When George A. Romero was casting Night of the Living Dead, he hired Duane Jones to portray Ben, a man whom kept a small group of survivors safe to the best of his ability. Ben’s a strong character, both physically and mentally, in the face of a zombie hoard and without him, those he sought to protect would surely have died faster. As told in Xavier Burgin’s documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, Romero hadn’t written the character as Black, but Jones was the best actor to audition, earning him the part. Thinking about it in these terms, Romero’s decision was rooted in what best served the film. However, in considering the social and political landscape of the times – the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 which killed four young girls, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, among many other incidents – Jones’s portrayal of Ben both served to show a positive representation of the Black community and further increased the terrible tragedy of the ending. Had Ben been cast as a white man, the ending would’ve certainly be sad, but with Jones in the role, the horror Romero created felt all too real.
Stories like this one are discussed, examined, and analyzed by actors, directors, writers, and academics throughout the documentary, inspired by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman’s book and co-produced by Tananarive Due (instructor of Sunken Place Class). Horror Noire illuminates the connection between horror films and the Black community, which are, rather unfortunately, intrinsically linked. Burgin gathers together film historians and professionals to dig into each era and the way Black representation evolved beginning with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation all the way to Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out. It’s not just a history lesson of which film came out when and who was involved, but it also places these films within their social context, an aspect many genre fans may not have considered.
On the whole, horror films enable audiences to process their fears in a safe environment. However, cinema also plays a major part in how social groups are perceived in the real world due to their presentation in film. To believe otherwise is simply foolishness. Griffith’s Nation includes a character in blackface pursuing white women, establishing a notion of a Black man’s lust. After its release, it screened at the White House with President Wilson which offered a seal of approval on a film which established Black culture as something deviant, something to be feared. Considering that Nation is widely viewed as the inciting inspiration for the modern KKK, that these same depictions of Black culture continue to appear in cinema over and over – look to 1933’s King Kong and 1992’s Candyman – to ignore the significant impact these depictions play on our culture is to willfully remain ignorant. Boiling a culture down to something akin to caricature is how we as a society end up with visions of entitlement, where a group of teens believe they can shout “Build The Wall” at Native Americans without seeing the irony, where an organization called Black Lives Matter is required in order to combat systemic acts of violence against an entire community of people in the face of unlawful violence, where a confused police officer can kill a man in his own home and the man becomes targeted by the media instead of being defended as the victim. While Horror Noire doesn’t explicitly address this particular issues, it doesn’t shy away from the social connection which exists and how representation changes with the times.
Films of the ’20s and ’30s were frequent abusers of the stereotypes first established in Nation. As films shifted toward a more scientific focus in the “Atomic Age” of the ’50s and ’60s, much of any kind of Black representation disappeared, creating a sensation of an invisible community, a trope which would carry into the ’80s as horror moved from urban environments into suburban communities. One need only look to the history of NASA – depicted in the wonderful film Hidden Figures – to see that this isn’t just some kind of SJW (social justice warrior) conspiracy theory, as the contributions of Black scientists were all but covered up or pushed aside. It’s in this particular aspect of examination where Horror Noire becomes particularly interesting. Where the academics discuss cinema from a somewhat separated view, the industry members infuse it with personal anecdotes, making the historical information less distant and more intimate. Two particularly fascinating stories come from Blacula director William Crain. On his set, outside of the actors, he was the only Black member of the crew. So when it came time to shoot a bar scene, the DP had mixed races couples dancing, but they didn’t intermix. Recognizing the inauthenticity, Crain fought to change it. The mere fact that it was something which needed to be pushed is, by today’s standards, strange, but when you consider that Blacula released in 1972, racial tension from the Civil Rights Movement was far from gone. Later, he tells a story of trying to get a high speed camera for a specific shot he envisioned for the film. He knew the tools he needed and he put in the request, yet because of the type of film he was making, he once more had to fight whereas any other director would have been given the equipment. Thankfully, he was approved for the equipment and the end result speaks for its deeply uncomfortable self.
Perhaps the only downside to the entire experience of Horror Noire is its speed. There’s so much to examine in 102 years of cinematic history that maintaining a brisk pace makes a certain degree of sense. However, it may be difficult for audience members with lesser knowledge – historically, socially, or within the genre – to keep up with each time period, the films examined, or the principles taking part in the dissection. The information the interviewees impart is so rich that some of it would be better served by slowing down and offering the audience a chance to really marinate in it. Instead, some information may be lost or simply moved on from in order to keep up with the pace. Thankfully, for those who want to dive into the history further need only track down Coleman’s book and other works.
Audiences familiar with lengthy history of horror and newbies alike will find something to appreciate in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. It’s wonderfully structured, offering an incredible overview of cinematic history and the complicated role it plays in Black culture through stories touching, thoughtful, personal, and occasionally hilarious. Unlike what films would have audiences believe, the people who make films and the culture which is often derided in their creation are incredibly complex and the nuances are what make their contributions in taking back their (the Black community) narrative so interesting and moving, particularly in a society so focused on preserving what they (society) think is valuable versus what is, hearing from individuals whose lives touched seminal cinematic works helps to shed pretense and get to the truth: culture is not for sale and there is a new generation of filmmakers determined to keep it that way.
Available for streaming through Shudder starting February 7th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.