Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

Horrorific content by Jessica Gomez on June 12th, 2020 | Culture | Black Horror

A brief analysis of the Black community’s history and the resulting impact in horror film.

Black people have always loved horror - but horror has not always loved us.” A heartbreaking opening line. I would soon learn how unbelievably true it was.

Based on the book Horror Noire by Robin R. Means Coleman, this Shudder Original begins and ends with a discussion of the importance of the critically-acclaimed 2017 horror film Get Out. Jordan Peele took a risk with his first horror film by making a movie about racism with a Black protagonist while smashing the expectation of white saviorism, and it paid off handsomely. He spoke to a marginalized community who has been longing for a film that explored one of their darkest fears. And he put racism - and its covertness - on full display for everyone to see and for white people to sit with. What he brought to the masses was a film that not only won accolades, but started a dialogue about what it means to be racist in America, today.

Through discussion with Black actors, writers, and directors, horror films from the 40s through the current era are examined in Horror Noire. A brief timeline and breakdown of Black actors and directors, interspersed with conversations about societal events that influenced these films, gives perspective about what it means to watch horror films through the eyes of a Black person.

Horror Noire shows the cyclical representation of the Black community in cinema, beginning with the abhorrent Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) - a portrayal of deeply racist themes and a harmful and inaccurate depiction of Black life and culture, which was unfortunately reflected in subsequent Hollywood films. Following an era of complete imbalance from white filmmakers telling a story of what they believed Black life was like, Son of Ingagi, the first horror film written by a Black person (Spencer Williams - who would go on to become a major influence Black cinema), was released. It was the first time the Black middle class was ever showcased in a realistic way, living their lives normally without projection of a white person’s racist notions.

In the 50s and 60s, Black people were not given prominent, cerebral, or well-spoken roles throughout most films, and their roles eventually evolved into less overtly racist themes. Monsters and villains such as in Creature from the Black Lagoon were not human, but when you take a closer look, it seems that many filmmakers were of the notion that Black people were seen as something to be feared.

It was incredibly impactful to hear from the Black community about Night of the Living Dead, which was released amongst race riots in 1968. The character of Dwayne Jones is in charge, protective, heroic, and he makes the right decisions. Though the role was not written specifically for a Black actor, George Romero clearly changed the direction of the film to one with racial undertones and overtones once a Black man was cast. 

Blaxploitation films of the 70s are covered, and many of the commentators discuss how over-the-top the men were portrayed and how the women were hypersexualized. Blacula stands out among 70s horror, showcasing a suave, intelligent, handsome Black Dracula, with William Crain at the helm - though he was the only Black person behind the scenes, and he had to go all the way up the chain just to get Black and white people to dance in mixed couples in a disco scene.

It's alarmingly common for a Black person to die early on in a horror film - so much so, that every horror fan knows about this - which is a trope that started in the 80s. What I hadn’t considered before this doc was the “sacrificial” Black character, who either sacrifices their own life or only has a role in assisting a white protagonist’s survival. In the 90s, social issues that affect Black people started to become more prominent in film - notably in Tales from the Hood, which talked about issues within Black neighborhoods, from racist politicians to police brutality. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Hip-hop began to influence horror films. Finally, in the mid to late 2000s, Black people are (sometimes) given more prominent roles with more depth, where they are shown as heroes or survivors and are seen through a more accurate lens.

Through personal stories shared from many of the interviewees, it was startlingly clear how Black people have loved and supported the horror genre, and how their love has not been reciprocated. Horror Noire was filmed before the current protests but post Black Lives Matter, so the commentary and imagery is very similar to what we are seeing now in the streets of every state in America and in several countries the world over. White people must examine their own racial biases, but must also look for the racial disparities in their favorite films, and think about how those films are perceived by someone with a different racial background. It’s incredibly important and relevant to hear what Black people in the film and horror community have to say about horror film history and where it should be going moving forward.

I only wish this documentary was longer. There were so many films featured that could have had their own doc based solely on their significance in culture. Simply put, you cannot understand the history of horror without a proper understanding of Black history and how race has played a major role in horror film. Educational in the societal influence of cinema, and the resulting cultural impact, this documentary put important observations from Black people in the film industry into an easily understandable context. Required viewing for any horror fan.

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