Disclosure: I know one of the producers of this film.
One of the more gratifying things over the past few years has been seeing so many places online come to understand that politics and entertainment are inextricably linked. Years ago, when my career was at its peak, I would be told to keep the politics out of my writing, often by colleagues whose entire sites are now given over to social justice content. But there’s no way to write about entertainment without writing about the world that produced the entertainment; our most basic assumptions about what makes a person heroic are inherently political.
That doesn’t mean everything needs to be a fucking drag. You can talk about the cultural and political ground out of which entertainment grew without making it a polemic. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror gets it absolutely, 100% right, investigating the connections between the American Black experience while also having fun with some wild, crazy and even brilliant horror movies.
Based on a scholarly book by Robin R. Means Coleman, directed by Xavier Burgin, and written by Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows, Horror Noire looks back at the history of black representation in horror movies – as characters and the source of horror, as well as eventually the creators – from a black perspective. Every talking head in this movie belongs to a person of color, all of whom bring their unique mix of personal perspective and horror fandom to play. As a result we get a documentary that is illuminating historically, interesting culturally, and affecting personally.
The doc opens with Get Out, talking about how this film is the culmination of black experience and black representation in Hollywood, before heading back to the oldest of days. Looking with a not-dispassionate but still supremely contextual eye, the experts assembled lead us through not only black exploitation onscreen (from Mantan Moreland to King Kong) but also the ways early black filmmakers took control of their own destinies with independent productions like Son of Ingagi, a movie that probably deserves its own doc.
Son of Ingagi is a great lens through which to view the whole doc; its title is a riff on INGAGI, a hyper-racist faux-documentary that purported to show African women breeding with gorillas. But Son of Ingagi is actually the first all-black horror movie, featuring a black woman scientist and depicting middle class black folks circa 1940. What’s more, it was directed by Spencer Williams, star of Amos & Andy, one of history’s most problematic entertainment franchises. All of these elements – independent black power, riffs on prevailing white entertainment, black talent forced into shuck and jive roles – are echoed throughout the entirety of the documentary and the entire history of black horror.
One of the most fascinating segments of Horror Noire deals with the issue of ‘problematic’ portrayals of black people in horror movies. While looking at the roles available to black actors in slasher films – first to die, last to die in sacrifice to the white lead, comic relief – the film both criticizes and celebrates. This is helped by having a number of black actors from these films appear as talking heads, bridging the political aspect of poor representation with the personal aspect of just trying to make a living in a hard industry.
Nowhere is this dichotomy stronger than in Horror Noire’s examination of Candyman, a film that is at once triumphant – a black man as the supernatural killer! – and yet regressive – a black man who is lusting after a blonde white lady!. Horror Noire deals with all sides of this, and as a result I think shows the correct way to grapple with ‘problematic’ entertainment – you don’t throw it out, but you don’t ignore what’s troubling.
One of the nice things about Horror Noire featuring only black talking heads is that it allows us to hear from thinkers we normally don’t get to see. The filmmakers couldn’t fall back on the same group of film critics and other folks (no Quentin Tarantino here) that we see in a hundred other film history docs; instead we get the authoritative Tananarive Due, author and professor, who literally teaches a class on this subject, and the legendary Ernest Dickerson. It’s refreshing to get new points of view from people who haven’t spent half their careers being interviewed.
The greatest compliment I can pay a movie like Horror Noire is to note that I left the film with a whole list of movies to watch or revisit. Son of Ingagi is now a must-see for me, and the enthusiasm shown for Def by Temptation and the Candyman sequels has me itching to go back and give them another chance. That’s the most essential thing a doc like this can do, to light that fire in the audience to make them seek out stuff they might not otherwise see. It’s exciting to know that people can finish watching Horror Noire and immediately be served up a recommendation for Ganja & Hess by the Shudder computer; imagine all the people finally getting a chance (and the proper context) to watch this great, underappreciated movie?
That a movie can be this entertaining, can fire up cinematic curiosity this much, and can tackle the difficult and painful subject of historic and institutional oppression while still finding the space to uplift and celebrate the artists and creators who struggle under that system, is a miracle. HORROR NOIRE gives weight to the true horrors of the black experience without losing its optimism for black cinema.
All movies, but especially horror movies, are interdependent with the world in which they were created. To understand the movies we watch, we have to understand the fears and hopes of the time in which they were made, and the movies we watch can help us make sense of their times. Horror Noire is a film that clearly, masterfully – and most of all, entertainingly – shows us that connection. This is film criticism and film history operating at the highest level.