[Review] Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

Based on the academic book of the same name by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, Horror Noire tackles the horror genre and its representations of black people over a century of film history. Along the way, it examines the important milestones of black cinema, emergence of black leading men in genre cinema, the rise of Blaxploitation and how black people were both represented and exploited throughout history. 

“We’ve always loved horror. It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us,” the documentary begins before diving headfirst into Get Out and how important the film is to modern audiences. Horror Noire smartly sets the stage with this stunning film by showing its importance and the accolades it and writer/director Jordan Peele received. But then author and educator Tananarive Due states, “Black history is black horror” and we are mercilessly brought back to the beginning of black representation in horror.

And readers, it isn’t pretty.

The first film presented is The Birth of a Nation, a hideous movie that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force and black men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive to white women. This film came out in 1915 and to a lot of people living in areas where there weren’t many, if any, African Americans, it set the tone for how the country would look at race. Think about it this way, it was the first American movie to be screened in the White House and was viewed by President Woodrow Wilson. And we know how Presidents getting “facts” from movies can turn out.

Moreover, The Birth of a Nation was endorsed by Woodrow Wilson and the movie is partially credited for the reformation of the KKK. As stated in Horror Noire, the film unfortunately helped create a racist image of black culture that saw them as deviant and deficient. It put them squarely in the realm of The Other. And, as we know, one of the narrative structures that defines a lot of horror is the Fear of The Other. So here, we have a movie, endorsed by the president, that completely established two sides: The “Black Menace,” as it is described in the documentary, and the KKK as the solution to the problem. This is heady stuff. Important as you dig into the cultural history and power films can have on society.

From here, the narrative is told with discussions between black directors, writers and actors, as they watch scenes from significant movies throughout cinema’s history. Interjected into these discussions are interviews with individuals involved with the production of the documentary, including insight from Dr. Coleman herself, providing historical context. The list of black filmmakers is extensive and the pairings are smart and their conversations are wide-ranging and informative.

For instance, Horror Noire opens with writer/director Rusty Cundieff (Tales From the Hood) and director Ernest Dickerson (Bones, Demon Knight) watching the opening scene of Get Out and analyzing and empathizing with the situation Andre (Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself in. Another perfect pairing is actors Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) and Keith David (The Thing). Watching them react to, and discuss, the importance of Night of the Living Dead’s Ben (Duane Jones) was interesting. They looked at this pivotal moment as both actors and as black men.

Horror Noire also delves into the experiences of actors and directors working in the industry, within the confines of racism. Director William Crain, for instance, discusses the tangible racism and resistance he faced as one of the only black people on the crew of Blacula. But the struggles he dealt with is perfectly contrasted with the historical importance of the film, particularly on African American kids growing up. Rachel True (The Craft) mentions how the character of Blacula was sexy and scary at the same time and how seeing a black Dracula was important.

Meanwhile, Keith David discusses how he wanted to be the first black Dracula but couldn’t be mad with William Marshall’s portrayal. Then there's Ken Sagoes (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3) saying how amazing it was to see a black man kicking ass. Showcasing this dichotomy of the struggles William Crain went through with its historical effects was a brilliant decision.

Big names are definitely attached to this documentary, both in front of and behind the camera. And while a lot of attention will go to these genre stalwarts, the biggest credit, I think, needs to go to Ashlee Blackwell (Graveyard Shift Sisters) and writer/producer Danielle Burrows, for co-writing and producing Horror Noire and director Xavier Burgin for tying everything together. Ashlee and Danielle did a fantastic job of building the narrative threads; I can tell that so much of the structure was developed by the two of them and, it’s my understanding, they were instrumental in the editing room in framing the narrative.

Obviously, this documentary hit a chord with me. It’s full of wit and insightful commentary on over a century of horror and its importance to black cinema. But it also got me thinking of the shared path that black people and gay people have had with horror. From being completely invisible in film to being used as the villains to being seen as a stereotype or a prop, you can see a shared history. Contrast the way that black men were represented as sexually aggressive to white women with the idea of gay panic and how gay men were positioned as “recruiting” younger men to become gay, for example. I mention this not to take away from the themes in the documentary, but as a way Horror Noire got me thinking about my own place in cinema.

“Man has got to see his face,” a line spoken in Scream Blacula Scream, hit me hard. Yes, the newly created vampire states this quite literally, but when you look at the implication of that line, it becomes quite profound. It speaks to representation. To a need to see yourself, your actual self, on screen or in books or music. And the line prophetically comes at a time of civil unrest and with decades of being unable to be fully and authentically represented on screen. Too long, black people were presented as caricatures. Stereotypes. Props. If they were even seen, to begin with.

Horror Noire is easily the best horror documentary I’ve seen in a very long time. It tackles my favorite genre with pathos and intelligence, while showcasing the best and the worst examples of how cinema was at least partially responsible for framing a century of how we discussed race. As a white person, it educated me and provided me with a substantial list of films I need to watch to further understand horror history. As a gay person, it hit me in the heart and made me feel pretty emotional, as I could empathize completely and utterly with the way black people have been portrayed. I can only imagine its importance to people of color.

Horror Noire is an incredibly poignant, erudite and effective documentary. I loved it and I think it is a must see.