A Year After HORROR NOIRE And The State Of Black Horror
A year ago, Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror trended on Twitter on the night of its red carpet premiere, which brought out Hollywood’s horror royalty: icons Tony Todd (Candyman), Rachel True (The Craft), Rusty Cundieff (Tales from the Hood), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Ernest Dickerson (Demon Knight), Keith David (The Thing) and others who appeared in the documentary, alongside original Candyman director Bernard Rose, actress Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and all manner of horror heads in a feel-good event I’m still smiling about.
When I look at the state of Black horror a year later, there’s still plenty to smile about. No fewer than three Black-led horror projects are coming up: Antebellum in April, Spiral: From the Book of Saw in May, and Candyman in June — a Jordan Peele Effect. Peele followed up his groundbreaking film Get Out with another $250 million blockbuster, Us, starring Lupita N’yongo. Newer filmmakers like Nia DaCosta, J.D. Dillard, and Nikyatu Jusu are making their mark in Black horror, and social media is buzzing about the trailer for DaCosta’s Candyman reboot, co-written by DaCosta, Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld.
When Horror Noire officially premiered on Shudder, the response was overwhelmingly positive and it wound up on Best-of-the-Year lists with outlets like The Verge praising it as “a thoughtful, exhilarating watch, which finds hope in even the bloodiest maw.” Much of the documentary details the way Black characters and stories have been misused and overlooked in horror, and many viewers raved about how grateful they were to learn Black horror’s hidden history. But obstacles still stand in the way of Black genre writers and filmmakers, and the next couple of years will have a great impact on the growth and staying power of the fledgling subgenre as its future lies in the hands of Black creators.
Black actors and other PoC are appearing with increasing regularity in contemporary horror, whether it’s in Blumhouse’s Ma (starring Octavia Spencer), or Don’t Let Go (starring David Oyelowo). In all of these projects, the Black characters were either leads or survivors, which is a long way from the oh-so-tiresome First To Die, Sacrificial Negro, Spiritual Guide, and Magical Negro roles Black actors were mostly relegated to until recently.
Even better, the post-Get Out glow has paved the way for the rise of young Black directors like DaCosta (Candyman), Dillard (Sweetheart and The Outsider), and Jusu (Sundance short Suicide by Sunlight). But the path for Black horror creators is still far from easy.
Here are some of the remaining barriers:
- Lack of relationships: Even when studios or executives feel committed to a Black horror project, they often have no idea where to find Black writers and directors who are genre trained. Since the gatekeepers and producers are still largely white, there remains a disconnect between them and Black creators.
- Lack of Black horror stories with deeper social impact: The Black horror stories that make it to the screen are often unrelated to the idea of “racism as a monster” that worked so well in Get Out, even during a political time when racism is more overt than when Peele wrote his script. It’s still revolutionary to have a cast of Black actors in any film, to be sure, but studios seem hesitant to tackle racism directly, as in Get Out and Rusty Cundieff’s Tales from the Hood and Tales from the Hood 2. Slavery, the domestic terrorism of Jim Crow, or contemporary racial microaggressions which could serve as the perfect fodder for horror stories often go unaddressed. While I’m not saying that Black horror should only consist of stories with larger social impact, Black filmmakers with a desire to tell those stories could create powerful horror from true-life racial trauma.
- Lack of Black horror adaptations: As the emcee at the Horror Noire premiere, I noted that while 50 percent of films are adaptations, we have yet to see adaptations from Black horror literature — including writers like me, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), the late L.A. Banks (the Vampire Huntress series), Kai Ashante Wilson (The Devil in America), Chesya Burke (Let’s Play White), or writers in anthologies like Sycorax’s Daughters (co-edited by Kinitra Brooks, Ph.D, Linda D. Addison and Susana Morris, Ph.D.) or Brandon Massey’s Dark Dreams anthology.
The good news: there are signs of improvement on the horizon.
Personally speaking, I get frequent inquiries from producers interested in Black horror, and I have several novels either under option or in the process of being optioned. Ryan Coogler is developing the horror graphic novel Bitter Root by Sanford Green, David Walker, and Chuck Brown for Legendary, and LaValle’s novel The Ballad of Black Tom is in active television development at AMC.
As of this writing, two Black horror films are also on the horizon — the much-anticipated Candyman reboot directed by DaCosta, the Janelle Monáe vehicle, Antebellum, by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, and Spiral, starring and executive produced by Chris Rock.
But as someone who has been pitching in Hollywood for more than a decade, I have learned from experience how the fate of any one project can have a dampening effect on other creators trying to tell Black horror stories. It has been a long road back for some of the Black directors who created iconic Black horror in the 1990s, such as Cundieff (Tales from the Hood) and Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), who did not get immediate follow-up opportunities. A few underperforming or undercooked Black horror movies could deeply damage prospects for those of us pitching in their wake.
Many things have changed since the 1990s such as the rise of more platforms, crowdfunding, and the ability to shoot an entire film on an iPhone, so I don’t believe Black horror will dry up and go away. But without Black creators at the helm to tell our own stories, the films are much more likely to ring with inauthenticity and perpetuate the troublesome tropes Horror Noire was created to help us all avoid.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, directed by Xavier Burgin, is streaming on Shudder. It was adapted from Robin R. Means Coleman’s book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to the Present. Horror Noire was written by Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows and produced by Phil Nobile, Jr. and Kelly Ryan.
Tananarive Due is an American Book Award-winning author and screenwriter who lectures on Black Horror and Afrofuturism in the Department of African-American Studies at UCLA. Her online Black Horror course, The Sunken Place, is at www.sunkenplaceclass.com.