It's humbling for a person who thinks they know it all about genre films, particularly horror films, to have their "wisdom" checked. Once that momentary bruise to the fragile nerd ego subsides, that person walks away having re-learned a valuable lesson they should apply to everyday life: shut up and listen. I started watching the documentary Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present in a hubristic headspace ready to be told nothing that I didn't know already.
I have a decent book collection devoted to the subject of horror films. Due to sheer unawareness, Robin Means Coleman's Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present is not one of them. After watching Xavier Burgin's adaptation, I added the 2011 book to my "Saved For Later" cart. As the film and book titles imply, the movie is essentially part crash course on the role of African Americans in film and illuminating observations by historians, educators, actors, and directors.
As the credits roll, we're treated to familiar eyes watching some familiar and some not-so familiar film clips. One of the first clips being shown is none other than Night of the Living Dead's Ben (Duane Jones) assert "I'm the boss up here," while Ken Sagoes (Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) and Loretta Devine (Urban Legend) watch with pride. Seconds later, the camera passes over empty theater seats as an unwitting Andre Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield) gets lost in the suburbs. This sets up the perfect black horror film as one particular genre vet observes. From there we're giving a brief breakdown of our problematic race relations in film and abroad. This breakdown then takes us down a winding road riddled with highs and lows from the short life span of a black character in an '80s horror film to the protagonist of more current films like The Girl with All the Gifts. Regardless of the sometimes complicated turns in the road, the film's eye is trained on how, underneath the jump scares and atmospheric dread, horror can be more than just a thrill ride; sometimes it's a wince-inducing mirror.
It's funny to think about, but we've finally arrived at a point where horror, thanks in large part to Jordan Peele's Get Out, has slowly crept out of the neglected stepchild shadows. I'm assuming that the popularity of Peele's film led to this documentary being birthed. And what a sweet birth it is. Hearing Coleman herself describe D.W. Griffith's Civil War epic Birth of a Nation as exacerbation of white fantasy and a contribution to true black horror that could be traced from King Kong to Candyman is illuminating and depressing.
- It’s nice to see familiar faces speak about their experiences, like the Craft’s Rachel True
It's informative listening to Tananarive Due describe Son of Ingagi, the first horror film to feature an all-black cast. Seeing a passionate fan like Peele talk about the racial tension that permeates The People Under the Stairs is infectious. It's great seeing horror royalty like Ken Foree and Keith David chat about their work in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and John Carpenter's The Thing. It may not be as invigorating to someone who has no interest in the subject, but to those with even a passing curiosity, it rewards. It's smile-inducing to see faces like Miguel A. Nunez Jr. (Return of the Living Dead), Rachel True (The Craft), Tony Todd (Candyman), Richard Lawson (Sugar Hill), and underrated directors like William Crain (Blacula) and Ernest R. Dickerson (Demon Knight) talk about their experiences.
I could go into more detail about all the history, the observations, and the trivia that the film doles out but that would be denying the potential viewers the wonder and discovery that I experienced. I'm heavily biased but I hope this movie gets seen by many, many eyes if anything so more people know about small films like Bill Gunn's atmospheric Ganja & Hess or Carol Speed's psychotic performance in the possession flick Abby or EC Comics inspired loopiness of Rusty Cundeiff's Tales from the Hood. It may be masochistic but I love it when a documentary makes a know-it-all like me shut up and listen. Burgin and Coleman's film did just that.
Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present — is now streaming on AMC Networks' premium streaming service Shudder.