This month, the streaming service Shudder released its exclusive documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, based on the book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Robin R. Means Coleman. For any horror fan or film fan in general, this doc is a must-see. Featuring interviews with black directors, actors, actresses, and scholars, the film traces the history of black representation in horror (and film in general), beginning with 1915’s Birth of the Nation to 2017’s Get Out. In an hour and a half, the doc analyzes where we’ve been and where we’re going.
The film covers over 100 years and draws attention to certain time periods and eras to highlight racist stereotypes and also show the evolution of black horror. The doc begins with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and spends the necessary amount of time analyzing the impact that the film had on public consciousness (President Woodrow Wilson screened it in the White House and praised it) and the racist stereotypes that it fostered, namely that black men were a threat to white women. The film’s positive depiction of the KKK as a means of confronting the “Other” helped to contribute to the resurgence of the Klan during the Jim Crow era. The doc then looks at other early Hollywood films, including King Kong, and their presentation of the monster/Other, drawling parallels, for instance, between Kong’s looks and negative depictions of black Americans in advertising and print. It also looks at the trope of the “magical negro” and faithful servant.
From there, the doc points to Spencer Coleman, known for creating films with all-black casts for black audiences, as writing the first ever horror film with an all-black cast, 1940’s Son of Ingagi. Spencer went on to create other horror/fantasy films, but he’s a name relatively unknown in the horror community today. Horror Noire brings much-deserved attention to his historic role in the genre.
From there, the doc shifts to films of the 1960s and 1970s, including George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which featured a black protagonist Ben (Duane Jones), the cerebral vampire film Ganja and Hess, also starring Jones, and Blacula, a smart contrast to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Then, the doc points out the regression that occurred in the 1980s, when black actors and actresses were killed off early, especially in slashers, or only served the narrative of the white protagonists.
The doc ends with sufficient attention given to the 1990s and the 2000s, with the success of Candyman, Tales from the Hood, and most recently, Get Out. Throughout the run-time, the doc boasts impressive interviews with a number of black filmmakers and actors/actresses, including Tony Todd (Candyman), Jordan Peele (writer/director of Get Out and Us), Rusty Cundieff (director of Tales from the Hood), William Crain (director of Blacula), Rachel True (The Craft), among many others.
Horror Noir is the first must-watch horror entry of 2019. It covers over 100 years of film history and underscores the various racial stereotypes that have existed during that time period. Yet, the film also shows where the horror genre is going and how it will continue to evolve and become more inclusive, featuring more all-black casts, black directors, and black writers. Horror Noir also gives much-needed attention to films that have been forgotten over the years, including Son of Ingagi, Ganja and Hess, and Blacula. Perhaps most importantly, Horror Noir will help to find new audiences for these films.