Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror * 2019 * Not Rated (Suggested 16+) * 1 Hour 23 Minutes
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Horror Noire is a documentary feature film that traces traces the history of African-American people in horror settings, starting with the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which used white actors in blackface to portray the African-American characters. Horror Noire continues to cover the history of African-American involvement in horror films in front of and behind the camera up to the time of the film’s completion, including the 2017 film Get Out, which was written and directed by Jordan Peele, who went on to work on a Twilight Zone reboot and HBO’s Lovecraft Country.
Though it had a theatrical premiere, Horror Noire is normally available exclusively on the Shudder network. It’s currently included free with Amazon Prime membership until 10/31/20. The film is based on the 2011 book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD. The documentary was directed by Xavier Burgin, produced and written by Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows, with cinematography by Mario Rodriguez, for Stage 3 Productions.
In addition to the expected film clips and narration, Horror Noire includes conversations and interviews with African-American actors, producers, directors, screenwriters and others involved in making the films discussed throughout the documentary. The people who were involved with making a set of films which are discussed as a group are typically in a theater, watching the films together, then they’ll interview each other in the form of conversations about the making of the films. Sharing their positive and negative experiences in filmmaking with each other in this way makes for some lively discussions that are more entertaining and personal than the usual documentary style of narration and dry interviews.
Horror Noire also digs deep and goes wide with the films it documents. Some films are obscure, some are normally thought of as historical. I discovered a few films that are new to me to check out, such as Eve’s Bayou. Birth of a Nation isn’t normally thought of as a horror film, but it surely should be. Perhaps this documentary can move the way people think about history that is also horror further along.
The 2017 film Mudbound isn’t included here, but the torture and mutilation in that film is committed in the Jim Crow South for racist purposes and they are just as surely forms of psychological and body horror as those in Night of the Living Dead. I’ve watched the latter film more times than I can count. It felt shocking and gross when it was new and I was young. Because of Mudbound’s historical realism and abject cruelty, I’ve never been able to watch it all the way through even a second time, though I loved that film immensely for its truth and cinematography. Virtually any film which shows the truth of slavery or racism will have the same types of horror.
Horror Noire gives an overview of the experiences of African-Americans working in the film industry and as Americans experiencing the changing political and societal landscapes of the 20th and 21st centuries. As such, it covers the history of the film industry itself as well as necessarily covering the ways Black Americans and Black women were treated in each era. The film industry reflects progress in the wider world. But real life has also often continued to be a horror story for African-Americans, as current events have shown, and the film industry continues to reflect that as well.
Horror fans and film buffs will enjoy Horror Noire’s film clips and peeks behind the scenes as well as its unique approach to film history. Horror Noire examines film trends such as the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s and 80s which highlighted the stereotypes of oversexualization and violence that were prevalent at the time. Other common tropes that are popular throughout film history are also examined, such as relegating African-Americans to being servants, replacing them with monsters such as King Kong or aliens, using African-Americans as the supportive best friend who probably dies first and including only one person of color per film (tokenism). And of course there are the named tropes, such as the Magical Negro.
All of these are viewed in context with the film trends of each time period, using interviews with Robin R. Means Coleman, the author of the original book, in addition to such figures as Jordan Peele; actor and producer Keith David (The Thing); actor Rachel True (The Craft); actor and producer Tony Todd (Night of the Living Dead); film historian Tananarive Due; director, writer and actor Rusty Cundieff (Tales from the Hood); and many others.
Horror Noire is an enjoyable film about an important, often ignored subject. Improvements in technology have made filmmaking easily accessible to everyone, while the internet is making it easier to distribute films to a wider audience. Horror Noire shows us why we need to encourage this trend, so that unique voices and visions that represent the breadth of the human experience aren’t lost.
And as long as we’re on that subject, here’s a little more black, female horror representation for your perusal:
The Horror Noire, Mudbound, Get Out and Lovecraft Country trailers:
Image courtesy of Shudder.