Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror
Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror is an enlightening documentary that examines the role of black fandom and black filmmakers throughout the history of the horror genre.
Featuring exclusively black interviews, Horror Noire is the rare documentary that focuses on giving voices to the people who actually should be talking about this underserved issue. From the beginning of filmmaking, black people have been turned into caricatures, treated as disposable slasher meat, and given little to do other than serve as an example for the mostly white casts. But horror hasn’t always been exclusively like that. A tradition of black filmmakers behind the camera and black villains on screen are often overlooked by horror historians. Horror Noire weaves together a story of black inclusion in the genre and documents the false assumptions often made by studios in regards to black fandom.
The documentary weaves its way through the history of cinema, starting at the very beginning. Through interviews with black actors and black filmmakers, we’re told the story of horror from a uniquely black perspective for possibly the first time. The film zooms over long expanses of time quite quickly, but the interviews are precisely edited in such a way that a cohesive thread is maintained and they give pause to the more important mile markers along the way. For example, as they zip past the social movements of the 1960s, there’s a nice long discussion of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in specific relation to casting Duane Jones as the leading man. This single role is not to be underestimated in the black experience in horror, and Horror Noire takes its time examining exactly why that’s the case.
The interview subjects are from a varied enough background to offer many different perspectives on these films, both historically and personally. Tony Todd talks about seeing Duane Jones fight zombies, and can also discuss his own experience as a seminal horror icon in Candyman. When The Thing is mentioned, Keith David reflects on being a black character who manages to survive to the end.
The film is also quick to offer multiple takes on a single topic to show that black horror is not a monolith. When it comes to the lone black character in a film being both a token character and the most expendable one in any ’80s or ’90s slasher film, there’s little consensus on whether or not that’s a bad thing for the actors themselves. Some are happy to get work at all, and some find it insulting that they were merely a vehicle for white anxiety. Horror Noire presents all sides, without giving more weight to one voice or another.
Sleekly produced, internally cohesive, and wildly overdue, Horror Noire offers up some much-needed diversity in the long line of horror documentation. My only gripe with the documentary is that it’s not long enough. There’s is still far more to say about this essential topic.