The horror genre, probably more so than all the rest, has long relied on clichés, tropes and stereotypes in depicting stories for the big and small screen. Often used in low-budget releases (but not exclusively), these tired portrayals have unfortunately become a drinking game of sorts to cinema aficionados everywhere. One could simply look back to Wes Craven’s Scream, originally released in 1996, which was not only a meta slasher, but it also breaks down lazy storytelling elements by filmmakers that have been used for far too long. While not the only example of peeking behind the camera and pointing out the flaws of filmmaking gone wrong, I was thrilled to recently watch Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, which also gives insightful commentary of an entire genre that finally seems to be trending toward a more positive, inclusive place.
As a Child of the ’80s, my entertainment options involved a variety of comic books, toys, novels, TV shows and movies. This took place when telephones involved land lines and phone books were considered that decade’s version of a search engine. I was always yearning for the latest and greatest stories to pique my imagination, which is why more often than not, I would venture into the science fiction category. That genre frequently tells fantastic tales as allegories for modern-day life problems. Growing older, I opened up to the horror community, as well, which also uses those same techniques. The more that I watched, the more I noticed familiar characterizations and story setups. Nobody likes to watch predictable outcomes, and in some ways the genre has been constrained by it. Watching Horror Noire, I realize it’s a continuous problem.
Based on the book, Horror Noire by Robin R. Means Coleman, PhD, this Shudder documentary is incredibly eye opening. Self-described as detailing the “untold history of Black Americans in Hollywood through their connection to the horror genre,” this is an oral history of sorts which also focuses on filmmaking throughout the years. Presented by a mixture of authors, actors, educators, directors, film historians and writers, Noire breaks down the genre through the decades, from silent films through modern-day releases.
Many movies I’d never heard about are paired with commentary and rare archive footage. As you can probably guess, the overall presentation of on-screen Black characters hasn’t always been a positive one. That’s incredibly unfortunate. There’s far too many bad depictions out there and the best way to prevent the past from repeating itself is to show examples of what not to do and to discuss how writers and directors can improve the process.
“We’ve always loved horror, it’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us…”
Looking back at films that might not be classically considered within the horror genre, there are many poor examples where monsters, aliens and other characters are metaphorically standing in for Black people. But infrequently, Night of the Living Dead or The Thing will surprise you, when a strong Black character becomes the lead or doesn’t become the first victim within minutes of the film’s introduction, instantly becoming a classic.
There’s a quick mixture of politics thrown into the mix with some social commentary, as many bold stories have become cult classics because of the real-life events that have unfolded across the country around their releases. It’s definitely not asking too much for Hollywood to include more accurate representations and the inclusion of positive minority characters within the story-writing process.
“Black history is Black horror.”
As times have changed, opinions have changed. Social norms have evolved. The best way to prevent problems of the past seems to be writing strong characters, period, with no racial identities attached, as well as allowing casting directors more leeway with the audition process to see what kind of movie-making magic may appear. Let the best actor win. That may seem to be far too simple, as show business can definitely be a cruel one to everyone involved, but big-screen Black protagonists should not be extinct. As more Black filmmakers receive opportunities, maybe that will happen.
After Jordan Peele won an Academy Award for Get Out, the future does seem a little brighter for Black character roles in horror movies, but he cannot do it alone. Horror Noire‘s presentation is simultaneously frustrating and positive. If you’re a fan of the genre (like me) or just like documentaries (also like me), you should definitely check this one out. I enjoyed the interactions so much between the guests, I’d love to see this documentary film stretched into a documentary series, much like the way Eli Roth’s History of Horror takes deep dives into a variety of subgenres.
For kids of this era to see more positive characters who actually look like themselves on the screen, maybe they, too, will become enthralled with the genre, propelling it into the next millennium.