'Horror Noire' Explores History Of Black Horror
Shudder original documentary inspired by Robin R. Means Coleman's book
Black History Month is almost over but it’s not too late to enjoy the Shudder original documentary “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.”
The documentary “Horror Noire” uses the 2011 book of the same name by Professor Robin R. Means Coleman as its source material. Coleman explored a complex and ever-evolving relationship between blacks and the horror genre going as far back as the 1890s. She differentiated between black horror (films about blacks and made by black filmmakers such as “Blacula” or “Ganja and Hess”) and blacks in horror (raging from white actors in blackface in the silent on through to the color blind casting of Duane Jones in “Night of the Living Dead”).
So Blacks in horror presents “Blacks and Blackness in the context of horror, even if the horror film is not wholly or substantially focused on either one,” she wrote. Whereas Black horror films “are informed by many of the same indicators of horror films such as disruptions, monstrosities, and fear. However, Black horror films are often ‘race’ films. That is, they have an added narrative focus that calls attention to racial identity, in this case Blackness—Black culture, history, ideologies, experiences, politics, language, humor, aesthetics, style, music, and the like.”
The Shudder original documentary can’t go into as much depth as the book but it does a fantastic job of tracing this evolution of blacks in horror and the role black filmmakers have played in making those images and stories richer. Coleman wrote her book before Jordan Peele made “Get Out” and made history by being the first African American to win an Academy Award for original screenplay. That film changed the Hollywood landscape for Black horror and it looks like he will continue to break new ground with his upcoming “Us.” The documentary gets to include Peele and mention of both his films to advance the discussion Coleman started in her book.
The documentary focuses more on films from about “Night of the Living Dead” on since these are film most people are familiar with. We get some film history from earlier decades too to help lay the foundation but most of the films discussed in any depth are from late 60s on and most of the people interviewed are from films made from the 70s on.
Directed by Xavier Burgin, the film quickly touches on early images of blacks from blackface white actors in “Birth of a Nation” to the chanting jungle natives of “King Kong” to the voodoo undead of “I Walked With a Zombie.” The film acknowledges that a key turning point for blacks in horror comes with Duane Jones in George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968. The part was not written for a black actor but Romero gave it to the African American Jones and did not change the script after the casting. The result is a black character that takes charge and tells the white characters what to do. It was a very different image than what had been onscreen before.
But progress was still slow and horror served up a lot of stereotypes and tropes such as the “magical Negro” (a supporting stock character who comes to the aid of the white protagonists and often possess mystical powers or special insights) or the sacrificial black character (the African American character that you know is just there to die first).
But over the years there have been some amazing films be it the low budget “Blacula” that had a black director and raised issues about the repercussions of slavery; or “Tales From the Hood” that looked to real life horrors of police brutality and domestic violence as part of what’s scary in these anthology stories; or the more recent social commentary couched in Jordan Peele’s brilliant “Get out.”
Burgin gets smart, lively, and compelling interviews from Dr. Coleman, actors Keith David and Tony Todd, actress Rachel True, author/educator Tananarive Due, and directors Jordan Peele, Rusty Cundieff and William Crain. Since the documentary is airing on Shudder, it assumes the people watching have a certain knowledge of the genre. So it doesn’t take a lot of time to set up film clips or explain who everyone being interviewed is and why it is important to hear what they have to say. But the film packs so much information in that you can forgive it for not wanting to waste time on fundamentals that it hopes people subscribing to a horror streaming service would already know.
But if you are not a fan of horror, don’t be afraid to watch this documentary. Even if you don’t know all the references you will be enlightened about the genre and you will walk away with a long list of titles, filmmakers, and actors you will want to seek out. Shudder offers help in this respect as well by having films such as “Tales From the Hood,” “Ganja and Hess,” and “Night of the Living Dead” plus others.
“Horror Noire” is currently streaming exclusively on Shudder, which is a paid subscription service devoted to horror. You can get a free trial to check out the documentary but might want to stay to watch more of their original content as well as other horror titles. I love the horror genre and have always found it a great place for social commentary of an unexpected kind. It has proven to be a perfect genre to reflect the real world and offer an escape from it. Treat yourself to this enlightening documentary and then go watch some horror films with new eyes. And kudos to Shudder for backing a documentary like this.
Also check out my podcast with Professor John Jennings about "Scary Black Folks."