The Angry Black Girl And Her Monster had its world première at SXSW 2023
“Death is a disease,” says Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes) in voiceover at the beginning of The Angry Black Girl And Her Monster.
Vicaria is a high-school teenager, in her prime and very much alive, making her experience of death, in keeping with her name, vicarious – but in the ghettoised, crime-ridden housing estate where she lives, death is always circling close to home. At 8, she witnessed the fatal shooting of her mother – a doctor-in-training who might have helped the community – and heard her last heartbeat. More recently, Vicaria’s brother Chris (Edem Atsu-Swanzy) joined the local gang of Kango (Denzel Whitaker) and was killed by another criminal crew (the image of his corpse being discovered – and dragged away – by Vicaria opens the film). And her own father Donald (Chad L. Coleman), overworked and traumatised with loss, has been buying drugs from Kango to cope, which Vicaria knows can only lead one way.
Always encouraged to think outside the box, and gifted with a talent for science, Vicaria has decided to find the cure for the disease of death – and so has been furtively snatching the corpses of the neighbourhood’s fallen and bringing them to the abandoned powerhouse that she has converted into a covert lab, so that she can rebuild Chris’ broken body and galvanise him back into life. There have been many cinematic riffs on Frankenstein (1818), and The Angry Black Girl And Her Monster openly acknowledges its source, giving Vicaria’s notebook the same title (‘The Modern Prometheus’) that was the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking novel, and even, in its closing scenes, introducing a character who shares his forename, Victor, with the novel’s protagonist.
Yet the title of writer/director Bomani J. Story’s feature debut also advertises its differences. Here both the sex and race of the main character are flipped, ensuring that there is, to complement all the dissection, a strong element of intersectionality, as Shelley’s story is taken apart and stitched back together into a hybrid allegory of the problems, both internal and external, facing America’s black communities (and especially the women in them), where everyone – not just the drug dealers and gang bangers but also the parents and strivers – is readily treated as a monster and has their unequal status weaponised against them by casually racist teachers and the police alike.
Vicaria’s sister-in-law Aisha (Reilly Brooke Stith), who has two young children of her own and a third on the way, insists that her kids get an education, but also warns them of the need to learn “your real history”, not the “fake shit” taught at school, and to find their rôle models in Malcolm X rather than in Christopher Columbus (“nothing but a human-trafficking racist”). Likewise Vicaria herself, talking with Aisha’s daughter Jada (Amani Summer) about her autodidact studies, is careful to namecheck unsung pioneering black women like Valerie Thomas, Alice H. Parker and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose lineage she is herself joining. Here, much as Story is rewriting Frankenstein, Aisha and Vicaria are rewriting the conventional annals of history, deconstructing its built-in bias towards white males, and suturing disparate sources together into something new – a horror noire.
As the resurrected Chris displays a capacity for love and learning, but also for murderous destruction, his monstrousness is a product of his immediate experience and environment, and his second life comes to replay the tragedy of his first. As such, the monster embodies all the residents of this neighbourhood, all (even Vicaria) drawn to criminality by iniquitous circumstance, ambient exclusion and external prejudice. “We can’t do nothing if we’re dead”, says Vicaria, justifying her obsession with finding a cure for death. She is of course right, but so is Aisha’s response: “Well the system traps us if we’re alive.” It is this engagement with systemic problems which ensures that The Angry Black Girl And Her Monster, while certainly a sci-fi horror that plays with all the tropes of those genres, is also something else besides: an exploration of the African-American experience of being marginalised, demonised, patronised, oppressed and zombified by a society in need of radical revivification.
strap: Bomani J. Story’s sci-fi horror resurrects the Frankenstein myth to allegorise African-American experience
© Anton Bitel