Horror is a powerful tool for discussing social issues and reflecting societal fears. Often discussions about the politics of horror focus on gender and the body, but rarely do those conversations attempt to address race in the genre. Yes, we know the tropes where there is only one token black character that usually dies first or the black character who tries to be the voice of reason to the rest of the (all white) group. But what we don’t discuss in the deep history of blackness in horror that exists even in the apparent lack of black characters on screen. Shudder’s first documentary, Horror Noire, remedies this problem, devoting an entire film to the history of black horror films through the lens of black history within the United States.
Horror Noire is inspired by the book Horror Noire: Black in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, a professor at the University of Michigan. Her book is an extensive survey of the genre, detailing the history of black horror within film history and American history. The documentary follows Coleman’s format, chronologically detailing horror history from Birth of a Nation to Get Out. In fact, Get Out functions as the framing device for the documentary, providing a starting point that almost all horror fans are at least aware of before launching into a plethora of lesser-known films, such as Son of Ingagi, the first horror film that featured an all-black cast.
One of the film’s most powerful features are its interviews with a wide range of black journalists, actors, directors, and academics. Coleman, Keith David (actor in The Thing), Tony Todd (actor in Candyman), Rachel True (actor in The Craft), Tananarive Due (film professor at University of California, LA), and Ashlee Blackwell (founder of Graveyard Shift Sisters and co-writer/producer for Horror Noire) are just a few of the interview subjects, each providing their own unique perspectives, both professional and personal, on the genre. This wide array of voices further proves that black horror deserves our attention, both in the messages they convey and in the creativity demonstrated by black filmmakers.
These interviews, interwoven with clips from various films and moments of American history, provide both critical analysis and personal anecdotes, which help contextualize each decade of the 20th century within black horror cinema. The interviews also highlight moments in horror that stick out to black audiences more than others. When discussing Get Out, Rachel True points out the use of the buck head as a weapon because during the 1800s, black men were called bucks. Small moments like this speak to the spectatorial differences between white and black audiences. Several experts also grapple with iconic black characters, such as Candyman, and the issues they represent, despite their importance in the genre. Candyman, for example, reinforces stereotypes about black men lusting after white women. Horror Noire addresses the good and the bad, creating an open discussion about not only films by black filmmakers, but films with black characters. These comparisons of how black characters are utilized throughout horror film history illustrate the importance of a diverse range of voices to tell stories with deeper understandings of racial issues, rather than the surface level or downright offensive, depictions of race seen throughout the horror canon.
There is no longer an excuse to say that you’ve never heard of any horror films by a black director. Horror Noire gives horror fans, and even just film lovers in general, a resource to discover a plethora of films spanning from the 1900s to now. There is also no longer space to claim that horror is not a political genre, especially after the numerous interviews speaking to the excitement of seeing a black character on screen or the fears of seeing black men killed on screen. Even if you are not a horror fan, there is something to be learned about how cinema interacts and reflects its cultural moment; it is not merely a historical art to be viewed in a vacuum. It is time to sit down and listen to the black voices working in horror; you might just learn something.
Need an intro to black horror? Here’s a selection of the films mentioned in Horror Noire that are available on streaming services:
- Ganja and Hess, available on Shudder
- Bones, available on Shudder
- The People Under the Stairs, available on Shudder
- Tales from the Hood, available on Shudder
- Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh, available on Amazon Prime
- Sugar Hill, available on Amazon Prime
- Eve’s Bayou, available on Hulu