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Review: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)

Directed by: Xavier Burgin

Premise: Adapted from the book by Robin R. Means Coleman. A documentary about the representation of African Americans in American horror cinema.

What Works: Horror Noire offers the audience a look at cinema history with a specific bent: it examines how African Americans have been depicted in the horror genre. The movie has impressive scope, quite literally spanning from the origin of feature filmmaking to movies that opened in the last few years. Along the way, Horror Noire sketches out the depiction—and also the absence—of people of color in American movies. It includes narration and commentary from a variety of people, including film scholars as well as directors and actors who have been in these movies, giving the film both an academic and an industrial understanding of the topic. Documentaries like this serve a number of functions. One is that they cast a narrative about the stories we consume and thereby show us what the movies reveal about the culture that produced them. Horror Noire highlights the recurring images and themes in these movies and how they have changed over time. The examined films parallel the culture’s evolving regard for African Americans and Horror Noire points out the cyclical relationship between media and the culture at large. A related function of this kind of documentary is to help us see the movies and the culture that produced them from a different vantage point. Filmmaking and film criticism are both very white. The commentators of Horror Noire offer a black perspective on cinema history and tell us what these stories meant to audiences from a specific culture. Another function of documentaries like this is to highlight various films and Horror Noire admirably mixes familiar titles such as Night of the Living Dead and Blacula with more obscure pictures like Son of Ingagi and Ganja and Hess. Even seasoned horror fans will probably discover some new titles to add to their viewing list.

What Doesn’t: A documentary like this is intended to offer an “inch deep, mile wide” survey of its subject. Horror Noire does that but it only runs eighty-three minutes and probably could have delved deeper into some of the films and themes that it addresses. The documentary begins with 1915’s The Birth of a Nation and ends with 2017’s Get Out; the filmmakers cast a trajectory from the derogatory depiction of African Americans in D.W. Griffith’s epic to the heroic and empathetic protagonist of Jordan Peele’s horror picture. That framework risks flattening and oversimplifying the trajectory of American cinema, suggesting an inevitable surge toward equality. Get Out is a great movie but we’re just too close to its release to judge its place in history.

DVD extras: Currently available on streaming services.

Bottom Line: Horror Noire is worthwhile viewing for both horror movie fans as well as general audiences. At the very least, Horror Noire provides a list of titles that viewers may have passed over while also deepening our understanding of cinema history.

Episode: #820 (October 4, 2020)