Picture it. It’s a wonderful, sunny, fall day. Your friends have invited you to the latest horror film. You buy a bag of popcorn and settle in your seat. You’re excited. There’s a Black character on screen. They’re smart, witty and charismatic. And…within the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film, they’re dead. It’s an all too common story. For Black horror buffs, watching films that are guaranteed to kill us off before the opening credits is tough.
People will say that dying in horror films is the worst possible fate. I’d argue that being completely ignored by the film is even worse. For years, the trope of “the Black person dies first” has, in a way, symbolically annihilated Black bodies in largely white spaces. Death is, of course, expected, in horror films. But the ways in which Black characters often die leaves no doubt that we are only there as fodder. In some films, they go so far as to literally dispose of Black bodies-completely erasing us from the landscape.
Perhaps even worse than being ignored is being invisible. Since film’s inception, Black people have been representatives for societies moral failings. Horror movies are all about making us face our fears, anxieties and troubles. Regularly, horror movies depict those fears come to life as Black bodies. The titular creature from Creature in the Black Lagoon was Black, for example. In the 70s, Black horror fans saw a bit of a renaissance in the genre.
Films like Blacula and Candyman began to enter the lexicon. Both Blacula and Candyman feature Black villains, but they are sympathetic. In Blacula, we recognize that his origins (being turned by a white vampire, who then renames him, enacting a sort of Master/Slave dynamic) begin in power and suppression. Candyman is a figure of fear, created by the fear of miscegenation. These films, and others like them, force us to look at the historical impact race has had on us as a society and uses horror as the vehicle to show us.
Black horror kind of dropped off the radar for a few years there, but with Jordan Peele’s Get Out in 2017, we’re seeing a return of a sort. The Blackening is another entry into this genre and this time, its a horror comedy. This film is for Black people and by Black people. It shows. Taking place over Juneteenth weekend, a group of college friends venture off to a cabin in the woods for a good time. Black people love a good trip to a mountain cabin. We watch as these friends quickly realize that something is just not right about the cabin.
As the night progresses, drinks and spades turn into fear and horror. Horror as they realize their friends are dead, fear as they realize they’re next. While searching for their friends, they find a game called ‘The Blackening’. Its a game centered around how Black you are. Can you answer questions about how long dark-skinned Aunt Viv was on Fresh Prince or sing the 2nd verse of the Black national anthem? Finally-when the questions seemed to be too easy-our characters are asked to sacrifice the friend they deem to be not Black enough.
And that question is the central theme of the film. What actually determines your Blackness? Is it having two Black parents? Being “gangsta” enough (reformed or otherwise)? Knowing (or not knowing) how to swim? Your ability to play spades (something I, myself, can not do). As with other Black horror films, we’re seeing a film driven by politics-although in this case, we’re looking at intracommunity politics. I loved it. As an avid Twitter user I see a new Diaspora war every day-whether its about which region of the US you live in or whether or not Black American culture counts as a culture (it does-it is THEE culture).
The Blackening shows us what happens when Black people can’t get past differences and work together. There’s even a moment where the characters-gag-split up. A cardinal sin among Black people in horror. Stronger together-always. And yet-even when split up-teamwork is what ensures that for the first time in a horror movie ever-almost every Black character survives this film. Teamwork and making sure that we come back for each other. The Blackening is a new and necessary step in horror and I hope that it can hold the door open for more Black horror comedy in the future.
The Blackening does one more thing right. Because the Blackening is for Black people, the audience is Black. That means that watching the film felt like being surrounded by 100 of my closest friends. We laughed at the same moments, tried to answer the questions together (out loud because of course) and singing a very familiar jingle altogether. I never felt alone once when watching the film. Didn’t feel shamed for laughing too loud. I wasn’t afraid to enjoy myself. And I loved that.
The Blackening feels like-in a lot of ways- a return. Black filmmakers are once again looking to the traditions of the past to create excellent and exciting new horror. I feel so incredibly hopeful, watching these films. We are watching, in real time, the centralization and humanization of Black fear within and outside of Black characters. I enjoyed looking at the ways that Black people were included across the board, in the writer’s room, on the screen, in the directorial space. Our unique voices mattered in this space-and continue to matter in all others.
The Blackening is in theaters now! Black people-go see it-now. You won’t regret it.
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