Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)

Roughly nine years ago, I taught a themed section of a college research and writing course. The theme was horror. My small group of 12 students were not super fans of the genre like myself (though one of my students was kin to an actor in a horror favorite of mine), so I enjoyed introducing the class to a variety of films to broaden their horror horizons. As it was a class focused on research and argument, students critically analyzed every reading and film. We looked at social and political mirroring in these films. During our discussion on race, I asked each student to tell me if there were any horror films that featured a mostly African-American cast. Because it was almost a decade ago, and students were not major fans of the genre, I was not surprised that the only horror film students came up with was Leprechaun in the Hood. While not surprised, I was tremendously disappointed, not in my class, but in what I already knew was a severe lack of representation in a genre I hold near and dear to my heart.


Horror Noire is the critical documentary we needed then. I am ever so grateful we have it now. The film almost immediately lets the audience know that it won’t simply be a surface level listing of horror films that happen to feature African-American characters. Within the first few minutes, headlines that show major news stories regarding African-American history are scattered across the screen. The first discussed is one of the most controversial of all time, even though it is not technically in the horror genre, though its content is arguably more horrific than any of the films discussed after. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was one of the first films screened at the White House, heralded by then President Woodrow Wilson. Among the racist tropes featured in the film was the “black man lusting after white women,” a trope that continued to happen decades after this film was unfortunately praised. Opening with a critique of Birth of a Nation instantly shows potential detractors or casual viewers that Horror Noire is serious, and it never loses that momentum.


One of the most difficult things I do as a die-hard horror fan is criticize the genre. My research in grad school focused on issues of misogyny in horror films, particularly slasher films from the ‘70s and ‘80s. In my writings, I criticized many of my favorite horror movies. One of the strongest aspects of Horror Noire is that each interviewee, including Dr. Robin Means Coleman, who wrote the book of the same name that the documentary is based on, all strike the perfect balance of critique and praise. They are all able to applaud the strong writers, characters, and directors who brought the genre much needed representation, while still acknowledging that many times the representations were problematic. Because of this, I experienced an important realization of my own.


With few exceptions, the documentary followed a linear analysis of the films, focusing on major trends, setbacks, and headlines through the years. I grew up on ‘80s horror, and one of my absolute favorite horror film characters of all time is Kincaid from the third and fourth entries in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. I loved him so much I named my child after him. I couldn’t wait until the documentary reached that era. And when they did, I had to swallow a pill that I never allowed myself to before. The representation in the ‘80s was almost instantly criticized, showing how most African-American characters functioned as the “token” and that often they were killed very early, likely first, in the film. What was said about this era surprised me, not because I had never noticed this fact, but because I never admitted it.

I have no doubt that Horror Noire is a formative piece on the topic, inspiring more discussion while also ending on a note of hope. The critical and financial success of Get Out, and Jordan Peele’s upcoming Us and reboot of The Twilight Zone, all point to a more hopeful path that should open the doors for more voices to be heard. As noted in the film, the lack of representation has not been because of lack of interest. Many African-American artists have ideas for horror films, but there was always a fear that these films would not get made, or, as in the case of Ganja & Hess, be rebranded to what the studios thought these films should look like. Horror Noire ends with the exciting possibility that the genre is about to go through yet another major change, but this time it is a change for the better.

Bethany Rose