Whether they're comedic, pulpy or genuinely terrifying, horror movies have always served as a way to confront societal ills, using monsters and the supernatural to make commentaries on racism, sexism, addiction, and state violence. For that reason, horror has always been one of my favourite genres.
Director Xavier Burgin's meticulously assembled documentary 'Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror' opens up with a shot of a black man walking down the streets of a prominently white neighbourhood, lost and noticeably uncomfortable.
The situation only gets worse when a mysterious car suddenly appears and starts following him. Then, a man attacks him, knocks him out, and puts him in the trunk of his car. It's the opening scene from Jordan Peele's 'Get Out' and a shrewd racial allegory, preying on black people's ingrained fears about being cornered at the wrong time. As an interviewee in Burgin's documentary notes: black history is black horror.
Exploring the role African Americans have played in horror films throughout the history of cinema, Burgin's film looks at black horror dating back to D.W. Griffith's influential yet troubling 'Birth of a Nation', the 1915 film portraying the KKK as heroes ("it's not considered a horror film unless you're a black person").
From there, the film touches on 1940's 'Son of Ingagi' (a follow-up to a schlocky racist horror film, it became one of the first films to depict the black middle-class, like doctors and lawyers), the rise of negative depictions in 1970s blaxploitation films, the continued marginalisation through the 1980s, and the major steps forward of more leading actors of colour in film through the 1990s into the 2000s. Ending with the trailers for Peele's (at the time) upcoming film 'Us', the documentary ponders where the genre is headed going forward.
'Horror Noire' features a number of filmmakers, actors and film historians, filmed sitting in a cinema as they watch various clips and discuss topics such as the "magical Negro" trope, i.e. a supporting stock character with mystical powers who comes to the aid of white protagonists in a film (see: 'Ghost' and 'Final Destination'). Actors like Tony Todd ('Candyman'), Ken Foree ('Dawn of the Dead'), Keith David ('The Thing', 'They Live'), and Rachel True ('The Craft') talk about the roles they played and the stereotypes they fought against or reinforced. This includes the phenomenon of black actors being the first to die A.K.A. the "sacrificial Negro" trope, as seen in 'Annabelle' and Kubrick's 'The Shining'.
As an interviewee in Burgin's documentary notes: black history is black horror.
In fact, 'Horror Noire' is surprisingly self-critical, with footage of David in 'The Thing' used as an example of "tokens and sidekicks" and 'Candyman' noted for fetishising white women.
Throughout, the topic of representation is paramount, and what these characters meant to their audiences and to Hollywood as a whole. It also looks at the underlying themes of films like 'Candyman' and 'Bones', which addressed serious issues in the black community, with varying levels of success.
A number of films (some from white directors) are singled out for specific praise, like George A. Romero's iconic 'Night of the Living Dead', William Crain's 'Blacula' (the studio originally wanted to call it 'Count Brown is in Town'), Joe Cornish's 'Attack the Block' (which featured John Boyega in the lead role), and Rusty Cundieff's 'Tales from the Hood', an African American horror anthology. Jordan Peele, who appears to be sitting in his living room, discusses how important it was for him to see a young African American playing the hero in Wes Craven's 'The People Under the Stairs'.
There has been a growing interest in black-led horror films since Peele's 'Get Out' shattered both minds and expectations when it hit cinemas in 2017. People are eager to discover the rich history of African American actors, writers and directors who have made innovative contributions to the film canon. Some horror movies are pulpy; some are tongue-in-cheek comedies; some are meditations on societal ills, some are overtly political, and others are about the horrors of the everyday. If you're a fan of the genre or film history, you will be informed and entertained in equal measure by 'Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror'.