June 3, 2019 Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (Documentary Review)
A topic many may be uncomfortable with acknowledging, there is no question there has been a list of stereotypical depictions of black culture throughout cinema history. A truth there is no escaping, you can either try to downplay it, ignore it, or approach it with an open mind, potentially learning something you may have never seen before. These social issues in mind, Emmy nominated Writer/Director Xavier Burgin chose to tackle these topics head on in his new Documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.
Picked up by Shudder, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror marks the Horror-themed streaming service’s first original Documentary. A good start for Shudder in an attempt to build more original content, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror first became available on February 7th, 2019 and runs much deeper than a standard Documentary. For start, let’s assume for a minute you were browsing through Shudder looking for something to watch with no prior knowledge of what the film was about, clicking on it out of curiosity. From here you more than likely would think it would just be a fun, lovely run down of all the Horror flicks throughout history to feature people of color. Well, weren’t you told to never make assumption, because soon you find out you are in for something far more intellectually simulating with Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.
All this in mind, Burgin chose to approach his look into the history of black Horror cinema with eyes wide open and not through rose-colored glasses. Based on Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman’s 2011 book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, the film immediately picks up with a discussion of D.W. Griffith’s overtly racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation. An interesting place to start, in truth, the film is very much a real life horror, especially to those of color. From here, the Documentary proceeds to outline the usage, or misusage, of black actors/actresses in cinema early on. Outlining how their talents were seldom ever used to full potential, it becomes boldly evident they were nearly always marginalized to servants or silly caricatures.
Fast forward to more modern times, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror continues to showcase how blacks were used in cinema, primarily focusing on Horror, and alerting you to the reality they most never were leading characters. Fortunately this began to change around the time when George A. Romero cast Duane Jones as his leading man Ben in his 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. A breakthrough, of course there was still plenty of progress to be made and the Documentary does a solid job of touching on the rise of negative depictions of blacks in 1970s Blaxploitation films, the continued marginalization and ‘token black’ pigeonhole through the 1980s, and major step forward of more leading black males and females in film through the 1990s, as well as early 2000s. With so much material to go through, the only critique is the oversight of 1985’s Italian classic Demons, where black Actors Bobby Rhodes and Geretta Geretta both played significant leading roles, along with 1988’s Night of the Demons, where Alvin Alexis’ Rodger was in fact the film’s hero.
As a non-black, you can either look at the information outlined in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror in one of two ways – ignorant and dismissive or open-minded and willing to look at reality through the eyes of others. You see, it is easy to laugh off something when you are not the one at the butt of a stereotype, but have you ever considered how this may handicap progress? That said, Burgin’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror does a sensational job of not only speaking to black people, but also engaging anyone else with a thirst for understanding history.
Now, if all this sounds way too heavy for a late night viewing when you were just looking to unwind with some Horror on Shudder, fear not, because Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror is far from all doom and gloom. Educational, it is also very entertaining and laden with a collection of fantastic interviews with names everyone knows including Blacula (1972) Director William Crain, Bones (2001) Director Ernest Dickerson, Tales from the Hood (1995) Director Rusty Cundieff, Mississippi Damned (2009) Director Tina Mabry, as well as actors such as Tony Todd, Keith David, Paula Jai Parker, Ken Foree, Rachel True, Richard Lawson, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., plus much more. Additionally, the film’s potency is book-ended by interviews with one of the hottest filmmakers right now, Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) Creator Jordan Peele.
Overall, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror is a wonderfully perceptive look into the history of black people in Horror cinema. Tragically showing that progress is much slower than one would think, there is still hope for equality, and there is certainly room for black filmmakers and actors to take a much-deserved steeper step into the spotlight. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror 4.5 out of 5 stars.