Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror first published by

“We’ve always loved horror,” states a female voice at the beginning of Xavier Burgin’s documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, as the camera pans over empty cinema seats. “It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us.” There follows a montage of eyes looking up and watching, intercut with shots of movies playing on the big screen. These images – of cinema, of watching, of movies – naturally invite identification in any filmgoer. They also advertise difference: for every set of eyes belongs to a black face, and every actor on screen is African-American. The effect is certainly not to alienate or exclude any viewer who happens not to be a POC, but it does serve to challenge the mainstreaming of whiteness in both American cinema and its representations. Black viewers are used to seeing primarily Caucasian ideology and identity reflected back at them from the middle of their screens. Here that is inverted, with blackness front row and centre, and with any white viewers, though certainly welcome, finding themselves looking in from the side and rear.  

The unseen speaker is academic Robin R. Means Coleman, whose 2011 book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from 1890’s to Present, is the inspiration for Burgin’s film. The documentary opens and closes on Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), rightly celebrated as a turning point in the representations of African-American experience by an African-American filmmaker through genre cinema. The film’s box-office success has opened studio doors long shut to serious, engaged black horror and its critiques of white privilege, even white supremacy. It is not hard to detect in Coleman’s words (“horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always liked us“) a playful allusion to the title of Peele’s follow-up feature, green-lit with unprecedented rapidity. So at this crucial time of cultural shift, Horror Noire looks back at what came before, taking us on a whistle-stop tour of the history of black representation in horror cinema. To call this history ‘potted’ is not so much to criticise the documentary, as to acknowledge the many decades in which African-American experience was marginalised on our screens, if not altogether removed from them. 

Clips from films are screened, often with accompanying news footage for social, historical and political context, while interlocutors sitting in the cinema, mostly black filmmakers and actors, provide commentary that is congenially anecdotal and conversational. Coleman herself, along with author and educator Tananarive Due and the documentary’s co-writer Ashlee Blackwell (of Graveyard Shift Sisters), are on hand to do the heavier critical lifting. These three are also significantly all women, which might help explain the feminine form noire in the documentary’s title. For there has always been an intersection of exclusion shared by persons of colour and women, and Horror Noire redresses this by paying due attention to the landmarks of not just black but also black female representation in cinema.

In a chronological survey, Horror Noire marks many watershed moments in black genre cinema: Richard C Kahn’s Son Of Ingagi (1940), the first horror feature to be written by an African-American (Spencer Williams), to have an all-black cast, and to feature male and female black characters who were educated middle-class professionals; George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which put a black hero (played by Duane Jones) at the centre of a tragedy fully engaged with the imagery of the unfolding civil rights struggle; Bob Kelljan’s Scream Blacula Scream (1973), the first horror to feature a black heroine (Pam Grier) and to show voodoo in a positive light; Bill Gunn’s artful, soulful vampire film Ganja & Hess (1973), which rejected the Blaxploitation clichés of its time for something more intellectual and experimental; Rusty Cundieff’s Tales From The Hood (1995), which anthologised the ripped-from-the-headlines realities of everyday black experience; and Ernest Dickerson’s Demon Knight (1995), which gave the world its first black ‘final girl’ (played by Jada Pinkett). 

Along the way, there is much discussion of stereotyping, tokenism and invisibility, of feared monstrous Others standing in for African-Americans in films of the Fifties and Sixties from which blackness was otherwise thoroughly erased, and of unwelcome tropes like ‘the lustful negro’, ‘the faithful servant’, ‘the magical negro’, ‘the first to die’ and ‘the sacrificial negro’ – and how more recently these have been recognised and, for the most part, reversed. The case is also made that even the worst cases of black representation have their value – whether openly racist films like D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation (1915) which serve as important time capsules of then Presidentially endorsed prejudice (plus ça change), or the capacity of lacklustre, frankly incompetent titles like William A. Levey’s Blackenstein (1973) incidentally to smuggle in controversial issues such as the Tuskegee Study.

“It was really a good thing to be black and in any film in the 80s,” says Miguel A Nunez Jr. (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, 1985; The Return of the Living Dead,1985) of the rôles that he and other black actors took in that decade – rôles which typically relegated them to expendable sidekicks in a white ensemble. The point is that they were raising visibility in a Reaganite climate when African-Americans were otherwise invisible if not demonised – and so laying down the stepping stones for what Due identifies as the ‘beautiful renaissance’ of the Nineties. The truth is, black representation has improved – and Burgin’s documentary traces this progress with a critical eye, while offering insight into so many of the films that have paved the way. The analysis, at the end, of the coded messages in Peele’s Get Out is particularly excellent  – but everything here is informative, stimulating and provocative, while never forgetting to entertain. There is, after all, no reason why cinema’s darkest of genres should be so white.

Summary: Xavier Burgin’s documentary insightfully surveys the history of black – and black female – representation in horror cinema.

© Anton Bitel