“Black history is black horror,” says Tananarive Due near the beginning of the Shudder original documentary, Horror Noire. The scholar and author is one of the many African-American interviewees who appear in the doc to break down the history and evolution of African-Americans in horror films.
As Due and others in the film explain, the African-American experience is largely one of violence, segregation, pain and oppression, and in turn, cinematic representation was limited to servant roles, degrading stereotypes, and token side roles. However, there have been compelling exceptions by way of early 1930s-era black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams (best known by his comic role in the Amos and Andy comedies). Micheaux and Williams both worked to elevate the profile of African Americans on film by allowing black actors to portray normal characters living regular lives and careers onscreen. The rise of the horror/sci-fi era in the 1950s brought on extraterrestrial menaces like aliens and supernatural monsters, which where construed to take on the features of African Americans, taking them to be the abominations that needed to be eradicated for order to be restored.
Horror Noire is bookended by discussions of Jordan Peele’s recent 2017 hit, Get Out, in which Peele talks on camera about how he wrote the film specifically for black audiences. Then the doc goes into a timeline of the black presence on film. There’s the good: actor Duane Jones as the protagonist in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and Ganja and Hess; Tales From the Hood; Jada Pinkett Smith in Demon Knight; Aaliyah in Queen of the Damned; 1992’s Candyman and its sequels; The People Under The Stairs; Rachel True’s role as Rochelle in The Craft; Attack the Block, starring a pre-Star Wars John Boyega. The bad: blackface; the common trope of the black character getting killed first, or becoming a martyr to save a white character; the sidekick with one line; comic relief. And then there’s the problematic grey area: Blaxploitation characters like Blacula, Black Frankenstein; and voodoo.
The discussions coming from scholars like Due and filmmakers like Peele, Richard Lawsom, William Crain and Meosha Bean are all extremely fascinating, not just when they speak on the history of film but when they speak with each other. Director Xavier Burgin gave the interviewees space to discuss amongst themselves how certain films influenced them and what issues they had about specific black character tropes. Also, the connections made between specific films and cultural imagery of their time (for example, Night of the Living Dead’s cinematography and final photo montage resembles images of ‘60s Civil Rights protests and classic photos of lynchings) are extremely eye opening. Even for those with casual enjoyment of the genre will find this extremely engrossing to watch, so don’t hesitate to check this out; I myself was riveted.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror is available to watch online through Shudder.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.