Shudder’s first original documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, is a captivating and eye-opening study of the black experience of horror films (from within the industry and as viewers), which charts the progress over the last century.
I am tuned to notice issues that are personal to me and the quality of writing around them, so for a long time, I’ve been aware of how important representation can be. Although I can often see what may be behind some of the characters on the screen (such as stereotypes and politics), I cannot easily imagine how those images make people feel when I’m not part of that world myself. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror tells us just what it is like to watch, write, produce and star in horror films as black people: the issues, along with their context and impact are spelled out, but not condescendingly; with nostalgia, affection, and intellect.
So, to get to the point: Horror Noire is an excellent piece of work. And it packs a Hell of a lot into barely ninety minutes.
Horror Noire takes the format of a talking head documentary, with actors, filmmakers and academic commentators discussing clips from films and their experiences of them in a casual auditorium setting, with an unseen interviewer. Some are in pairs, some on their own; the pairs work particularly well, as they laugh and chat about how things were and how times have changed. Especially interesting is when contrasting views are expressed; different angles, rather than arguments: one remembered counting the pages of a script before he died (echoing the “black character dies first” trope), while another recalled how great it was to simply be in a film at all in the 1980s.
Many of the faces (and clips) may be familiar, but the breadth is such that I’m sure there will be some new ones. I was pleased to see Tony Todd talking with his famous modesty about Candyman, and Rachel True looking back on her role in The Craft, though a number of others were less familiar, or known to me only by name, rather than face. And as for the films they discussed… the famous/inevitable Night of the Living Dead and Get Out were there, of course, though it also covered many, many others from 1915 onwards, in a decade-by-decade sequence. (I’m not going to outline all the content: watch the film.)
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Robin R Means Coleman from 2011 by Ashlee Blackwell (of Graveyard Shift Sisters) and Danielle Burrows. They succeed in bringing it up to date and – despite reducing a huge book to a feature-length documentary – manage to carry forward the message, albeit in an admirably subtle way. Near the start of the programme, it is declared that “black history is black horror”; and the implication throughout is that the horror film medium presents both a microcosm of black social/political history and an opportunity to present such people in a way that they would prefer to be seen. I call it subtle, because at no point does it come across as propaganda or politically correct: instead, it is a discussion, full of complexity and camaraderie. Yet I get the message, and I have no doubt it is true.
The themes presented in Horror Noire include political (such as slavery), stereotypes (such as black men “lusting for” white women), screen tropes (such as the sacrificial black person), and much more. The commentators considered the social context of these themes, such as the production of Night of the Living Dead being finished just as Martin Luther King was shot; and the longevity of their “moment” as audiences remembered those roles as meaningful for many years. I found it especially interesting to discover some double-edged representation mentioned: some mentioned how great it was to see black heroes, but that those heroes were often there to protect white people. Of course, how could I forget: everything is political.
Horror Noire is directed by Xavier Burgin, and he keeps every topic and interview flowing smoothly. Considering just how much is covered in – I’ll say it again – less than ninety minutes, it is impressive how it all fits comfortably. No-one seems hurried, but neither is anything glossed over quickly or with confusion. He shows his contributors respect and friendship, almost, with his camera; but at the same time, fairly light attention, as they are there to expand on what the films in question have to say.
I know I’m gushing a bit, so I should make it clear that Horror Noire is not perfect. Its subtitle is “A History of Black Horror”, but it is not as comprehensive as that may make it seem. The black perspective in this film is an American perspective only, as is the history, and nearly every film mentioned is American. Horror is a global genre, and it may well be that there are different points to be made from other parts of the globe. There are other gaps, such as some early decades; but overall, the writers have done a fine job in condensing the book – along with a wide-ranging commentary – into a single documentary. The only way they could have covered everything (and I don’t think they claimed to) might have been a short series, but that would have been much less accessible, and the story of progress less succinct.
This is the first original documentary to come out of Shudder, the horror streaming service, and I have hope there will be more of a similar nature. This one worked so well, and while meeting a need in addressing one minority angle, raises a need to address others. I don’t want to be all “that’s great, but”… for me, it’s “and”: I’ve found out lots about the progress of the black experience of horror, and now I want to know more. I want to know how horror varies from one country to another; I’ve seen plenty of films from Japan, France, Mexico, etc, but I’d love some insight added to my viewings. I want to know that the rainbow of different sexualities and genders are having a better time with the genre than they used to (though it might be a little too soon for that). And I want to know that Franklin in Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t the only strong disabled character and that some can be victorious.
If you subscribe to Shudder, take a look: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horrro may open your eyes (as it has mine) to a number of films and social issues that you may not have considered before. If you don’t subscribe already, grab a free week’s trial.
Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.