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.
I can remember the first time I picked up Horror Noire. It was the spring of 2013, and I was close to graduating in Pittsburgh, PA. My favorite place in the whole city was a particular nook in the Carnegie Libary of Pittsburgh, that houses the books on cinema and overlooks the dinosaur fossil exhibit of the Natural History Museum. I would get a stack of books and just hide there, nap there and eat Quiznos sandwhiches there, it was my favorite place in the world. I was getting more into horror movies and came across the one book I could find on black culture and horror films. Robin R. Means-Coleman’s Horror Noire. It was eye-opening for me. It showed me that despite what my professors told me, there was a place in film for me. I felt seen, or maybe I felt like I could finally see, other films, other filmmakers, writers and creators. I held the book much longer that I should have, and I think I might still have an overdue fine with the CLP.
Coming out this month, the Netflix of horror, Shudder is premiering their first original documentary based on Robin R Means-Coleman’s book, along with several live screenings and panels. This is an ambitious venture for Shudder, bringing together the underappeciated but close-knit community of actors, writers, filmmakers and creators for a documentary like this. I only started to see black people on horror panels after Get Out, then (most of them my own) a number of horror panels had POC talking about POC issues, and POC issues only. It was nice to be included but it was also limiting, many of us want to talk about more things than how good Get Out was and how there needs to be more representation in horror. Hopefully this doc will be the official word on the topic, for many people to use as a reference for how they want to discuss the topic going forward.
I can’t wait to watch it and hopefully I can have a premeir party of my own in Seattle soon!
Horror has always had a heavy constituency made up of youth. In the 21st century as a generation matures into adulthood and has essentially lived in a world where there always has been access to hip hop culture, the horror market developed ways in which to capitalize on this. Many of us have seen rappers in genre films. It has even been said that one of Halloween producers, Moustapha Akkad’s sons enthusiastically encouraged him to cast Busta Rhymes in Halloween: Resurrection (2002). Moustapha then used Google to find out who Busta Rhymes was.
Rapper/actor lead and major supporting role horror films have been a trend. In the direct-to-DVD, independent market, they were a saturation; “over 100 hip-hop inspired ‘Black horror’ films were released in the first decade of the twenty-first century alone.” Mostly known for their (much) lower budgets and putting z’s at the end of titles (Vampiyaz, Zombiez, Cryptz, and overall abuse of the English language) these films were ruled by a marketing target set in the 1980’s: the profitability of “youth, hip hop, and the home video market”.
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