Mike’s Review: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Directed by Xavier Burgin and based on the book by Robin R. Means Coleman. 

Fangoria! Woo!
Duane Jones in George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968).

It’s incredibly telling, and ultimately rather sad, when an entire genre of film can be traced back to a single piece of unflattering and repugnant propaganda.  Going on many unfortunately decades African American filmmakers have been forced to deal with horrifying imagery and social stigma brought to bear by D.W. Griffith’s Birth of National (AKA: the Clansman). President Woodrow Wilson even validated this odious film by showing it in the White House and openly endorsing many of the cruel and horrid devices used by the Klan. But, alas, that’s the long and self-realized story behind black horror.  It’s been a 100+ year grind, but one that many filmmakers, actors, producers, and film-goers have had to endure — and endure they have.

Horror Noire: a History of Black Horror is the 2019 documentary film directed by Xavier Burgin and based on the book by Robin R. Means Coleman.  The film effectively advocates that while there have been an insane number of social pressures brought to bear on the African American experience, in a weird, but hyper-plausible way, many of the darker aspects of race in American have been funneled through the horror genre. It’s equal parts fascinating and vile to think that so much of what we’ve watched, ingested, and been frightened by have been a by-product of something much more sinister than Jason, Freddy, and Chucky.  While this trio may have been complicit in perpetuating the problem, the underlying issues facing African Americans in horror has been a slow and insidious burn. 

Among the less obvious pieces of subversive racism, Horror Noire discusses the fact that King Kong was the clear manifestation of white male insecurity and the fear that black men might openly abduct black women. In the same way, and during the same time period, White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, and Ouanga all showed blacks as mysterious and savage hell-bent on employing voodoo as an evil counter to white Judeo-Christian manifest destiny.  The void of African Americans in 1950s atomic age horror was also a direct interpretation that it simply wasn’t possible for a person of color to ascend to higher education, let alone obtain a degree the sciences.  

While there were a handful seminal moments in African American horror in the 1920s to 1960s —  in particular Son of Ingagi, a 1940 film featuring an all-black cast and a black female lead playing in the role of a scientist — African American horror wouldn’t truly have its day in the sun until 1968 when George Romero unwittingly stumbled on a racial fault line.  With Night of the Living Dead Romero gave the lead protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), a stark and deliberate alpha position, all set against a black/white film stock.  This profound role, almost somewhat accidentally given to Duane Jones, was allegedly bestowed upon him not because he was black, but rather he was the best actor that show up on that karmically predestined day.  Night of the Living Dead has gone on to be revered as not only one of the most important uses of an African American in horror, but one of the most important roles in all of horror.  

Featuring an incredible number of interviews — too lengthy to list here — Horror Noire chronologically moves through the decades and largely concentrates on a handful of hallmark films and their importance to the black horror experience — Blackula, Ganja and Hess, Sugar Hill, Serpent and the Rainbow, the Craft, Candyman, Tales from the Hood, Bones, Girl with All the Gifts, and Get Out  As it seamlessly unfolds this rich cinematic history it also unearths the universe of black horror tropes:  the final girl (read: not black), the sacrificial black person, the spiritual black women who sets out to help the white family, the super-virile black male who’s forced to deal with the unstoppable creature, and the misunderstood use of voodoo for evil and malice. 

Taken together, the conclusions and theories behind the African American horror experience yield a disturbing pattern of repression, racism, and repellent views.  This rich and compelling slice of the horror story cannot be told in a single film, though the eyes of a single director, or through a single and powerful bit of acting.  The African American horror experience is one that continues to evolve, and bizarrely really hasn’t had its due until the last couple years (Attack the Block, Get Out, Us, etc.).  If you do nothing else to celebrate Black History month and African American horror, just park your rump on the couch and take in Horror Noire, or at least another viewing of Ganja and Hess.  Both’ll do you good. 

Horror Noire isn’t rated, but is available for streaming on Shudder.

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