Combustible Celluloid
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With: Meosha Bean, Ashlee Blackwell, Robin R. Means Coleman, William Crain, Rusty Cundieff, Keith David, Loretta Devine, Ernest R. Dickerson, Tananarive Due, Ken Foree, Mark H. Harris, Richard Lawson, Tina Mabry, Kelly Jo Minter, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Paula Jai Parker, Jordan Peele, Ken Sagoes, Monica Suriyage, Tony Todd, Rachel True
Written by: Ashlee Blackwell, Danielle Burrows, based on a book by Robin R. Means Coleman
Directed by: Xavier Burgin
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 83
Date: 02/07/2019

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Flickering Shadows

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This brilliant documentary about the history of Blacks in horror films by Xavier Burgin may seem like a frivolous idea, but the level of commentary on just a handful of horror films is incredibly rich and varied. Burgin assembles a notable cast of interviewees consisting mainly of Black actors and filmmakers, as well as horror novelist and educator Tananarive Due, and they push their way through the history of Blacks in horror films, largely in chronological order. It begins, appropriately enough, with The Birth of a Nation (1915), a movie that used images of Blacks as frightening predators. It goes on to theorize that monsters from King Kong to the Creature from the Black Lagoon were drawn from, and fed on, fears of Blacks by white people.

George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) is rightly seen as a breakthrough, with its Black hero, followed by early horror films by Black directors, William Crain's Blacula (1972) and Bill Gunn's Ganja & Hess (1973). (Crain is interviewed here.) Ken Foree and Keith David talk about their roles in Dawn of the Dead (1974) and The Thing (1982), respectively, while the role played by Scatman Crothers in The Shining (1980) is seen as something of a setback. Actors cast as sidekicks and victims in various 1980s slasher films discuss the upsides, and downsides, of their work. Things change little by little as Tony Todd became the lead villain in Candyman (1992), and Black characters become more prominent in Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) and Tales from the Hood (1995).

A good deal of time is devoted to Get Out (2017), with Jordan Peele himself chiming in and Ms. Due offering expert commentary (she teaches a class about that one film). Ms. Due also mentions Kasi Lemmons's great Eve's Bayou (1997), which is not generally considered horror, but which certainly contains some fantastical elements. Many other films are mentioned, with generous clips, and the interviewees sitting in movie theater seats talking in a casual and relaxed way, rather than being formally interviewed for the camera. It all adds up to a most entertaining and enlightening history of Black culture and racism, along with a history of the movies. This is essential viewing.

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