Horror Noire Review

The month of February observes Black History Month and Women in Horror Month. So, its fitting that the world premiere of Shudders first original documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror occurred on February 1. Featuring acute commentary from legendary actors, writers, and directors in the genre, Horror Noire provides critical analysis while delving into a century of genre films that utilized, caricatured, exploited, sidelined, and finally embraced Black culture. Executive producers on the documentary include horror-loving academics and professionals including Robin R. Means Coleman, Ph.D, educator Tananarive Due, and Phil Nobile Jr., Editor-in-Chief of the recently resurrected Fangoria.

In a statement, director Xavier Burgin emphasizes: I want black boys, girls, men, and women to know their creativity is valid and justified when they watch. I want them to understand the massive triumphs and struggles that have led to a landscape where we can no longer be silenced. When they look up at the screen, they see themselves. That is the greatest gift Horror Noire can give.

This documentary is definitely a gift and here are five reasons why.   

Spotlighting Women in Horror

Horror Noire would not be possible without the talented and knowledgeable women involved both on camera and off. Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman penned the seminal book of the same name and served as executive producer on the film. Coleman emphasizes the horror genre is daring, unflinching pedagogy. It is a syllabus of our social, political and racial world. Horror Noireteaches us that the horror film is fascinating, if for no other reason than that it prides itself on snuggling up next to the taboo while confounding our sense of good and evil, the monstrous and divine, and the sacred and profane.

Co-writer, Producer, and Author Danielle Burrows flexes her skills having written for A&E, Discovery Channel, and TLC. Co-writer and Producer Ashlee Blackwell is also at the helm and runs Graveyard Shift Sisters, a website dedicated to discussing Black women in horror. Executive Producer Tananarive Due is an author and educator who created a course at UCLA centered on Black horror entitled The Sunken Place. Her love of the genre goes all the way back to watching Saturday morning creature features with her fearless mother who was a civil rights activist in the 1960s.

While Horror Noire is about the history of Black horror films, Due emphasizes its also a testament to the power of representation and how horror is such a visceral way to fight racial trauma: our real pain and fear, but from a safer distance while we get stronger.

History of African Americans in Horror

Dr. Coleman emphasizes that Black history is Black horror. The documentary spans every decade of Black representation in the genre with in-depth analysis beginning with a discussion of The Birth of a Nation from 1915, a disturbingly influential piece of agitprop screened at the White House with an endorsement by President Woodrow Wilson. This was the genesis for numerous harmful stereotypes including lust from Black men on white women that carried on throughout the horror genre from King Kong to Candyman. The depictions of Blacks in the 20s and 30s were halted when Oscar Micheaux became one of the first Black directors to make movies and encourage audiences to not engage in behaviors or acts which can tarnish the reputation of the Black race. He also made the necessary argument that Black individuals should be respected and equal.

The discussions on each decade flow seamlessly throughout the film, each providing educational and illuminating analysis. Mark H. Harris (creator of blackhorrormovies.com) and Writer/Director Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned) reflect on films of the 30s and 40s utilizing Black actors as atmosphere. The atomic or scientific age of the 50s and 60s saw a diminished presence of Black actors because they were sadly not associated with science and laboratory settings.

However, Night of the Living Dead later became a monumental genre gem that changed the game for Black representation in horror during the turbulent 1960s. The documentary then discusses the emergence of Blaxploitation films of the 70s and continued misrepresentation through proliferation. Conversations then turn to the incidental characters of the 80s who are sacrificed for the white protagonist, to the 90s convergence of horror with rap artists, and then the self-reflexive 2000s exposing worn-out and shameful tropes. Each era of film is analyzed with a uniquely personal and perspicacious scope while also reflecting on the historical events and popular crimes which adhered to frustrating stereotypes and invisibility within the genre.

The Importance of Representation

Misrepresentation of Black individuals and Black culture began with A Birth of the Nation and continued throughout several decades. Horror Noire explores how important representation was for various actors and directors growing up, also how their characters and films have influenced younger audiences.

Director Jordan Peele describes how monumental it was to witness a young Black male as the protagonist in The People Under the Stairs as well as Duane Jones starring in Night of the Living Dead back in 1968. The 90s introduced the first Black supernatural killer with Tony Todd as Candyman to which Blackwell reveals how his character was the personification of racism in the United States. Peele later goes on to explain how empowering Candymans presence is and how the character is not in a box – that Blacks can be the Freddy [Krueger] of a movie.

Rachel True (The Craft) discusses her frustrations about playing secondary characters and adhering to the well-being of her white counterparts. Initially her character in The Craft, Rochelle, was written to struggle with anorexia. However, the script was later adjusted to address racism and bullying. True says to this day, people come up to her and tell her how much her character meant to them and how meaningful it was to see a Black female lead. She became the girl who looks like mein films when True (and many others) grew up with movies like Pretty in Pink where Black representation was rare or non-existent. Blackwell goes on to say that Rochelle gave us a way to kind of talk about our own experiences and be comfortable with them.

Actor Ken Sagoes (Kinkade in Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors) expresses a similar experience and how minorities all over the world felt that Kinkade was their hero. Blackwell elaborates theres even something to be said when were nowhere to be found.Therefore, the presence and impactful performances of these actors filled a void in cinema for Black audiences. Their legacy is cemented to not only entertain audiences but to comfort and empower artists to make more films and continue telling multi-faceted stories of Black individuals.

Perspectives From Those Who Lived It

The documentary showcases actors, directors, writers, and academics in a theater-type setting speaking directly into the camera or with one or two other people as they watch curated scenes to examine themes, their experiences on set, and historical context. Director Xavier Burgen does a fantastic job of capturing their emotional response in a casual setting, allowing viewers to really lean into their thoughts as well as their personal and professional experiences. Theres a sense of camaraderie and mutual understanding that is both heartbreaking and beautiful because viewers can truly get a feel for how these films have affected each person on screen.

Its a shared space where they open up about stereotypes, mistreatment, and frustrations that have been buried inside of them for years and may not have encountered an opportunity to have their voice heard. Horror Noire gives them that platform and we can all benefit from their stories.

A Shift in the Genre

Following influential films such as Attack the Block and The Girl With All the Gifts, 2017s Get Out was a monumental success, earning Writer/Director Jordan Peele an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay – the first African American in history to win this category. Peele wanted to make a movie for every disappointed Black person who goes to a theaterand really spotlight the recurrent marginalization. He demolishes the white savior tropeand utilizes symbolism that personally reflects the Black experience both present day and throughout history. Influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement, Peele altered the ending of the film. Instead of being imprisoned, the protagonist survives and those flashing cop lights mean something positive and safe for once.

Subsequently, barriers in Black casting, directing, and writing has been lifted and new doors have been opened for future genre films. Get Out put Black culture and representation back on the map (properly this time), while also enhancing credibility for the horror genre as a politically thematic force and respected artform. Ashlee Blackwell adds that there is less of this mentality of Black people dont like, watch, or make horror films, and that conversation is becoming obsolete. Black characters have shifted from a focal point of fear to that of a renowned hero, which is something to be celebrated and continued.

Horror Noire is now streaming on Shudder.

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About the Author

Marisa Mirabal is a writer living in Austin, TX alongside her dog and Stephen King collection. When she isn't conjuring up film criticism, she can be found spinning film scores on vinyl or sipping whiskey.