“Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror” begins with a modest proposal: “Black history is black horror.” It’s a succinct and provocative notion, the idea that there’s a symbiotic relationship between the horror genre and the African-American experience. However, executive producer Tananarive Due said that to her eyes, the two are inextricably linked.
“We were brought here in bondage, and white supremacy continues to mischaracterize and marginalize us,” said Due, a scholar, and novelist who specializes in the supernatural genre. “As the parent of a teenage son who’s already six feet tall, I’m fearful about his future encounters with police and the ways in which black children just like him are assumed on sight to be thugs and less than fully human.”
Due describes that fear and uncertainty as an example of an unrelenting horror that explains why creatives of African descent like herself, gravitate toward a genre that readily allows for the confronting, or escaping from those same fears.
Directed by Xavier Burgin, the documentary begins with a discussion of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist agitprop film “Birth of a Nation,” which posed an explicit threat for African-Americans. The introduction argues that horror means something entirely different for black audiences than it does for whites, thrusting viewers into a unique social history that shows the evolution of how blacks are used in horror films.
Based on Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman’s 2011 book “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present,” this is the first original documentary feature from Shudder. The film encourages viewers to unpack the genre’s racialized imagery, as well as the narratives that make up the cultural commentary on race.
The film argues that the horror genre has a lot to offer black people: It provides the space to challenge deeply problematic images, and to explore the diversity that exists within the concept of blackness itself. That said, “‘Get Out’ didn’t gross $250 million because only black people went to see it,” said Due, who created a UCLA class around black horror called “The Sunken Place.” “Horror fans get bored by the same stories, the same mythos, the same recycled reboots, and as a horror fan, if you can scare me in a new way, that’s a good day.”
“Horror Noire” features interviews with notable horror creators from some of the genre’s most popular, critically acclaimed and culture-changing films including directors William Crain (“Blacula”), Ernest Dickerson (“Bones”), Rusty Cundieff (“Tales from the Hood”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”), and Tina Mabry (“Mississippi Damned”) as well as actors Tony Todd (“Candyman”), Keith David (“The Thing”), Paula Jai Parker (“Tales from the Hood”), and Rachel True (“The Craft”).
The filmmakers shoot the interviews in a cinema — a familiar choice for many movie documentaries, but here it takes on additional historical context. “We wanted to take on the long-standing notion of black audiences talking back to the theater screen,” said producer and co-writer Ashlee Blackwell, founder of the black horror site Graveyard Shift Sisters. While Blackwell said she made that observation tongue in cheek, she added that it’s “a stereotype that certainly holds weight, but [we] shift it from a perceived to be negative practice into one that broadens the understanding of why.”
“Horror Noire” tracks the genre’s history up to black horror’s recent resurgence with the Oscar-winning, critical and commercial hit “Get Out,” which justifiably serves as the documentary’s centerpiece.
“We’re in the midst of a real back horror renaissance in film and TV,” Due said, citing examples such as “The Girl with All the Gifts,” “The First Purge” and black horror TV in shows like “The Passage,” “Castle Rock” and “Z Nation.” She added that the trend “extends to other speculative genres — with ‘Black Panther,’ the Afrosurrealism in ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ and on TV ‘Black Lightning’ and now Jordan Peele’s upcoming ‘Twilight Zone.’
Beyond serving as a contextualized documentation of African-American engagement with horror, the filmmakers hope “Horror Noire” will contribute to the ongoing debate around race, history, and the genre, and trigger more nuanced on-screen explorations into the power wielded by the genre.
“The only difference now is that a broader audience is being exposed to work that’s been part of a subculture for decades,” Blackwell said. “Executives are gradually greenlighting speculative work that centers black characters and gives black creatives control.”
“Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror” is now streaming on AMC Networks’ premium streaming service Shudder.