Scholars have analyzed horror features from nearly every angle, but it isn’t often that a documentary takes an incisive and, at times, blunt view of the way a minority group has been portrayed in cinema. As it’s stated in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, now available to stream on Shudder, black history is the history of horror and the horror has been a mix of the eclectic, the exploitative, and the extraordinary. Horror Noire reminds all audiences, but especially black audiences, of the struggles not just in the film industry and how culture plays a hand in shaping what scares us.
Based on the film history tome by Robin R. Means Colman, who is also interviewed, Horror Noire charts the history of black actors and characters throughout the horror genre. Director Xavier Burgin takes a semi-chronological look at the black experience through films, starting in the 1920s with The Birth of a Nation, the first true horror film for African-Americans in that black people were presented as wild-eyed rapists who deserved to be lynched.
As Means Colman and the several horror directors, actors, and scholars interviewed explain, horror films with black people fall into two categories: presenting them as the monster or presenting them as a victim, and when held up against the political climates of the day both produce different types of horror. In Birth of a Nation’s case, presenting black people as violent acted as justification for real-world violence against them. On the other end of the spectrum is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), a landmark horror title both culturally and racially for its presentation of actor Duane Jones in a lead role. Jones, for the first time, presented a strong black man in a position of heroism, only to leave the audience reeling when he dies at the end. As it’s explained in the feature, Jones’ death had added significance considering the political climate in 1968.
The point is that these movies never existed in a vacuum but have always reflected elements of society. At one point Get Out (2017) is analyzed in depth, with some incredibly wonderful discussions about how Jordan Peele transformed typical elements of African-American history (the cotton in the chair, the buck antlers) as a subversive attack. As we saw with vampire films and the AIDS epidemic, the documentary dives into how films about African-Americans have always worked towards referring to history we sweep under the rug, whether it’s the Tuskegee experiments to the Rodney King beatings. There’s also a lot of time devoted to the role of black women in these features, a necessity considering how black women remain marginalized in films today.
It’s remarkable not just hearing what an incredibly fascinating film theory discourse on the topic, but hearing about the industry resistance to allowing black directors to tell these stories. Directors like Rusty Cundieff, Ernest Dickerson and William Crain are interviewed regarding their experiences making feature films about black people. Crain, the director of 1972’s Blacula, is open about the fact that despite helming a movie that put a black man in the role of Dracula, the crew was still white and how the first assistant director attempted to segregate black and white extras for a dance sequence. Dickerson, the helmer of the 2001 blaxploitation throwback Bones, discusses how the study was hesitant to show a romance between two black characters. These moments aren’t revelatory if you’re aware of the history the film industry, but they are reminders that progress is still slow in telling minority stories. Put that against continued tropes regarding white women and the “sacrificial Negro” and there’s still a lot of work to be done.
One element that flies under the radar but is so fantastic to see is found in Horror Noire’s opening, as clips of the actors and directors interviewed watch certain features. Hearing them cheer and, at times, grimace over specific portrayals says so much. I’d be happy just to watch the group MST3K their way through certain movies. And what’s great is watching the talking heads disagree with each other at times. Jordan Peele can praise Tony Todd in Candyman while another interview subject reminds audiences that the film still falls back on outdated “lusting after white women” tropes. The subjects all agree, these movies aren’t perfect, but they “opened the door” for talking about representation and changing the conversation via film.
Horror Noire will leave you with a list of movies you need to see. Thankfully several of the film’s referenced in the documentary are on Shudder. I know I’ll be watching Ganja & Hess and a slew of other movies in this film’s wake. Horror Noire is essential viewing for any cinema fan. A documentary that isn’t afraid to have the subjects praise, and just as often damn, the features that have inspired countless people to pursue horror.
Horror Noire is available now on Shudder