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 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”.
Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele and Candyman star Tony Todd are two of the movie notables interviewed in a new documentary called Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, EW can exclusively reveal. Horror Noire is based on the book of the same name by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman and takes a critical look at a century of genre films that by turns utilized, caricatured, exploited, sidelined, and embraced both black filmmakers and black audiences. Horror Noire is the first original feature documentary from Shudder and will premiere exclusively on the horror- and thriller-streaming service Feb. 7 after special screening events in New York and Los Angeles earlier in the month.
Other interviewees featured in the film include directors Ernest Dickerson (Bones), Rusty Cundieff (Tales from the Hood), and Tina Mabry (Mississippi Damned) and actors Paula Jai Parker (Tales from the Hood), and Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead). Horror Noire is directed by Xavier Burgin, executive produced by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, author-educator Tananarive Due, Fangoria Editor-in-Chief Phil Nobile Jr and Kelly Ryan of Stage 3 Productions, and is produced and co-written by Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows.
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There he was, dangling into the void. Sinking, arms outstretched, helplessly clawing at the air. Jordan Peele’s satirical horror Get Out introduced us to the “sunken place”, a purgatory where Daniel Kaluuya’s character is trapped by body-snatching white liberals. As otherworldly as the Salvador Dalí-designed dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, it was the scene that planted Afro-surrealism firmly in the mainstream.
It also symbolized the revival of a genre in which strangeness and blackness not only co-exist but are impossible to separate. In recent years we’ve had Atlanta, a show its creator Donald Glover proudly called a “black Twin Peaks”, and a host of film-makers including Kahlil Joseph, Arthur Jafa and Jenn Nkiru, who have given a hallucinatory edge to the music of Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington and Beyoncé. Joseph’s video to Flying Lotus’s Until the Quiet Comes reimagines Watts in Los Angeles as a phantasmagoric playground where a murdered black man’s body dances, bullet-ridden and bloodied, through the projects. Jafa’s video installation Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death is a collage of images; athletes and artists from LeBron James to Drake are interspersed with footage of police beating black people and civil-rights unrest, while a huge psychedelic sun burns in the background – coming in and out of the mix like a harbinger of impeding doom.
Earlier this year in the United States, writer and director Terence Nance’s sketch show Random Acts of Flyness sent up police violence, white saviour syndrome and everyday racism in a style described by the New York Times as “kaleidoscopic, nearly unclassifiable”. And this week sees the UK release of Boots Riley’s satire Sorry to Bother You, which uses surrealism to comment on race, sexuality and capitalism.