It’s been three years since the documentary Horror Noire appeared on our screens. Directed by Xavier Burgin, written by Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows, produced by Blackwell and Burrows as well as Phil Nobile, Jr. and Kelly Ryan and Tananarive Due, the film was a translation of a monumental work of scholarship by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, the book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from 1890's to Present.
A huge part of what makes Horror Noire such an entertaining documentary (as opposed to merely informative) is that it organizes its formidable array of clips and interviews and information into a multi-layered story. Burgin and his collaborators make it clear within the first few minutes that the ground-level story is that of Black people in America. But they are telling another story, built in certain crucial ways on top of that story: the story of Black people in American horror films, whether watching the films, starring in the films, making the films, or living in the culture shaped by the films.
And this story has a hero, which is also made clear in the very first few minutes of the movie. That hero is Get Out, or more precisely, its writer/director Jordan Peele. The interview clip that really captures this is Dr. Means Coleman saying, “I’ve never felt so ill at ease [as before watching Get Out] because for me there was so much riding on this film — in that, is he going to get this right, not just in quality, but for the way that we understand Black people.” That question, “Is he going to get this right?” suggests the hero’s quest at the heart of the narrative in Horror Noire. There are challenges to be overcome, challenges that go beyond merely making a good movie. What does it mean to get this right?
The documentary goes on to answer that question with a rich survey of a hundred years of American filmmaking, and starts with the anti-Get-Out: D.W. Griffith’s highly influential The Birth of a Nation (1915). Clips from the film give us a disturbing look at the sequence in which a sinister freedman named Gus hounds a character named Flora (a white woman) to her death and is subsequently lynched by the Klan. Taking a look at some of the details highlighted about The Birth of a Nation gives us some of the obstacles to be overcome in the hero’s quest.
To these four dimensions of the film, we have to add a fifth:
To talk about the “quality” of a film like The Birth of a Nation takes us into deep waters. It feels threatening to talk about something with such virulent and negative impact as having positive qualities as a work of filmmaking. But if we don’t wrestle with quality, we will miss a critical dimension of the triumph of Get Out: it was a great movie.
This is the puzzle at the heart of representation: it’s not just about raw visibility. We don’t just want to see Peele get the budget and the autonomy and get the casting right and all the other elements, but then make a mediocre movie. We want to see him kill it. We want him to show everyone just how high he can climb. This gets close to the heart of Dr. Means Coleman’s sense of uncomfortably high stakes before the release of Get Out. The very heart of those stakes, of course, are the questions of the film’s themes and impact. Dr. Means Coleman wanted the movie to reflect an understanding of Black people rich and nuanced enough that, if the movie was memorable, if it was popular, if it shaped the zeitgeist, that cultural imprint would be positive.
Revisiting Horror Noire after three years, and Get Out after five, it seems like a useful time to ask, which movies have come along since which could have played a role in the story Burgin and company were telling?
1). Us (2019)
Adding this to the list feels like cheating, because Us already appears in Horror Noire, even though it was a few weeks shy of being released when the documentary came out. A few shots from the trailer are included in the last few minutes, when the interviewees talk about their hopes and dreams for Black horror in the upcoming years. But it’s fun to speculate about what the takeaways would have been for the commentators in Horror Noire after seeing the finished film.
The inevitable question raised by Us is, what’s next for Jordan Peele? Would he keep doing Get Out over and over? The answer, blessedly, was: no. There are certainly elements of Us which subvert the white gaze. The most notable of them is that the movie imagines a catastrophe in which everyone is implicated, irrespective of race, and instead of following a white family with a Black family as the sacrificial lamb or the foil, the movie follows a Black family and this time the white family is there for comic relief and as fodder for mayhem. But that’s not that radical or subversive a move. Ultimately, there’s value in Adelaide and Gabe being middle-class parents who are relatable to many other middle-class parents, and the sting in the tail of the movie has to do with what it means to be part of the middle class, insulated from the deprivations and depredations of those without the same privilege.
Maybe the most radical thing about Us as a Jordan Peele film is its implicit statement that Peele is interested in telling scary stories with or without a strong subversive agenda. This is a crucial part of the story: Black filmmakers need to first get their own feature films, then be supported in casting Black actors, then have the leeway to make movies that engage questions about race that might make white audiences uncomfortable. Those steps are all crucial, but they also need the freedom to engage other kinds of questions, or even no questions at all. It would be a particularly perverse purgatory for Black horror filmmakers if every film they made had to be legible as a commentary on Blackness. And as we’ll see, this is not an idle concern: in terms of the limited ways in which American producers understood the success of Get Out, there was definitely a danger of asking Black filmmakers to offer up a narrower range of projects than would be healthy or enjoyable for artists and audiences.
2). Ma (2019)
Tate Taylor’s Ma is like a big punch bowl with several bottles of ill-matched booze poured into it, so it’s not easy to summarize, but most of it seems to have come together by mixing two particular patterns. One is that of a crew of young people who are inclined to party and make bad decisions and become subject to the terror of becoming targets (as in a lot of slasher films). The other is that of a menacing outsider who insinuates themselves into a household or a small community and wreaks havoc (like a lot of 1990s “nanny from hell” or “roommate from hell” films). Maggie’s a sweet girl who’s new in town, so she starts hanging out with a crew of fellow teens who like to party. They inadvertently draw the attention of a reclusive veterinary technician named Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) when they ask her to buy alcohol for them. Sue Ann turns out to be “from hell” in 1980s style.
One of the fun recurring patterns in Horror Noire are the potentially profound implications of so-called “colorblind” casting. The story of Duane Jones turning the hero of Night of the Living Dead from a white man into a Black man on the strength of one good audition comes up, as does the fact that director Ernest R. Dickerson had to fight for Jada Pinkett to be the badass final girl of Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight when the studio was envisioning a white actress in the role. In the case of Ma, the original screenplay had a white villain but Taylor knew of his friend Octavia Spencer’s interest in playing a lead (and maybe the idea of a villainous lead had some subversive appeal for someone). He proposed rewrites giving Sue Ann a more sympathetic backstory and adding a few references to race.
The result is a fascinating case study in post-Get-Out horror cinema. Blumhouse definitely tried to trade on Get Out’s popularity in marketing the film, and the movie did brisk numbers, but it’s impossible to miss the superficiality of the way the film engages with race. Mark Harris, one of the interviewees on Horror Noire, commented in his review: “The script leaves things so vague...that those who don’t want to read anything racial into it don’t have to. But some of us can’t help but do so.” The casting coup of Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann is the film’s only achievement in terms of subverting the white dominance in horror films. It’s a fascinating quirk that there is an important dimension of representation in villainy (in Horror Noire, Rachel True has a wonderful anecdote about what it meant to her to see William Marshall’s unmissable Black charisma, mixed with menace, as Blacula). The follow-through needed to be that Sue Ann inspired true pathos and terror. But as Max S. Gordon put it in his essay (highly recommended!), the film’s conception of Sue Ann is ultimately “a loser, who throws herself against the white world and barely leaves a dent.”
3). Suicide by Sunlight (2019)
Valentina (Natalie Paul), a Black vampire working as a pediatric nurse, is able to go out during the day and pass as human due to the protection afforded by her skin’s melanin. She tries to suppress her identity as a vampire in order to regain custody of her two young daughters, but her bloodlust rages after she discovers her estranged husband has a new girlfriend living in the house with her children.
Directed and co-written by Sierra Leonean-American independent filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu, Suicide by Sunlight is a 17-minute short that’s strong on worldbuilding and atmosphere but also makes some classic thematic moves that reflect a perspective tuned to the hazards and pleasures of being an outsider. As short as the film is, it contains a lovely, nearly self-contained sequence where Valentina, having just discovered that her ex has someone new in his house, living with her kids, goes out for a night on the town...to eat her feelings. There’s a shot where she adjusts her makeup in a bathroom while her latest victim is slumped against the wall in the background. As brief as it is, it delivers everything anyone could want from a horror film.
Ashlee Blackwell, writer and producer for Horror Noire, has a blog called Graveyard Shift Sisters where she collects her research into the work in the horror genre of Black American women-identified filmmakers. She’s been championing this remarkable short film there since it first appeared, doing her part to encourage new leadership and educate everyone else about the work of new leaders. Suicide by Sunlight is fun in itself, but might also serve to tide us all over until we can see Jusu’s feature film Nanny which just won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
4). Antebellum (2020)
Let’s fast-forward past the part where I try to summarize the movie. One of Antebellum’s few virtues is that, if it hasn’t been spoiled for you, then you may experience some pleasurable perplexity for a while in trying to figure out what kind of movie it is and what the story is actually about. Since it’s a fairly recent release, I have no desire to spoil it for those who still mean to see it and don’t yet know too much about it. If that’s you, you might want to skip ahead.
If Ma is a minor villain in the Horror Noire story (because, after all, well-intentioned white filmmakers invoking race in a clumsy or distorted way is a very old story and not especially shocking), Antebellum is a major villain. Here you have a much bigger effort, mounted with extremely strong production values, and written and directed by an interracial gay couple (Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz). The star is Janelle Monáe, a strong actor with movie-star charisma and a pop culture player whose music shows a lot of savvy about the complexities of representation. There was clearly leadership exercised in this film by people concerned with “getting it right,” that is, having themes relevant to the struggles of marginalized people. There was clearly hope to have a positive impact. So what went so wrong?
Zeba Blay (who should definitely be sitting in the movie theater, being interviewed, in my alternate-universe version of Horror Noire!) put it like this: “This movie, perhaps more than any other that has come out in the wake of Peele’s rise, feels the most calculating and eager to capitalize on the Black horror trend, sacrificing plot and character for a message that says nothing new or profound about slavery.” Here we come up against that somewhat less-tangible dimension of Quality. For good representation, the movie should be good. That means the storytelling should be strong. Antebellum tries to skip right to the Big Themes part without spending much effort on plot and character. It’s tragic to cast Monáe and strand her without a clear emotional through line or even vivid antagonists.
5). Bad Hair (2020)
The year is 1989, the city is Los Angeles, and Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) is toiling in the image-obsessed trenches of music television. She has some cool ideas for programming that could help shift the cultural conversation from rock and r&b towards forward-looking forms of Black music. But she's told that her natural hair is holding her back, so she goes to an expensive salon for a weave. The weave has a range of impacts: intense discomfort in her scalp, admiring looks from some co-workers, doubtful looks from her friends who are still going natural, strange dreams, murder, blood-drinking mayhem...
With writer-director Justin Simien (of Dear White People) we seem to have the leadership issue sewn up, with the added bonus of someone with a base of experience in the overlap of comedy and social commentary. The cast is rich with fun actors having a blast (Lorraine is a striking and unusual lead, and Jay Pharaoh loads up his character with vaguely sleazy, dim-witted charm). By setting the film in the late 1980s, Simien has found an elegant way to evoke an American culture that is infatuated with Black pop culture but exerts enormous force to make it whiter in numerous ways (including hairstyles). The thematic territory is rich. There seems to be a good chance here for Simien to run the table. But he’s also juggling a lot of elements (comedy, satire, horror, late-1980s period piece) and it’s a crowded movie.
Of all the movies in this list, this may be the one I most wish I could have seen in the Horror Noire format, where a variety of Black men and women involved with horror films, on both sides of the camera, could watch it and talk about it with each other. Ideally, the critic Angelica Jade Bastien could join everyone in the theater. She found the movie drastically lacking, not merely on the level of making a quality horror film but on the thematic content. “Can a campy horror film about Black women’s relationship to their hair translate onto the screen?” she wrote in her review for Vulture. “Perhaps, but it would require a nimble filmmaker with a strong vision to pull it off.” I think Bastien’s critique again reflects the threat as well as the promise of the post-Get-Out interest in horror movies that engage deeper themes relating to race: the stakes are high, and if the quality of the film isn’t sufficiently compelling, a ham-fisted approach that gets too close to wounds that are tender can have negative impact.
6). Candyman (2021)
Although it finally came out last summer, the release of Nia DaCosta’s Candyman was delayed three times due to the pandemic. It was actually shot in the summer of 2019 and its production was already being teased in the last act of Horror Noire. Since the lowdown in Horror Noire on Bernard Rose’s Candyman was “Iconic movie, but it might have had more coherent commentary on race if there had been some Black leadership behind it,” the whole idea of revisiting Candyman with Jordan Peele involved generated intense anticipation. The announcement that it would be directed by Nia DaCosta doubled and tripled that anticipation. Feature films directed by Black women are still rare; horror films are exquisitely rare. Before DaCosta helmed Candyman, the last one was Eve’s Bayou in 1997, and the director was Kasi Lemmons (who starred in the 1992 Candyman as one of Candyman’s victims).
In the original film, the paradox of Candyman is that he’s the vengeful spirit of a Black man — the son of a slave, beaten and tortured by white men for the crime of loving a white woman — but he largely preys on and terrorizes Black people. The film explored some subtle nuances of racism by looking at the grim housing projects of Cabrini-Green through the eyes of a middle-class white woman, Helen, who was studying the residents’ folklore for her academic thesis. But it also reinvented some unwelcome tropes by demonizing the victims of poverty and marginalization. Candyman was the boogeyman; Helen was herself an antiheroine in certain ways; even the alienated and haunted residents of Cabrini-Green were frightening in a way. Who were you supposed to identify with? It was a strength of the film even as it made its themes a little confused and its emotional connections a little tenuous.
DaCosta tries to remedy some of these problems in her sequel. While focused on the terrifying powers of Candyman, we usually see those powers directed against the privileged and oblivious (the ones smug and dumb enough to say his name five times while looking in a mirror!). Rather than being built around and experience of relentless terror, the story is founded on a warm relationship between Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Brianna (Teyonah Parris) and the audience feels concern and affection for them as the curse of Candyman slowly encroaches into their lives. And the legend of Candyman is built up in such a way as to highlight the injustices that call for vengeance and the pathos at the heart of those injustices. Like in Ma, the movie is trying to get us emotionally invested in the threat, not just in rooting for people to run away from the threat. Unlike in Ma, this effort is largely successful.
Colman Domingo’s highly ambiguous role as William Burke, carrying an air of menace while also serving as the neighborhood sage who knows everything there is to know about Candyman, captures this same quality. He occupies the role of threat at times, but even as evil as he is, he comes across as a necessary evil. Domingo digs into his performance with gusto and supplies some of what the movie needs as an antagonist, since this film’s version of Candyman makes him more than a slasher and less than a villain. While the movie shares some of the difficulties of Bad Hair, in that it could do with a lot less spelling out of its themes and trying to crowd in too many ideas, it’s visually inventive and beautiful and has some marvelously scary scenes.
7). Sweetheart (2019)
Kiersey Clemons (making her second appearance in this list after a memorable but brief role in Antebellum) plays a woman isolated from everyone after washing ashore following a traumatic boat accident. She seems to be completely and utterly alone. But there is a monster stalking her desert island: a hulking if vaguely humanoid creature from the bottom of the sea that seems unstoppable.
Director J.D. Dillard (working from a script he co-wrote with Alex Hyner and Alex Theurer) achieves what Peele achieves in Us: the insight into race is implicit, not explicit. Instead of the vagueness Mark Harris noticed in Ma, it’s a movie that’s very precise about everything the viewer sees but with very few concessions to the fact that the viewer is largely in the dark about the heroine’s backstory. As a result, you can go through most of the movie without thinking particularly about the fact that the heroine is a Black woman. Until two other survivors appear and happen to be white. Suddenly, without Dillard introducing anything explicit or heavy-handed, it’s all you can think about. Without lecturing the audience in any way, Dillard manages to communicate something profound about how certain experiences are coded into our social DNA. Drop us on a desert island, and we might be able to forget about the constraints of gender and race which we have to navigate when we’re among other people.
Again, next to Us, Dillard seems to have done the strongest wrestling with the traditions of this subgenre of horror film and has thought about how to tell his story that is compelling and scary without neglecting theme. Sweetheart hopes the audience will take away more from the film than just 82 minutes of entertainment, but isn’t trying to tell the audience what to take away. It’s a small film and a small story with modest stakes, but exciting in its implications: a wonderful addition to the field of responses to the challenges of Black horror in the years since Horror Noire appeared.
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