sidibe, Pam Grier (although she is mentioned quite a few times), Elise Neal (Scream 2), and Betty Gabriel (Get Out, The Purge: Election Year). It’s very likely that their schedules would not permit, if they were asked.
More likely than not, Horror Noire is only the beginning of the much-needed racial representation discussion within the horror genre. The doc ends with a hopefulness, as participants express enthusiasm over future narratives from the Black perspective within horror, as well as the elimination of tropes and Blacks only being confined to secondary characters. With Horror Noire being so well-received this month, here’s hoping that conversations, attention, and more documentary films about women working in horror, LGBTQ+ representations, disabled persons representations, and other People of Color perspectives will be addressed as well. We not only welcome more perspectives in horror– we demand it.~