“Black history is black horror,” novelist and scholar Tananarive Due says toward the beginning of Xavier Burgin’s new documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. In line with Due’s insight, the film isn’t just about black horror films, it’s about the way the horror genre reflects and connects with African-American history. The result is a thoughtful, exhilarating watch, which finds hope in even the bloodiest maw.
The documentary starts at the beginning of the 20th century, with a discussion of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation, a hugely influential piece of racist agitprop. The film is supposed to be an epic about white American national conciliation. But for African-American viewers, its imagery of white mobs murdering a black man was an explicit threat. Horror for black viewers isn’t the same as horror for white audiences. By starting with Birth of a Nation, the documentary makes the point that black audiences and creators have unique perspectives on horror. Black horror isn’t just a subgenre, it’s a rethinking of what horror means.
The documentary moves chronologically forward from that point, with extensive, thoughtfully curated footage. For decades, people of color in horror were servants at best. Black people mostly weren’t present at all, except as symbolic lustful atavistic monsters in films like 1933’s King Kong or 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. (This was the case in Birth of a Nation, too, though the black characters were white people in blackface.)
Horror’s first black hero — and one of cinema’s first as well — was Duane Jones as Ben in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. In the 1970s, the blaxploitation genre allowed black actors many more roles. But they also codified stereotypes of violence and drug addiction for men and hypersexualization for women in films like the low-budget 1974 film Abby, which is about a woman possessed by a sex demon.
The 1980s were actually worse in terms of representation; black people largely vanished from horror films. But the ‘90s and 2000s saw a flowering of films by black directors and / or featuring black actors. Horror Noire lovingly covers the highlights, including 1992’s Candyman, 1995’s Tales From the Hood, 2011’s Attack the Block, and 2016’s The Girl With All the Gifts.
The documentary also embraces movies like 1997’s Eve’s Bayou — films which weren’t necessarily marketed as horror but share many of the genre’s tropes. Unfortunately, Burgin and his interviewees don’t discuss the role of horror and horror imagery in slavery films like 12 Years a Slave or Sankofa, which would have let them expand their argument that horror is a lot closer to the mainstream of black cinema than is sometimes acknowledged.
Horror Noire’s greatest strength may be the way it manages to embrace the viewpoints of scholars and fans at the same time. The film is based on an academic book of the same name by Robin R. Means Coleman, whom Burgin interviews for commentary and analysis. But he also talks to directors like Rudy Cundieff (Tales From the Hood) and William Crain (Blacula), as well as with actors like Rachel True (The Craft) and Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead).
The wide range of interviewees creates a sense of community and commonality. Actors and directors speak knowledgeably about tropes and narrative stereotyping; critics and academics talk about their favorite films and actors and what seeing black performers meant to them as kids. In the film’s view, creators are fans, fans are critics, and critics are enthusiasts. Their mutual interest in and commitment to black horror breaks them all out of their expected boxes.
Candyman star Tony Todd in Horror Noire.Photo: Shudder
They do have interesting differences in perspective, though. Coleman points out, for example, that black characters in 1980s horror films were often disposable. They sacrificed themselves for white heroes or were killed off to show the high stakes that white protagonists faced. The actors who appeared in these films acknowledge the problem, but also point out that it was a victory for them to be in the movies at all. Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr. (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), talks proudly about having been in a cult classic… and about having received a paycheck at a time when few black actors did.
Inevitably, and justifiably, Horror Noire devotes a great deal of time and attention to Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The 2017 movie, a surprise critical and popular smash, found the horror in wealthy suburban whites who seemingly mean well when they talk admiringly about black achievement or racial equality. In Peele’s movie, that mildly condescending admiration is its own form of threat. But it takes on a more lurid horror, and a more metaphorical one when it turns out those same white characters are stealing black bodies for a nefarious purpose.
In Horror Noire, Peele explains how the movie is, in many ways, a response to the history of black horror and black representation in cinema. He points out, for example, that Get Out viewers expected at least one good white person or white savior in the story. Peele deliberately refused to provide one. Centering on black characters, and refusing to give white viewers an easy out in the form of a readily identifiable white hero also neatly thwarts audience expectations. It’s good movie-making.
”I really made [Get Out] for black audiences,” Peele says. In a lot of ways, his movie is just Birth of a Nation for black viewers, who can recognize that white power is black horror. The miraculous part about that, as several commentators note in the documentary, is that while the film is from a black perspective and centers on a black protagonist, white audiences can easily identify with him and cheer him on. By making a movie expressly for the black gaze, Peele managed to make everyone see the world and its terrors in a different way.
Get Out’s success has made black horror films hot in Hollywood. Scholars, directors, and actors alike are excited about the possibilities going forward. That’s good for black fans and black artists. But it’s also good for America in a more general sense. If Burgin’s documentary has one standout message it’s that racism thrives on denying how people of color experience horror.
Horror Noire premieres on February 1st in Los Angeles, with special screenings on February 4th in New York, and February 6th in Toronto. It launches on the Shudder network on February 7th.