The impact of Jordan Peele’s Get Out in the creation of Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, Shudder’s first original documentary, is evident from the start. The film opens with a disembodied voice (author/educator Tananarive Due) proclaiming “We’ve always loved horror, it’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us,” and the credits roll over a selection of animated Black figures from horror history; Get Out is name-dropped as an inciting incident. Footage from the film, as well as Peele accepting the Best Original Screenplay at the 2017 Oscars and headlines in the trade papers, play as various contributors discuss the significance of Peele’s directorial debut.
At this point, the film’s thesis is spelled out by both Robin R. Means Coleman and Due: Black history is Black horror.
Means Coleman may give credit to Peele, but it’s her non-fiction book that Horror Noire draws both its name and its content from. The semi-academic historical overview of Black Horror, adapted by Danielle Burrows and Ashlee Blackwell (Graveyard Shift Sisters), is the backbone of the film, which has the timely intention of using audience and industry in Peele’s history-making film to educate audiences about an often-overlooked and under-credited aspect of the horror genre.
Burrows and Blackwell adopt a straightforward historical structure for the narrative, starting with D.W Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation (1915) which – with its Presidential seal of approval – emboldened harmful stereotypical and racist depictions of Black characters in cinema for decades to come. From there Horror Noire advances decade by decade, touching on stereotypes in the 20s & 30s, “Otherness” in the monster films of the Atomic Age, Blaxploitation in the 70s and the arrival of new voices and opportunities in the 90s, including the intersection of Black horror and hip-hop.
The doc addresses several well-known texts from the horror canon such as George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Blacula (1972), and Candyman (1992) – ably exploring their cultural and historical impact with a mixture of praise (often around issues of representation) and criticism (reinforcing outdated stereotypes or tropes). More significantly, however, is the inclusion of texts that audiences may be less familiar with, including Spencer Williams’ forward-thinking films of the ’20s which showcase middle-class Black characters, as well as horror adjacent vampiric film Ganja & Hess (1973), Blaxploitation classics Abby (1974) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973), socially conscious religious horror film Def By Temptation (1990) and the recent zombie film The Girl With All Of The Gifts (2016).
Technically speaking, Horror Noire is a talking head doc, albeit with a few stylistic flourishes. Rather than strand its interviewees in a bland studio, participants sit in an empty university theatre, watching and commenting on the clips projected on the big screen in front of them. Not only does this create a sense of intimacy akin to watching movies with a group of friends, Blackwell (in a post-screening Q&A) suggested it playfully rifts on the stereotype of Black audiences talking back to the screen.
The doc boasts a wide range of Black directors and actors, several of whom are paired up, including directors Rusty Cundieff (Tales From The Hood) and Ernest Dickerson (Bones, Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight) and famed actors Ken Foree and Keith David. Additional talent includes actors Tony Todd, Rachel True, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Loretta Devine, Paula Jai Parker, Ken Sagoes, and Kelly Jo Minter (among others). The participants contribute their personal memories from their major project(s), as well as reactions to other films highlighted on screen. Peele – the only contributor who is shot in a separate setting (likely due to his busy schedule working on a million different projects) – also contributes a few choice soundbites.
Director Xavier Burgin wisely elects to keep the direction relatively unobtrusive, alternating between front facing and side angle shots of the interviewees and using slow pans to maintain visual intimacy. The focus is therefore on its subjects, as well as the intersection of Black horror and Black history. While there is levity and a significant amount of humour (particularly from the directors and actors), there is also an undeniable sense of anger and frustration surrounding issues of representation, job security and outdated tropes like the Sacrificial Negro, the Magical Negro, and the “first to die” narrative crutch that permeated so much of ’80s and ’90s horror.
Horror Noire is always entertaining, but more importantly, it is an opportunity to acknowledge and advance the narrative about the contributions of Black talent in front and behind the camera. The fact that the documentary ends on a hopeful note about the increased prominence of Black actors in (nuanced, complicated) leading roles, as well as easier access for a new generation of directors – both male and female – is encouraging. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Horror Noire is essential viewing for horror audiences; not only does it boast high production values and informative interviews, audiences will undoubtedly discover a brand new curated list of essential horror films to seek out and devour.
What could be more enticing for fans of the genre?