There’s a school of thought (or, non-thought, as it were) that says you should just turn your brain off and enjoy movies. If it’s not “high-brow” entertainment, then it’s not worthy of exploration. Certainly, horror films, with their low production values and cheap thrills meant for teenagers aren’t worthy of serious study. But as seen in Xavier Burgin’s excellent documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, analyzing the horror genre is perhaps most worthy of study because of how it shows us how black people are depicted in American popular cinema. Although the documentary is primarily just movie clips and interviews with black scholars, filmmakers, and actors, Burgin weaves it all together into an engrossing story of American cinema. Horror Noire never professes to be a complete history of black cinema, but it does show how certain tropes appear in horror films with regards to black characters. By analyzing these tropes, Burgin, along with writers Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows, emphasizes not only a lesson in black representation, but the importance of analysis in making sure that representation is accurate and equitable.
Horror Noire wisely starts with a look at Get Out, a black horror film that will be known to both white and black audiences, and a film that’s an undeniable success having earned $255 million worldwide and an Oscar for Jordan Peele for Best Original Screenplay. The movie then goes all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to show the evolution of black characters in cinema. Burgin carefully walks his audience through black representation, showing the damning effects of Birth of a Nation portraying black men as monsters out to get white women, to the elimination of black faces by making them faceless monsters for white people in the sci-fi horror of the 40s and 50s, then the massive impact of Ben (Duane Jones) in Night of the Living Dead, the double-edged sword of Blaxploitation and beyond. Burgin carefully notes when the intersection of film and history happen, like how the civil rights movement intersects with Night of the Living Dead, and how they feed off each other. He also shows how the Reagan 80s marginalizes black characters to supporting roles where they’re either not present in the suburbs or simply there to die. But as tropes become more tired and unacceptable, cinema starts to change and evolve.