Horror Noire guides us through over 100 years’ depiction of Black people in horror films from DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) to Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out. As we are shown clips, black film makers, actors and academics sit in cinema seats in pairs and discuss what the films mean to them. It works surprizingly well, although a couple of them seem to be not really listening and just waiting for their chance to speak.
Birth of a Nation is not generally thought of as a horror film, although this is partially because the people doing the thinking are mainly white. A black man – played by a white actor in blackface – is lynched by the KKK for “lusting after a white woman”. This was one of the first films shown in Woodrow Wilson’s White House. The president later said of the love letter to the Klan: “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
As film progressed through the inter-war years, there were some roles for actual black actors, but mainly as servants and eye-rolling loons. By 1940, Son of Ingagi – the first horror film written by a black person, with an all-black cast – could show black middle class people with “proper” jobs. This was a leap forward from the original Ingagi – a film about gorillas mating with black women.
In the post war Sci-Fi films, roles started to dry up. In the Meritocratic Truman-Eisenhower years, there was no place for servants in film. Equality went only so far, however, as no film producer could conceive of a black scientist. Black people found their representation by proxy – in King Kong and the large lipped scary sea monsters who were “obviously” stand-in black people.
I’d agree with this analysis, but only so far. Particularly in Cold War cinema, aliens and monsters represented the Other. In racist Amerikkka, this obviously included black people, but they also represented Russkis, trade unionists, gays and lesbians and everything that challenged the American Way of Life. The paranoid US establishment had many enemies, and black people were only one of them.
Moving on. The film argues that the big breakthrough was 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. The story goes that George Romero was taking the reels to his distributors when Martin Luther King was shot. In those reels was a film which did not just have a black star, but one who took charge – just as the rioters in the streets did in the aftermath of King’s assassination.
On to Blaxploitation and its horror sub-genre (in less than 90 minutes, Horror Noire covers a hell of a lot of ground). The reviewers agree that this was only a partial gain. Sure, we had films in which black people took a leading role – both in front of and behind the camera. But many of the roles were stereotyped pimps and hos, and the depiction of women left lots to be desired.
In the 1980s there were two contradictory developments. On the one hand, the Reagan government used black welfare moms as a cheap scapegoat, and the “Willie Horton or will he not get elected” demonisation of black men as potential rapists seeped into popular culture. On the other, as the decade developed, black film makers like Spike Lee and John Singleton made confident films which were also mirrored in the horror genre.
Pausing for a brief critique of the “black characters always die first in slasher movies” trope (sometimes, but not always. At other times, if a film maker needs to show how dangerous the villain is, he must provide a scary black adversary, who is sometimes even given a speaking part) we move to Peele’s groundbreaking debut film and a fascinating interview with the director.
What to make of it all? Firstly, Horror Noire avoids the mistake of much film criticism which explains the development of cinema in relationship to other films but not to wider movements in society. Here, we see footage of the first black students entering Universities in the South, of the Rodney King beating and of the more recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and it is clear that these events had a real impact on what appeared in contemporary cinema.
But we also are given many recommendations of films in a genre with which I only have a passing acquaintance (for example, I gather that Candyman is a big deal in its promotion of black actors, but that passed me by). Nonetheless I was transfixed throughout. This is how documentaries are supposed to be. Articulate, erudite and absolutely fascinating. This is most definitely up there as one of the films of the year.