Thursday, February 7, 2019

Horror Noire is an optimistic, necessary film


There are no white voices in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, save for those of a handful of actors appearing in archival clips throughout the documentary. I've spent the last few weeks deciding whether or not it would be appropriate to add my own voice to the discussion. Would it be welcome? What are my motives for trying to define the film? Are my opinions as a white southerner even relevant?

In truth, I don't have an answer to any of those questions. Earlier this week I caught myself whining to a black woman about the pains of having to explain racism to my preschool age son, "pains" that don't involve coaching him on how to interact with police to better avoid getting shot. I'm working to evolve in order to fit into this better world we're trying to build, but there's a huge difference between being a fool and a public fool. If your instinct is to tell me to fuck off back to my lane, I would understand.

And here lies the problem: two paragraphs into this piece and I've already managed to push the pain at the center of Horror Noire deeper into the weeds in favor of my own experiences. But you know what? That might be OK.

Having just watched the movie (which landed today on Shudder) I believe the filmmakers are asking us to talk about the ideas on display in Horror Noire. And because it's impossible to have an honest discussion about race with white America without it turning into a confrontation, director Xavier Burgin and author/educator Robin R. Means Coleman have given us a movie that establishes parameters for a smart, healthy conversation ... parameters that will make it difficult for others to hijack the conversation for their own ends. It feels a little strange to call any movie that dwells this much on Blacula "sophisticated," but I came away from the film deeply impressed by its wit, perspective and patience.  If you take a run at Horror Noire you're going to need a lot more than a tweet that reads "But what about the history of WHITE horror movies, bruh?" So it's a safe bet the documentary can withstand my earnest stumbling in search of wokeness.

If this is your first time hearing about Horror Noire, it's a retrospective about the role of black Americans in horror films during the last century and boasts an impressive roster of guests. Among those on deck are Keith DavidTananarive Due (also a producer on the film), Rachel TrueJordan PeeleKen Foree and director William Crain to talk about their experiences both making and watching horror movies. If there's a throughline for the film it's the ebb and flow of the fortunes of black actors, a flow the documentary charts incredibly well through the evolution of a single genre.

Despite America's apparent cultural recession in 2019, Horror Noire makes it crystal clear that the tide has shifted in an unprecedented, positive direction, with Peele and his 2017 film Get Out taking the lead in the doc's final act. Peele comes across as equal parts Fred Rogers and Horatio Hornblower, a man who understands the creative risks he's taken, why he's taken them and what has been gained. He also has no intentions of letting those gains slip away and will not be baited. He's so goddamn serene (and I use that word respectfully) that some people might overlook what he has to say here about compassion, a value intrinsic to the theme of the film.

That's not to suggest that Horror Noire isn't an angry film. There's lots to be angry about, but in lesser hands that's all this documentary might have been. It's complex without being confusing and casual without being glib. More importantly, it's an optimistic, necessary film that also happens to be really fucking good.

(And for those of you who read this thing to the end: Keep your eyes open in the documentary for a quick appearance by Jonathan Frid.)

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