How 'Horror Noire' Primes Viewers for a Year of Black Horror

Director Xavier Burgin's documentary brings together Jordan Peele and other prominent black voices in horror history.

The horror business is finally in the black. When it comes to horror, black faces and voices in front of and behind the camera are receiving more attention now than they ever have. This shift isn’t simply because studios are finally starting to realize how much of the genre’s box office success is due to black audiences members, but because there’s an increased awareness that the exploration of black stories creates a richer moviegoing experience in what can often be one of the most empathetic genres. It’s not that blacks haven’t been a key part of the history of horror, quite the contrary. But it’s only recently that it feels like we’re being seen, repeatedly so, as more than token characters, stereotypes, and vehicles for comic relief. We’re finally being seen as human beings with arcs just as complex and meaningful as those of the white protagonists we’ve followed for years. As a black horror fan, it feels good to be seen, to have a presence and be reflected.

It’s this consideration of reflection that drives the new Shudder documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, based on the non-fiction book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1980s to the Present by Robin Means Coleman. The documentary, directed by Xavier Burgin and written by Coleman alongside Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows, brings together some of the most prominent and educated black voices in horror history to discuss how the horror genre’s representation of black people has changed over the years. A who’s who of the men and women who have helped define black horror, Horror Noire features discussions and conversations with Jordan Peele, Tananarive Due, Tony Todd, Rachel True, Ken Foree, and Keith David among others. Set in a movie theater with clips of rarest black horror films, Son of Ingagi (1940) to the most prominent, Candyman (1992), playing across the screen in the background, Horror Noire pairs many of these horror giants together to look back at the legacy of black horror and comment on its future. Both history lesson and conversation piece, Horror Noire is essential viewing for the genre fan. But more than that, for the black horror fan it’s a historical document that charts our place in the genre, and serves as the perfect primer for a year that will continue to see black horror on the rise.

Get Out got under our skin. Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut, which bookends Horror Noire’s conversation, brought a new perspective to the black experience in America through the lens of the horror movie, or the “social thriller” if you prefer. Even with defining moments in black horror seen in Night of the Living Dead (1968), Blacula (1972), and Candyman (1992), black audiences had never gotten a horror movie so attuned with the black experience before Get Out. It was a film made for black audiences, as Peele highlights in the doc. Where a number of black horror films centered on race through class, age, and gender, Get Out managed to encompass the horror blacks experience on a scale unlike any we’d seen before. Two years later and its clear that the success of black horror is more than a singular phenomena. Whether we’re seeing more films about race, or led by black characters, 2019’s horror release schedule in both film and television is evidence that Peele changed the game.

Peele, through his production company, is not only returning with the terrifying looking Us, but also a highly-anticipated revival of The Twilight Zone for CBS All-Access, and HBO series Lovecraft Country, an adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel which explores the horror of the Jim Crow South. Beyond Peele, audiences can also look forward to the black-led Relive, Sweetheart, and films like Captive State, Doctor Sleep, and the recently released Escape Room that feature black people in prominent roles. In the case of Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan’s casting of young black actress Kyliegh Curran as Abra Stone not only departs from the race of the character in Stephen King’s novel, but also has an opportunity to, in some way, rectify the controversial death of Dick Halloran in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as highlighted in Horror Noire. Looking at the lineup of black talent in 2019’s horror slate, it’s important to note that we’re not only seeing films concerned with race, but films that cast black people in roles not just for allegorical purposes, but because we’re just as human and worthy of leading roles as anyone else. Seeing blackness reflected in horror is, at its best, a recognition of black humanity, and our place in society. Horror Noire posits that there are a multitude of ways to consider the presence of blackness on screen and behind the camera, and whether we’re evaluating these films through the context or dismantlement of the ‘magical negro,” the “black final girl,” “the sacrificial negro,” or the “mammy figure,” we’re taking part in an essential conversation that ultimately benefits horror and the black viewer.

Horror Noire draws the important conclusion that Peele’s success and the prominence of blackness that we’re seeing now in everything from The Purge franchise to The Walking Dead was founded on small steps. The Birth of a Nation (1915), Oscar Micheaux, Blaxploitation, Tales from the Hood (1995), these are all pieces in a larger story that is marked with low and high points but have ultimately led us to where we are today. It’s important to think of Horror Noire as a first chapter, a beginning point in our discussion of blackness within the genre. It stands out as a necessary documentary within the genre, because it doesn’t seek to drag us back to the past, but to make us aware that where we’ve been is all the more crucial because of where we are and where we’re going.

Horror Noire streams on Shudder beginning Thursday.

  • Richard Newby