Hollywood, paradoxically, often lacks imagination when it comes to telling Black stories on screen. Black filmmakers have ideas on ideas, but getting them funded and made is quite another thing. The movie industry is first and foremost a business, and before major studios take leaps out of the norm, they must be shown the potential for making lots and lots of cash. In 2017, when Jordan Peele’s seminal horror film “Get Out” proved to be a critical and financial success (becoming the highest-grossing writer-director debut based on an original screenplay of all time), it created a powerful precedent: Black horror sells.
Of course, Black horror — that is, horror films that focus on the Black experience, feature Black leads and/or are written and directed by Black filmmakers — is not a new concept. As author Tananarive Due puts it in the excellent documentary “Horror Noire,” “Black people have always loved horror. It’s just that horror hasn’t always loved us.”
Despite the all-too-familiar tropes (“Black guy always dies first”) and general erasure of Black people from the genre, there is a long, rich history of horror made by and about Black people: from the cult Blaxploitation flick “Blacula” to “Ganja & Hess” to “Tales From the Hood” to “Candyman” to “Bones.” Many of these movies, of course, came out in a landscape that viewed Black horror more as a novelty than anything else, but they set a standard for the potential of horror to explore race. In 1968, George Romero’s zombie thriller “Night of the Living Dead” offered a timely and horrifying commentary on the cultural moment with a Black man, Duane Jones, cast as its lead.
But in this current, post-“Get Out” cultural moment, it seems as though we are experiencing a resurgence in horror movies that take on the Black experience, particularly the horrors of racism. This year, movies and television series including “Antebellum,” “Bad Hair” and “Lovecraft Country” have added to the horror canon.
With “Antebellum,” “Lovecraft Country” and the forthcoming “Candyman” reboot, Jordan Peele and/or “Get Out” has been invoked in the marketing. So “Nia DaCosta’s ‘Candyman’” (linking the movie with its director) became “Jordan Peele’s ‘Candyman’” (tying it to a co-producer). “Antebellum” was touted as a film “from the producer of ‘Get Out,’” which obscured the fact that the producer being referred to was not in fact Peele, but white producer Sean McKittrick.
With the suggested Peele seal of approval comes an implication that these movies not only will be scary but will have “something to say,” perhaps a profound social commentary about the Black experience. Often, these stories either implicitly or explicitly delve into the horrors of being Black in a white supremacist world through metaphor and innuendo. Not all of these movies and shows have been particularly perfect in their execution, but all have proven essential to rethinking the question “Who is this for?” In some cases, there’s a sense that Hollywood has more willingly greenlit some movies now to appease bottom-line demands.
That question comes up viscerally, for instance, when you watch “Antebellum,” a film that takes an unflinching glimpse at the violent brutality of slavery without nuance or subtlety, a kind of heavy-handedness that elicits fatigue. This movie, perhaps more than any other that has come out in the wake of Peele’s rise, feels the most calculating and eager to capitalize on the Black horror trend, sacrificing plot and character for a message that says nothing new or profound about slavery. Instead, the film is just trauma porn.
As writer Angelica Jade Bastien said in her excellent review of the film, “I am tired of pop-cultural artifacts that render Black people as merely Black bodies onto which the sins of this ragged country are violently mapped.”
Then there’s “Bad Hair,” a campy ’80s-style supernatural slasher that follows a young Black woman working for a quickly gentrifying TV station who gets a weave to get ahead — only for the weave to come to life and start killing people. Many Black female critics have called the movie out for its ignorance about Black women and their hair.
Or “Lovecraft Country,” based on a novel of the same name, which tells the story of a Black family in 1950s Chicago contesting with magic, monsters and racist white people. Despite its genre-bending ambition, the series received backlash — first for violently and unceremoniously killing off a trans and Indigenous character; then for its treatment of Ruby, a dark-skinned woman whose character many felt was at the mercy of unchecked colorism and fatphobia throughout the series.
All art is fallible, including art about Black people, but there’s a sense that these films and shows carry extra pressure to stick the landing in exactly the same way that “Get Out” and, perhaps to a lesser extent, “Us” did (despite the fact that the two Peele movies have their own flaws). A lot of the criticism is valid and pushes the conversation around the genre along. But one wonders how the conversation would change if, say, historical Black trauma wasn’t the only well from which to pull inspiration within the Black horror genre.
What repeatedly turning to this specific American trauma results in is a slew of films whose only litmus for greatness or value is how “woke” they are, and how vividly they can approximate the specific terror of racism, when there are so many other horrors and threads to explore.
Horror filmmaker Nialla LeBouef, who currently writes for the supernatural drama “Evil,” believes there is potential for mainstream horror movies exploring the Black experience to go beyond what we’ve seen so far.
“The thing that I’m noticing is that when you say ‘Black horror,’ it’s kind of automatically political. Black bodies sadly are just automatically political,” LeBouef explained. “And that’s not our fault. But with cinema that’s coming out within the horror genre, I feel like you either have this pressure to have some type of overt statement that’s covered with things in the genre, like metaphor and analogy and monsters and stuff like that. That’s why I want more Black horror to just have space to be political without having to necessarily scream it. Because to be honest, the horror genre I think has always been political; it’s always made statements.”
An expansiveness is emerging, for instance, with films like the eerie Senegal-set ghost story “Atlantics” and the new haunted house thriller “His House,” which delves into the horrors of being a refugee. These films are exciting and successful in what they do because they offer stories that go far beyond a shtick. The monsters and ghosts are not simply metaphors for racism. They acknowledge the horrors of racism without feeding off racial trauma, creating space to move beyond that as the only narrative of a life. They ask the viewer to think about what other “issues” can be explored in a genre that is all about pushing the imagination to its very limits.
To be clear, this is not to say that movies like “Antebellum” simply shouldn’t be made, but to question the ways in which these stories can push further, do more. There is value in telling other stories, and every new movie or TV show that enters the genre proves this. Here’s a hope: that by embracing the idea that Black horror has value, we won’t need a similar “Get Out” moment to usher in more storytelling from Black people in the realms of sci-fi, comedy and romance. If there’s anything that this resurgence in Black horror teaches us, it’s that the Hollywood machine’s inability to understand the potential of Black stories not yet seen on screen is its own American horror story.
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