At its core, film entertainment should appeal to a wide array of people. Everyone loves a good story, even if that story originates from a time, place, or culture very different from one’s own. If the plot is compelling and the characters engaging, we can find just enough of ourselves in the narrative to feel a connection.
Too many audiences, however, find themselves excluded from these narratives, or worse, included as degrading stereotypes or bland caricatures. Representation matters, especially when one kind of audience is continually and persistently asked to empathize with characters who exist in a world in which a large portion of the audience does not exist. Or if they do exist, it’s as nothing more than condescending, perhaps even harmful stereotypes.
These shallow portrayals are the chief focuses of Horror Noire, the groundbreaking documentary, based on the collection of essays by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman. Directed by Xavier Burgin, the documentary illuminates the historical depictions of black people in American horror movies. In exploring the representations of black people in horror, Horror Noire holds a mirror up to how societal attitudes towards black people shaped their appearances (if any) in horror movies and vice versa.
Horror Noire follows the general structure of Dr. Coleman’s book, functioning as a lesson in the historical weight of how horror has depicted black people. As the documentary addresses, black audiences watching movies rarely see themselves portrayed onscreen. If they do, it might be only as The Exotic Other (I Walked With A Zombie) or “Black Person Who Dies First/Is the Only One to Die,” (The Shining, Jurassic Park), among several other dehumanizing tropes. These clichés says so much about horror movies, pointing both to the film industry’s catering to white audiences and its half-assed attempts to incorporate “real world diversity.”
Horror Noire confronts the viewer with the systematic “othering” of black people in American culture, from straight-up racist depictions in early horror movies (Ingagi) to a slew of problematic archetypes like The Token Minority (House of Wax), Big Scary Black Dude (Candyman), The Mythical Negro (The Shining), Sassy Black Lady (Thirteen Ghosts), and, of course, Black Person Who Dies First/Is the Only One to Die (Gremlins).
The message is loud and clear: yes, black people (and other minorities) exist in the real world, but they don’t belong in horror movies as leads or as anything other than stock characters who do not enjoy any real development. They exist merely to drive the plot or develop the white characters. They are nothing more than a nod to “diversity in film,” the bare minimum necessary.
On top of that, examples of black representation that doesn’t resort to these kinds of frustrating and harmful stereotypes are few and far between, even today, though the tide is starting to turn. (The documentary’s comparison of Ben from Night of the Living Dead and Chris from Get Out is especially striking.)
Consequently, watching these black scholars, actors, directors, writers discuss the pitiful state of black representation in horror is unexpectedly moving. They all share very keen insights and personal anecdotes. They engage in illuminating conversations with each other, which lends a personal feel to the documentary and makes the more academic subject material extremely approachable.
The best part of Horror Noire are these candid discussions from black directors, actors, writers, and academics who love the genre but have felt that it has not always loved them back, who feel that they have had to carve out a place for themselves in an art form that hasn’t cared about people who looked like them. In this way, the documentary serve as an enlightening examination of the film industry and how it has treated black artists. The difference between William Crane’s struggle to make Blacula with his vision versus Jordan Peele’s experience of gaining creative control over Get Out is sobering. It’s also sad that it took 40+ years for someone to trust a black director with a horror movie the way Jordan Peele has been.
The only real complaint I have—which is nitpicky—is that Horror Noire is too short. Clocking in at an hour and 23 minutes, it really only scratches the surface of the material. It zips through discussions and film clips much too quickly. A viewer without much advance knowledge of horror movies or awareness of cinematic depictions of
That’s not necessarily a bad thing—buy the book already!
On the whole, Horror Noire is an entertaining but challenging documentary because it crosses the boundaries between fictionalized depictions and real world consequences of fears arising from racial tension. From early depictions of black people as “the other” to the notoriously depressing ending of Night of the Living Dead to Jordan Peele’s original ending for Get Out, the depiction of black people in horror movies all too closely resembles their systematic mistreatment in society at large.
It’s difficult to move to everyday reality from horror movie portrayals, which speak uncomfortable truths while maintaining a certain kind of psychological distance. In the end, horror is about human stories, and well-made horror is universal. And yet, American horror movies failed a whole swath of the population by refusing to acknowledge their humanity. Horror Noire will force many horror fans out of their comfort zones.
Personally, as a white girl who tries to continually educate herself about marginalized groups and harmful societal power dynamics, Horror Noire was a painful but necessary lesson in how a genre I turn to for entertainment and artistic merit has contributed to the subjugation of black people in America. It confronted me with evidence that this art form has failed the humanity of a whole swath of individuals.
Consequently, Horror Noire calls on us to demand better. Horror fans from all groups must support horror movies with diverse viewpoints in front of and behind the camera. It’s how we move forward, united in our exploration of darkness. It’s the best way to acknowledge our collective fears, unique perspectives, and shared humanity. And we will be all the better for it.