HORROR NOIRE And The Foundational Significance Of Black Art

The Shudder documentary helps to fill in the cultural significance of Black Horror.

Note: In the interest of transparency, Horror Noire was executive produced by former BMD contributor and editor Phil Nobile Jr.

It makes sense that the complexity of Blackness in America is integral to the development of Horror as a dramatic genre. That the tropes that have historically boxed in Black media representation can be traced back not only to the caricatures of foundational blockbusters like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, but also the visualization of monsters like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, reflecting fears and skewed perceptions of Black physical features. The genre that eagerly dives in to explore the most haunting, intimate fears of America’s real and imagined identity is going to – consciously or unconsciously – refer eventually to Blackness, the most complexly damning and dehumanizing figment of America’s (and the wider Western world’s) collective imagination.

Over the weekend, my brother and I checked out a LACMA exhibit that showcased Black American art throughout the 20th century, a lot of it created by self-taught artists from small Midwestern towns. Large woven quilts covered with song lyrics in black paint, stylized to evoke the emotional and sonic impact of the singer. Child-like drawings of Biblical images between scrawled Bible quotes that evoked the deep-rooted associations between childhood religious exposure and adulthood religious significance. Small wood-carved figures depicting Satan’s seduction of Adam and Eve, and Cain’s murder of Abel. Kara Walker’s stark, silhouetted antebellum horrors. Though the art on display was great, my brother took umbrage with the exhibit’s contradictory title, “Outliers and American Vanguard Art”. The Black artists’ emotionally loaded, deceptively simple paintings, drawings, and figures were all integral to the development of Impressionist and Modernist art. Yet at the same time, they were considered to be at the fringe of major artistic institutions. It’s a bad, recurring habit of addressing Black art with a backhanded compliment, acknowledging its foundational qualities while simultaneously keeping it at a historical periphery; when in reality it’s vital, in the DNA. And without it, the larger white artistic institutions probably wouldn’t have developed at all.

After having seen Horror Noire, it’s clear that Black Horror’s relationship to both Black cinema, and Horror cinema, is similar; it’s vital to the development of both, while also serving as its own unique, interesting genre. Horror Noire also shows that whatever clarity there is in contemporary depictions of racial intricacies across media is extended from a significant amount of pioneering work from Black filmmakers, artists, and actors, who all managed varying degrees of artistic license and opportunity creating Horror films, which has helped to evolve the interest and efficacy of Black cinematic expression today.

The documentary, directed by Xavier Burgin and written by Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows, is based on the comprehensive analysis of Robin R. Means Coleman’s book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. Means Coleman also serves as an executive producer, along with Tananarive Due (novelist, screenwriter, and professor of the famed UCLA course on Black Horror, “The Sunken Place”), Ashlee Blackwell (who runs the horror site Graveyard Shift Sisters), Phil Nobile Jr. (former Birth.Movies.Death. contributor and editor, turned Editor-in-Chief of Fangoria), and Kelly Ryan (Stage 3 Productions).

Horror Noire alternates between clips of various films that are thematically relevant to the topics broached by a wealth of experts on the subject: Rachel True (actor, The Craft), Keith David (actor, The Thing), Jordan Peele (writer/director of Get Out), William Crane (writer/director of Blacula), Tananarive Due, Ashlee Blackwell, and many others - actors, writers, filmmakers, scholars, and critics who are all as much fans as they have been active participants in the development of Black Horror. Director Xavier Burgin stages the conversations between his interviewees right inside of a movie theater (with the exception of Jordan Peele, who is interviewed in a personal office). The rows and rows of blue seats are calming, and helps create an atmosphere where the documentary’s subjects can comfortably discuss the spectrum of their fanhood, the process of creating, the strange, staggered progressiveness of Black representation in Horror, as well as memories of moments of significance.

The film begins with The Birth of a Nation, and Black media representation as a reflection of white fears. This gradually shifts to explore contemporary representation, where Black creators are more fully able to express their own fears and anxieties. The path to Black artistic agency in Horror is strange and interesting, fleshed out in the documentary by conversations of recurring stereotypical patterns, the influence and parallels of the '70s Blaxploitation movement, the slow but developing agency of Black women, the representational significance of George A. Romero’s casting of Duane Jones, and many other topics. The documentary covers over a century of social and historical context, and connects various dots at a fast clip to address it all.

For example, a subject like the “Black Guy Dies First” trope, is recontextualized to consider the function of sacrificing Black characters to establish the threat of a movie’s antagonist via expectations of Black hyper-virility, and can be traced back to similar patterns shown earlier in the documentary of early 1900 movie monsters as physical manifestations of the racist misperceptions of Black features. The whole documentary operates in a similar way - making contextual connections while also leaving room for the audience to research further into the intersecting topics that interest them the most.

Though Black art is always existing, developing, and influencing across genres, mainstream attention by mostly White media gatekeepers has shifted over the last century: the literary Harlem Renaissance, Blaxploitation cinema, Jazz and stand-up comedy, Hip Hop and Black Urban '90s cinema, are all examples of temporary, staggered, but interconnected periods where Black art was temporarily given major mainstream attention and financial support.

Film and television have seen another popular resurgence of Black voices, spearheaded by popular figures like Ryan Coogler, Ava Duvernay, and Issa Rae. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which dramatizes Black anxiety with the ways whiteness encroaches on and takes advantage of Black culture and Black bodies, was released seemingly at the perfect moment of America’s current socio-political schism. Get Out helped to add Black Horror into popular excitement for Black cinema. But, at the same time, Black Horror’s influence can also be seen in a variety of artistic projects that have been released around the same time.

Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, a funny and absurdist film, also uses the language of Horror via a surprising and grotesque twist, to externalize fears of approximation to White, Capitalistic systems that encourage assimilation. Angelica Jade Bastién wrote at length about the ways Donald Glover’s Atlanta utilizes horror to explore the complex pressures of fame and mainstream attention for Black artists in a working-class urban setting. Even Janelle Monae – whose albums and music videos across her career has combined socially rebellious and inclusive messages with a dynamic musicianship through a deep understanding of both the contextual functions of the Black music tradition, and Western canonical storytelling – utilized Horror in the corresponding “emotion picture” of her 2017 album Dirty Computer. The Memotron used by a dystopic religious convent reminiscent of Catholicism to “cleanse” and repurpose outlier members of society by erasing their memories and cultural context, dramatizes the ways Western institutional standards have historically sought to repel and erase the cultural expression and contributions of people of color and the LGBTQ community.

The point here is that Black Horror, both as its own genre and as an extension of wider Black artistic expression, is not popular because it’s suddenly “in vogue”, but because – like the periods of Black artistic significance before it – Black Horror is an organic part of a pool of psychological and emotional expression by Black artists that has also historically contributed to that expression. This, in turn, reveals how Black Art is an organic, essential component of wider American cultural understanding. And as Black artists are given further license to create art about themselves beyond the confines of stereotypes and misperceptions, the anxiety, complexes, and fears that Horror as a genre has been dedicated to exploring are going to play an increasingly significant part in the expression of lived Black life in America. Which, in turn, will lead to a greater understanding of American life as a multi-cultural whole. And for anyone interested in the ways Black Horror has already contributed to that artistic canon, Horror Noire is a great place to start.