There’s an episode of South Park where Randy Marsh, a middle-aged white dude, says the N-word on national television. His slur creates a massive scandal and he spends the rest of the episode being abused and ostracized from the rest of society. Ashamed of his father, Stan tries to understand how that word has impacted Token, his black friend and classmate. No matter how well-intentioned Stan’s efforts are, though, he just doesn’t understand the significance of a white person using that word. The episode concludes with him admitting that he never will. The moral of the story: white people will never fully understand what it’s like to be black.
Maybe South Park, a satirical cartoon told from the perspective of white men, isn’t the best comparison for this exercise, but I was reminded of that episode while watching Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. The content and perspective is much different, but the sentiment is the same. Even the most sincere and empathetic white allies of marginalized groups will never fully comprehend their experiences. That said, Horror Noire does a great job of helping us gain a better understanding of pop culture from the perspective of those who’ve been most affected by its lack of diversity throughout the years.
Adapted from Robin R. Means Coleman’s similarly-titled book, the Xavier Burgin-directed film assembles an array of black filmmakers, actors, and experts to document the history of black horror. This includes exploring the problematic aspects of the genre. For a start, it’s no secret that there’s always been a disproportionate amount of black filmmakers out there. This issue is emblematic of the entire film industry and inclusivity is still a work in progress to this day, but it’s been especially visible in horror circles. On top of that, there are certain tropes within horror that aren’t too kind to black characters. Whether it’s the Sacrificial/Mystical Negro, the sidekick, a racial stereotype, or the first person to die trope, horror movies have rarely portrayed black people in a strong light. The list goes on.
These are just some examples of the topics explored in Horror Noire by the likes of Coleman, Jordan Peele, Rachel True, Tony Todd, Ernest R. Dickerson, among others — all of whom are authorities who provide plenty of information and food for thought. Every insight here is valuable, and the panel of experts cover a lot of ground during the 80-minute running time. From 1915’s Birth of a Nation all through subsequent decades of cinema, they dissect how these troublesome trends and tropes were established and expanded upon as the years progressed. Like all good film history docs, the social and cultural factors that informed these tropes are also examined. However, the moments where we learn about how these issues have affected black people personally are especially powerful.
Of course, Horror Noire is so much more than people analyzing the more problematic aspects of black representation in the genre. The movies, figures, and moments that bucked these trends are rightfully acknowledged and celebrated. From Night of the Living Dead to Get Out, along with cult deep cuts like Ganja and Hess and Blackula, the importance of these flicks is discussed with intelligent insights and infectious enthusiasm. One of the doc’s greatest strengths is its ability to present some thought-provoking and academic discussion through the lens of smart people who are also genuine fans. It’s a fun doc too, and most viewers will come out of it feeling optimistic.
As a whole, Horror Noire is an accessible, informative, and important addition to film discourse. Even if you’re not a horror fan, most film buffs will appreciate how the film chronicles the genre’s evolution. What makes the doc special, however, is its ability to engage the mind on a deeper and more profoundly human level. The film addresses social justice issues without ever coming off as preachy; the truth its telling speaks for itself and will undoubtedly inspire empathy in most viewers. As a key to developing a better understanding of a non-white point of view, Horror Noire is a triumph.
Horror Noire will be available to stream on Shudder from Feb. 7, 2019.