Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2019-02-20 04:24

Written by: Robin R. Means Coleman (book), Ashlee Blackwell, Danielle Burrows
Directed by: Xavier Burgin
Starring: Ashlee Blackwell, Tananarive Due, and Robin R. Means Coleman

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“We’ve always loved horror, but horror hasn’t always loved us."

Being able to take solace and find sanctuary in my horror obsession has been something I’ve taken for granted. After all, we’re supposed to lose ourselves in our hobbies as a defense mechanism against the world at large and find catharsis, no matter how demented it may be with this genre. As a straight, white male, I’ve never had to expect anything less than this very real privilege: at best, most horror has been made explicitly with my demographic in mind. At worst, it’s rarely confronted or genuinely offended me. But what happens when that hobby does become confrontational and reinforces those horrors its meant to subvert? That’s one of the many essential questions posed by Horror Noire, a long overdue documentary exploring the complex relationship of both black fans and creatives to a genre that has often exploited and demeaned its culture while also providing cathartic moments of triumph. At once a sobering critical analysis and a celebration of black horror, this is a vital platform for historically marginalized voices to be heard.

Bookended by recent triumph Get Out, Horror Noire mostly proceeds chronologically through the history of African-American representation in horror films, starting with Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a title that isn’t traditionally classified as horror but absolutely should be. As on-screen participant Tananarive Due insists, “black history is black horror,” and the two were irrecoverably intertwined in early Hollywood, where blackface portrayals and disparaging tropes reduced African-Americans to beastly caricatures or buffoonish supporting roles. At times, they were the actual source of horror, whether it was made explicit or implied by the likes of King Kong or Creature from the Black Lagoon. Only on those extremely rare occasions when a black creative (like Oscar Micheaux or Spencer Williams) could helm a production would a more accurate, nuanced depiction appear on-screen to combat the prevailing winds for most Americans.

And while Horror Noire is ultimately the story of how far we’ve come in this respect, it’s no less crucial that it examines these problematic elements all the way down the line. From the early silent era to more contemporary works, the horror genre has struggled with black representation—if, indeed, they were represented at all (the doc essentially breezes by most of the 50s and 60s simply because black characters virtually disappeared from the genre). The various participants pick these tropes apart in both playful and serious fashion: the “magical negro,” the obedient servant, the “black guy always dies first” phenomenon, etc. A less than flattering portrait of the genre emerges here, and rightfully so, as, again, only brief respites (like Night of the Living Dead, naturally) are fleeting beacons in an otherwise bleak landscape.

Even the Blaxploitation genre itself isn’t spared a critical eye. While a cursory glance would lead one to believe this era was a triumph of representation, many of the participants here point out that the name is exactly what it sounds like: the exploitation of black culture at the hands of white Hollywood executives looking to turn a quick buck on the backs of new stereotypes and tropes. Old minstrel show staples were traded in for legions of pimps and drug dealers, much to the dismay of the African-Americans that lived through this trend.

But lest you think Horror Noire is a scolding screed against the genre, rest assured that it spends just as much time celebrating and propping up those voices that managed to slip through the cracks, so to speak. For every criticism of the likes of Superfly, there’s enthusiastic praise for something like Blacula, Sugar Hill, or Ganja & Hess. The history of genre filmmaking is lined with subversion, and the blaxploitation movement also proved to be a fertile breeding ground for black filmmakers like William Crain and Bill Gunn to truly explore black life, and, with it, black pain. It’s a particularly enlightening stretch: in my own myopia, I’ve often regarded the Blaxploitation era in terms of its sheer provocation against the establishment. Horror Noire reminds us that there was certainly more than that on the minds of African-Americans who were expressing deeply resonant explorations of race and history. Even stuff like Blackenstien and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde become genuinely haunting tales when contextualized in the long shadows of the Tuskegee Experiment.

Horror Noire continues to hit the expected landmarks from previous decades, like the slasher boom of the 80s, and the emergence of Candyman, Demon Knight, and Tales from the Hood in the 90s. Eventually, it circles back around to more recent efforts like The Girl With All the Gifts and Get Out, completing the circle and revealing how the genre has improved in this respect during the past century. Many of the filmmakers involved with these films also appear on-screen, too, to offer insight into both their productions and their reactions to other formative films. You’ll see Keith David and Ken Foree riff together (and even sing “The Monster Mash!”) about their multi-decade careers as cult icons; Rusty Cundieff and Ernest Dickerson swap stories about hatching and producing their iconic films; Tony Todd discusses the legacy of Candyman; familiar faces like Kelly Jo Minter, Miguel Nunez, Ken Sagoes, and Rachael True share various stories of being the black actor in their respective films.

The laid-back, conversational approach of these segments is crucial in capturing the celebratory vibe of Horror Noire, a doc that balances this sort of hang-out style with more analytical, academic takes as well. Pivotal voices on this subject—like Due, Robin R. Means Coleman (whose book inspired the film), Ashlee Blackwell, and Mark H. Harris—provide historical context and critical eyes to enrich the audience’s understanding of both filmmaking eras and particular films. What I especially enjoy about Horror Noire is that it’s not attempting to act as a monolith for the African-American reaction to this genre: where some participants are critical of certain tropes and clichés, others find a silver lining in it. Nunez and Minter, for example, express gratitude for being able to bring representation to the screen in spite of the “token” nature of their characters.

Neither viewpoint is wrong here, and this nuance elevates Horror Noire beyond being a mere retrospective. Rather, it’s a reminder that time, perspective, and personal predispositions are critical in formulating a well-rounded take on a subject. Yes, we can absolutely be upset that most of those major franchises often only featured on black character per movie; however, we can also see it—as many of the participants here do—as a sign of the sea change that was on the horizon. At one point, Sagoes figures that Kincaid was every black person’s hero, and it dawned on me that he was one of my heroes too; however, I also realize this character couldn’t possibly have resonated with me the way in the same way. Horror Noire is crucial in allowing us to step outside of ourselves and realize what these familiar characters and filmmakers represent beyond our own fandom.

But enough about me because that’s certainly not what Horror Noire is about. Instead, I’ll just reassure you that it fulfills everything this sort of documentary sets out to do: it’s both informative and entertaining, indulgent and critical, essentially doubling as a killer syllabus and a textbook all in one. It leaves you wanting to seek out more obscure titles while inspiring you to revisit and reexamine old favorites, all while elevating a multitude of black voices that have been active in the horror community for years. Just about the only real “criticism” I have is that it runs a scant 83 minutes: at this point, a white dude claiming he’d watch 3 hours of Horror Noire reeks of saying he’d vote for Obama a third time if he could, but it’s true: I’d watch plenty more where this came from, and here’s hoping further volumes await.

Image courtesy of Horror Noire producer & Fango EIC Phil Nobile.

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