Review: Horror Noire is a bloody good look at Black characters and culture in American horror cinema

From the blackface characters in The Birth Of A Nation to the role-reversing tropes in Get Out, this doc sheds lots of light on genre and race

HORROR NOIRE: A HISTORY OF BLACK HORROR (Xavier Burgin). 83 minutes. Screens Wednesday (February 6), 7 pm, at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West). Streams on Shudder Thursday (February 7). Rating: NNNN

The first original documentary produced by the horror streaming service Shudder, Xavier Burgin’s Horror Noire: A History Of Black Horror is an engaging and informative look at the treatment of Black characters and culture in American horror cinema. It’s smart, funny and packed with interesting people clearly delighted to be talking about their work and the movies they love – even if that love comes with the knowledge that the movies might not love them back.

Beginning with the blackface performances by white actors in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth Of A Nation – which celebrated the formation of the Ku Klux Klan – and ending a century later with Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which consciously reversed every conventional horror-movie trope, Burgin and writers Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrow invite actors, academics and filmmakers to discuss resonant themes and symbols. 

Directors Ernest Dickerson (Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight) and Rusty Cundieff (Tales From The Hood) explore the significance of George A. Romero casting Duane Jones as the hero of Night Of The Living Dead in 1968, while veteran actors Ken Foree and Keith David – who played similarly strong, capable characters in Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing, respectively – bliss out on William Marshall’s complex performance in Blacula. That film’s director, William Crain, turns up to recount the challenges of making a smart horror movie in the blaxploitation era. 

Elsewhere, Tony Todd talks about the symbolism behind the vengeful revenant he played in the Candyman movies, and Rachel True discusses how she almost blew past the racialized aspects of her character in The Craft. (Everyone shares a grim laugh over the disposability of Black characters within the genre: “If we’re not dead in the first 15 minutes,” notes David, “we’re certainly dead by the last 30 minutes.”) 

Peele himself is an invaluable contributor, discussing both Get Out and the films that informed its creation: his brief unpacking of “Black fear of white spaces” as a theme in Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs makes me wish he’d do an entire commentary track on that film.

TIFF hosts a special screening on Wednesday (February 6), followed by a conversation with co-writer/producer Ashlee Blackwell and executive producer Tananarive Due. But if you can’t make it – and you don’t already have Shudder – Horror Noire is an excellent reason to subscribe.

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