In the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, now playing on the genre specialty streaming service Shudder, director Xavier Burgin makes the provocative case that the horror genre, for good and ill, reflected the Black experience like no other in the past century.
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Black Horror: Perspectives and Interventions
In the words of writer-educator Tananarive Due, an executive producer of the film, "Black history is Black horror." Another academic, Robin R. Means Coleman, nails down that case with footage from D.W. Griffith’s racist epic Birth of a Nation, which celebrates a lynching of a Black man by the Ku Klux Klan. Long celebrated as the first American feature-length narrative, it can indeed only be viewed as a horror film today.
Even well into the '80s and '90s, the horror genre still found itself stuck in established racist tropes, in which Black characters were the first to die, or sacrificed themselves for the benefit of white characters.
"We’ve always loved horror," Due observes at the beginning of the film. "It’s just that horror, unfortunately, hasn’t always loved us."
That case is clarified with Black Horror, Cinematheque’s March program of six feature films, co-curated by Winnipeg artist Mahlet Cuff and Cinematheque’s horror-friendly in-house programmer Olivia Norquay.
This festival kicks off today with a pair of films that nicely illustrate the evolution of Black horror over the past 50 years.
George Romero’s landmark shocker Night of the Living Dead (1969) was revolutionary within the genre because it cast a Black actor (Duane Jones) as a hero who successfully staves off a horde of flesh-eating zombies from a desolate farmhouse, an unprecedented piece of casting at the time, especially for a horror film.
The fact that NOTLD is a prime entry in Black horror is, historically, almost accidental. Romero claimed he was colour-blind in casting Jones as the hero because he was simply the best actor to turn up to audition for the role.
Yet in the context of the civil rights conflicts of the ‘60s, we see how the character came loaded with historical significance, especially in the film’s shocking finale, when Jones falls victim to a posse of rednecks on a mission to destroy the zombies with the dead-eyed fervour of a lynch mob. (Romero was on his way to delivering his footage to New York City when he heard on the car radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.)
Friday’s co-feature is Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning 2017 thriller Get Out, in which a Black hero (Daniel K finds himself the object of unsettling attention when he visits the posh home of his girlfriend’s parents, only to discover he is the designated victim of a horrifyingly invasive slavery racket. Given that Peele won an Oscar for his screenplay, we can assert nothing is accidental here. The script is an airtight Lament Configuration puzzle box of a thriller, but also a perfect snapshot of the retrograde American transition from the Obama years to the Trump years, in which white people presumed to be allies show their allegiances to be skin-deep.
Night of The Living Dead screens Friday, March 4 at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 9 at 9 p.m. and Thursday, March 17 at 7:30 p.m.
Get Out screens Friday, March 4, at 9:15 p.m., Thursday, March 10, at 9:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 13 at 5:40 p.m.
Also on the program:
Def By Temptation
Saturday, March 5, at 4:45 p.m.; Sunday, March 6, at 8 p.m.; Friday, March 11, at 9:40 p.m.; and Sunday, March 13, at 8 p.m.
In this hip-hop-infused 1990 thriller by James Bond III, men fall victim to a succubus in New York City. Bond himself plays a divinity student who is starting to question his faith, the head of a cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson as a minister, Kadeem Hardison (of the TV series A Different World), Bill Nunn (of Do the Right Thing) and Cynthia Bond as the "Temptress." Cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson would go on to be a notable horror director himself (Bones, Demon Night, The Walking Dead).
Saturday, March 5, at 9 p.m.; Saturday, March 12, at 1 p.m.; Wednesday, March 16, at 9:40 p.m.
This is the 1992 version of the film, directed by Bernard Rose. It was deemed problematic in the Horror Noire doc for the fact that its central figure, a hook-wielding spectre stalking the denizens of the Chicago housing complex Cabrini-Green, is romantically obsessed with a white woman (Virginia Madsen). But it’s still something of a classic, thanks largely to Tony Todd’s grand performance in the title role, literally a tortured artist out for vengeance.
Ganja & Hess
Sunday, March 6, at 5:30 p.m.; Thursday, March 10, at 7p.m.; Saturday, March 12, at 3:20 p.m.
Director Bill Gunn was given money to make a vampire movie, but instead of something in the template of the 1972 exploitation hit Blacula, he made this comparatively restrained 1973 mood piece starring Duane Jones (from NOTLD) as a wealthy anthropologist who becomes a vampire after being stabbed by his deranged assistant (played by Gunn). He entices his assistant’s widow (Marlene Clark) into his vampire lifestyle, with bloody results.
The People Under the Stairs
Saturday, March 12, at 6 p.m.
This 1991 film by Wes Craven takes as its unlikely hero a Black child nicknamed Fool (Brandon Adams) who sneaks into the house of his deranged landlords (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie), only to discover the place houses a group of captive cannibal children. It’s both a nasty thriller and a concise satire of race and class in America.
In Conversation with Tananarive Due
Thursday, March 17, at 6 p.m.
In this free evening, programmer Mahlet Cuff discusses Black horror with novelist and educator Tananarive Due, the executive producer of Horror Noire and teacher of a course at UCLA called The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival and the Black Horror Aesthetic, focusing on Jordan Peele’s film Get Out.