Xavier Burgin’s documentary Horror Noire is a must-see not only for horror fans but film fans in general. The Shudder exclusive is based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book of the same name. It covers over 100 years of film history, starting with Birth of a Nation and the negative stereotypes it perpetuated about black Americans. From there, it analyzes the tropes that exist within horror, while also highlighting innovative black filmmakers like Blacula director William Crain and Ganja & Hess director Bill Gunn. All of this leads to the massive success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Featuring interviews with Tony Todd (Candyman), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), and Rachel True (The Craft), among many others, Horror Noire truly is a comprehensive doc about black horror cinema. Burgin talked to us about the success of his film and how it’s changed the conversation about black cinema, while acknowledging that the negative tropes the doc highlights still persist in Hollywood. He also chatted about some of his favorite horror flicks and his plans post-Horror Noire.
What has the past year been like for you after the success of Horror Noire?
Essentially, since finishing Horror Noire, there’s been an intersection between black horror fans and general horror fans who really love the movie. It’s opened up a lot of discussion about what it means to be black and a POC in the horror genre and how we’ve always been a part of it from the beginning. I’m really happy we put a spotlight on it and that folks are paying attention. They want more, so I’m hoping to see more. There will be another documentary on Shudder about LGBT people in horror. I think that’s awesome. I hope we see more of that regarding minority representation in genre film, especially the horror genre.
It's still been a push to get my work off the ground. It's absolutely amazing to have such an extremely successful documentary under my belt, but I'm also looking to do work in the narrative space. Horror Noire has gotten me into rooms, but I'm still fighting to get my first narrative project off the ground. It's a marathon, not a race.
How do you think Horror Noire has changed the conversation about black cinema since its release?
Horror Noire has put a spotlight on black horror. To the black people and horror fans who appreciate black cinema, they've already known about these amazing films we talk about. To a larger audience, this was a deep dive into a part of horror many don't see or learn. Horror Noire has helped a large swath of horror fans (and film fans in general) understand black people have always been a part of your favorite genre. It's just that our contributions are not always recognized.
I think our documentary is important in terms of teaching and reaching people, but I’m not sure if the people who have the infrastructural power and money were very much swayed by it. Unfortunately, Hollywood is very stubborn when it comes to giving black and brown creators chances within any genre. Horror is no different in that way. We’re still fighting to get our work out there. On an educational level, it’s made a huge difference for folks that care, but I’m not sure if the gatekeepers have paid attention in the way that’s necessary to make change.
What do you think needs to happen to change the minds of film industry gatekeepers?
The gatekeepers of Hollywood still tend to be primarily old, rich, and white. This means they usually do not have black and brown people around them. They tend not to know these individuals or understand where we’re coming from and the necessity of our stories. I want to see more black and brown folks in positions to get things off the ground, but at the same time, these individuals have to get a yes from a higher-up who tends to be white, older, and richer. The type of risk they can take, unfortunately, isn’t as big as what they would like. When I say risk, I mean taking a risk on underrepresented filmmakers who are not seen as lucrative. In my opinion, the only way we’ll see a change is if more of the direct funding comes from producers and executives who don't have the specter of getting fired or losing their livelihood over their head.
Out of all the films covered in Horror Noire, which is your favorite?
Blacula. For me, it's less about the movie and more about the director, William Crain. He was a black man in his twenties, in the 70s, helming one of the biggest projects of that era. Everyone (even his own financiers and crew) were against him, so it's a miracle he pulled this off. William didn't get the career he deserved due to exclusion and racism, but I'm always reminded without him, the black directors of today wouldn't have the chances they receive now. I wouldn't be making this documentary if not for him, so that's why Blacula is the most important topic in the documentary for me.
Given how times have changed even since Get Out, what do you think the future of black cinema is? What story would you like to see that hasn’t been told yet?
Every story about the black experience (both within and outside of horror) still needs to be told. When you look at the overall history of film, it's still relatively young, and black people are still struggling to make films about us without interference. I do believe black cinema has gone through a mini renaissance recently, but there are still too many creatives fighting to make their projects to say there's been real, significant improvement in the industry after Horror Noire.
I hope that post-Get Out, we’re going to see more horror films that deal with our lived experience from black and brown directors. I also hope we get to see more films that are helmed by black and brown directors that aren’t primarily about race. We can direct anything. We just need the opportunities.
Why do you think Get Out was able to break through in the way it did to such a large audience?
Jordan Peele is a phenomenal writer and director. That script should be taught in every single screenwriting classroom. I also think that Blumhouse and Monkeypaw made sure that Jordan had the creative control that he needed to make this in the way he felt was right to him.
For a very long time, a running joke in the black film community is that we're only allowed to make hood or slave movies. There's a looming truth to this assessment. The people who hold infrastructural power in Hollywood are majority white, older people. Their idea of black people works in a binary. They love hood movies because it's their current view of the black populace. They love slave movies because they can pat themselves on the back for not being the horrible racists their ancestors were.
Get Out did something different. It didn't perpetuate the idea racism was an exclusively Southern, conservative problem. It told us the white liberal who puts on a nice face, votes for Obama twice, but is still willing to exploit black people for profit is just as (if not more) dangerous. This type of message should have gotten shot down in Hollywood, but Jordan was able to make it. It felt like his full vision. We need to see more of this.
What negative tropes addressed in Horror Noire do you think still persist in Hollywood?
All of the negative tropes we talk about still persist to this day. We still occasionally find out about a celebrity (or politician) who has done blackface in the past. We still see the black side-kick characters being killed off for the sake of the white protagonists. We still deal with black creators not being given the keys to important projects that pertain to black people. There is no trope we discuss in Horror Noire that has been eradicated, though I will say (by a very slim margin) they're not as prevalent because black people have a larger voice to call them out.
In the 2019 film, Birdbox, we watch two black characters sacrifice themselves due to two different tropes. Lil Rel Howery [Charlie] runs out the front door and gets killed. He doesn't know these people for more than 15 minutes, but he's already willing to sacrifice his life. It makes no sense. At the end, Trevante Rhodes [Tom] is willing to sacrifice himself for everyone. The character development that leads to his willingness to die is all done off screen in a time skip.
We watch a black character die first and another black character sacrifice himself so the white protagonists can escape the monster. Two of the most egregious tropes happen in the same movie. I’m not mad at Lil Rel or Trevante for taking those roles. This isn’t on them, but it is on the filmmakers and execs that looked at that and saw no problem. They intrinsically do not understand (or care) about what these tropes say.
Which black directors and/or writers should we be paying attention to?
Nia DaCosta, who is directing the new Candyman movie. You should keep up with Gerard McMurrary, who directed the latest Purge movie. Of course, we all know to keep up with Jordan Peele's work within the genre. Outside and inside horror, I'm keeping up with the work of Terence Nance, Nijla Mu'min, Tananarive Due, Tina Mabry, and an assortment of talented creators who I believe will be in the industry for a long time.
In the Horror Noire syllabus, put together by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, [author/educator] Tananarive Due, and Graveyard Shift Sisters’ Ashlee Blackwell, all producers for Horror Noire, there are black filmmakers listed who are doing not only short horror films but also feature-length horror. They’re also doing stuff within the written world.
Did you learn anything new making the documentary? Did your perspective change on something you thought you knew?
The documentary gave me a stronger insight into the life of William Crain and what he went through in the 70s being a black filmmaker. That was the most important lesson. After this, the most interesting lesson was getting to hear the thoughts and views of some of the most well-known and loved black celebrities within the genre. I can't imagine anyone would say no to listening to Tony Todd, Keith David, and Rachel True talking about the trajectory of their careers within horror. To hear them candidly speak was amazing because I felt like I was listening to impactful history. Horror Noire was truly a first of its kind documentary. No one else has dealt with this topic in the manner we strove towards. There might not be any other place where you can get that candid, honest talk from these actors and actresses about some of the most important horror films to ever come out. That’s amazing to me.
What scares you?
In terms of movies, the horror film I remember the most is Event Horizon with Laurence Fishburne. Absolutely terrified me as a child and I always come back to it when I want a good scare, plus for nostalgia's sake.
For black folks, much of what happens in America is horror. White America doesn't have any literal boogeymen to scare them, so the horror genre has filled that vacuum. Black Americans, with or without horror films, would still deal with horror in a literal sense based on what we go through in this nation. That's scary to me. We not only have to deal with these types of problems, but on a more educational and introspective level, there’s the fact that there had to be a boogeyman for white America. For example, regarding Birth of a Nation, even to this day, so many of the damaging stereotypes can be traced back to that film. Those stereotypes were already there, but that film specifically put them in a visual manner that still haunts us.
Why did you agree to be a HorrOrigins mentor? Why is that type of work important to you?
I want to make it clear that I said yes with the hope that I can help much younger creators than myself. I consider my career to be around the end of its beginning stages and moving towards the middle, possibly. I'm not a huge name, and there's a chance I could never be, but I do hope my experience (right now) trying to navigate the industry can be of use to individuals who are trying to figure it out.
I’m hoping that by mentoring, I can help folks understand what it means to be on the come-up. Again, it’s a marathon, not a race. It is a slog. It can take time, and you need to be ready for this not to be easy. You need to be ready for the fact that you can blow up overnight, or it can take another decade. I always want filmmakers to understand that I don’t want to scare them off, but I want them to understand the filmmaking industry is not a meritocracy. More often than not, it’s about the connections that you make and if you're coming into the industry with wealth. That’s a reality I want younger filmmakers to know. I want them to understand what they’re getting into as they make this decision.
Which film covered in the documentary do you think people should immediately stream after reading this interview?
You should watch all of them, but if I had to narrow it down, I'd recommend watching Blacula, Ganja & Hess, Tales from The Hood, and Get Out. I definitely recommend that you watch everything we cover, but not everyone has that amount of time. I won’t recommend that anyone watch Birth of a Nation. I think it’s a racist and horrible film, but I will say if you want to understand where so much of the racism and white supremacist antics we see in America comes from, that’s a film to watch. I’ll go further and say that one of the biggest problems we have in film education is that we’re so willing to talk about the technical direction of this film, but not give the context. It infuriates me whenever I hear about a class somewhere watching Birth of a Nation and the professor says how revolutionary it was as a filmmaking device. You can’t put the politics and racism aside. You need to talk about everything. That’s how you educate the next generation of filmmakers to understand what they’re making, but on a bigger level, there is no such thing as a film that isn’t political. All films are inherently political. It’s up to you as a filmmaker whether or not you acknowledge it and use it to your advantage.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I'm currently working on a number of projects. I'm writing my first horror feature. I'm also working on an animated show with Day Zero Productions. I've also partnered with No Label & Big Breakfast for a feature film we're looking to get off the ground in the upcoming year. There's a lot going on, but I realize, as stated before, it's a marathon, not a race. So I'll keep you up to date when the next thing happens!
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Brian Fanelli and Daryl Sznyter are a couple who initially bonded over their love of literature and horror movies. Brian's writing on the genre has been published in Signal Horizon Magazine, Horror Homeroom, and Schuylkill Valley Journal. Daryl is especially drawn to female-directed horror films, like American Mary, Raw, and Revenge. When she's not watching Buffy reruns, she talks horror films and skin care on her blog, The Leatherface Prevention Society.This is the first writing project Daryl and Brian have collaborated on together.