There are two powerful statements within Xavier Burgin’s engaging documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror that perfectly encapsulate why the film is an important addition to the conversation of representation in cinema. The first comes in the opening moments when one person proclaims that black people have always loved horror films, but horror has not always loved them. The other is one of many sobering moments in which the film emphasizes that “black history is black horror.”
Adapting Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman’s book of the same name, while using the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out as a jumping off point for a greater conversation about race in cinema, Burgin’s film provides much food for thought. The film explores both the various ways that black characters have been depicted in horror and the role that black filmmakers have played in reshaping preconceived notions of blackness.
In order to understand the treatment of black people in the horror genre one needs to understand the dark nature of America’s racial history. This is especially true when considering the impact that films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation had in promoting damaging stereotypes. Burgin’s film not only does a great job of presenting this history in a digestible fashion, but Horror Noire also gathers a wonderful mix of academics, actors and filmmakers to add context to the numerous themes and films discussed.
Genuine fans of the horror genre, the commentary provided by the likes of Peele, Coleman, Tony Todd, Rachel True, Keith David, Ernest Dickerson, Loretta Devine, Ken Foree, Tananarive Due, Rusty Cundieff and Ashlee Blackwell, who co-wrote the film Danielle Burrow, to name a few, are always insightful and frequently funny. Everything from the problematic nature of the Blaxploitation era to why predominately white spaces are more frightening for black individuals than any creature feature is tackled with an honesty that is refreshing and, at times, heartbreaking.
Horror Noire is more than a mere exploration of the horror genre, it is a necessary and sobering look at America’s complicated relationship with race. It captures the importance of having new and diverse voices to redefine the depiction of black lives in film. Voices who are not afraid to create films where black people are free to exist as well-rounded individuals with their own sense of agency.