Horror Noire: Why representation matters

I thought I knew pretty much everything about the horror genre, but when I read Shudder was releasing a documentary about black creators and their contributions to the genre it suddenly hit me, I only know half the story. My whiteness has kept me away from most media content created for black audiences and I wasn’t aware of it, until recently.

In the past few years we have come to understand why representation matters. The mainstream public has become more and more interested about stories told by queer, disabled and people of color. We are living in the golden age of entertainment. Big studios and online platforms are taking more risks financing projects that are not economically safe by Hollywood standards, but these standards are changing, fast.

“Black history is black horror”

Tananarive Due

“Horror Noire” is a new documentary directed by Xavier Burgin, based on a book by Robin R. Means Coleman titled “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present”. The film explores representation of black characters in movies while also telling the stories of black people behind the camera. Starting with “The Birth of a Nation (1915)” and going all the way to the current decade to “Get out (2017)”, the documentary succeeds in presenting the evolution of cinema tropes and stereotypes associated with the black community throughout film history. However, the showstoppers of this film are the interviews – with black actors, directors, producers and scholars – and their discussions about their personal history with horror movies.

George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead (1968)” is an essential film not only because it defined the zombie sub-genre as we know it today, but because its main protagonist was a black man. As said in the film, audiences were shocked to see a black man punching white guys and killing white zombies on screen being presented as a hero, not a villain. Black audiences felt a special connection to this film, and although Romero has said he didn’t intend to make a film about race, black folks can’t scape the horror of racism and police brutality of the film’s infamous ending. For them, the movie stops being a fantasy and becomes reality. 18 unarmed black people were shot by the police in the United States in 2018 (source The Washington Post).

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

As a white queer man, I have the privilege of being able to relate to the final girl in horror movies. That is one of the reasons why the LGBTQ+ community – especially gay men – feels so drawn to horror. We can see a part of our psyche embodied on film, we have someone to root for. Black folks have been denied this privilege. I grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. On the rare occasions I got to see black people in movies all I saw were sassy undeveloped secondary characters who were killed too early to even remember they were in the movie. Rachel True discusses her role in the “The Craft (1996)” and the impact it had on her life when a little black girl stopped her on a train because she recognized her from the movie. The girl was so happy to see herself in Rachel’s character that it really moved the actor. All I can remember about “The Craft” is that Neve Campbell was in it. This is a great example of why representation matters. Different aspects of a film will resonate with different people based on their background and upbringing.

If you are looking to expand your horizons this documentary will take you on a journey to discover some obscure gems from the 1970’s Blaxploitation period like Ganja & Hess (1973), as well as movies that are not considered horror films like Eve’s Bayou (1997) but contain supernatural elements in their plot. Decade by decade the film will showcase some interesting films, and although not all of them are good films, you might still want to check out some gory scenes.

You can watch “Horror Noire” by signing up for a free trial on Shudder. It is worth your time. Black horror is booming, and we can thank Jordan Peele for that. “Us” is coming out next month, later this year we will have the revival of “The Twilight Zone” and a show based on the book “Lovecraft Country”, plus a remake of “Candyman” announced for 2020 release. What a great time to be alive.