“‘Are you OK?’ is going to be on my tombstone, with an etching of me looking concerned,” Rachel True tells me with bone-dry sarcasm. She’s elaborating on her point in director Xavier Burgin’s buzzy new documentary, Horror Noire, in which she states that black actresses in horror films like herself often play characters whose only job is to make sure the white female lead is OK. Tropes like this, and the one about black people being the first to die in the genre, are exactly what the insightful new film confronts as it reflects on the last several decades of horror and its portrayals of blackness.
The disposability of black people not only in horror but across cinema has always been an issue, but today in the Trump era—and even more profoundly in the digital age when previously suppressed truths are being bust wide open—there’s a more urgent interest to dissect it. “I feel in Trump’s America, horror is a perfect parallel,” True says. “The documentary does a beautiful job pointing out the parallels between people of color’s existence and a lot of horror that we stuff down on a daily basis—whether it’s small or large.”
Those parallels include Duane Jones’ Ben in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead beating up an all-white mob of zombies (only to later be killed by the police) and Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris in 2017’s Get Out impaling his white antagonist with a buck, which is what black slaves were called back in the day. Black horror has often been a form of resistance to white supremacy.