Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)

“Black History is Black Horror.”

“Horror Noire” is the film you have to see right now. If you fancy yourself a horror aficionado, a film buff, or just a lover of history, “Horror Noire” is essential viewing that is long overdue. For a long time we’ve garnered some amazing documentaries that have covered a lot of overlooked chapters in horror cinema, and “Horror Noire” touches upon the most important era, exploring the history of African Americans in horror cinema, and how they evolved from being demonized, to becoming props, right up to becoming genuine heroes.

Directed by Xavier Burgin (written by “Horror Noire” author Robin Means Coleman, along with Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows) covers the span of African Americans in film and how their stereotypes and stigmas were transferred over in to horror cinema. Burgins is bold in his exploration of African Americans and how they’ve been perceived, discussing the origin of horrendous tropes and clichés conceived in 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” and how it took decades for the race to step back for what was generally an accepted depiction. Even from the president. True, “Birth of a Nation” is not traditionally considered horror, but it helped to demonize and stigmatize a whole race of people, and opened the door for many of the hideous stereotypes that were accepted for decades.

What’s so refreshing is that “Horror Noire” explores the history of black horror cinema through the eyes of African Americans. Director Burgin side steps a lot of typical talking heads and professors, and brings us in to a more intimate experience on what many within the African American community have felt watching their contemporaries depicted on-screen as almost nothing but dismissible clichés. There’s a lot of enlightening discussion, from the invention of goofy devices like the “Sacrificial Negro,” the “Magical Negro,” and of course the token in slasher films that almost always died first. Director Burgin runs down the history garnering reactions and frank discussion from folks like Keith David, Jordan Peele, Tony Todd, Director Ernest Dickerson, and writer and scholar Tananarive Due.

Burgin also explores how strong characters like Duane Jones in “Night of the Living Dead,” and William Marshall in “Blacula” helped changed the perception of minority characters in the genre. As well, there’s also honest insight in to the Blaxploitation movement, how the black character dying first in slashers had pros and cons, and the inevitable rise of the African American hero in films like “Attack the Block” and “Get Out.” One of the most entertaining elements, though, was the often riveting reactions from folks like Miguel Nunez Jr. and Ken Foree, all of whom discuss their crucial roles in very popular movies and how the general public felt about them. There’s an especially sweet callback from “The Craft’s” Rachel True who fondly remembers an encounter with a fan of the film that validated her importance in the film.

Overall, I would have loved to see more about how George Romero helped diversify the horror genre, and Romero’s more complex ideas about race and class warfare depicted in his films “Night” and “Dawn.” Either way, “Horror Noire” is a much needed chronicle of the history of African Americans in horror cinema and horror as a whole. It’s a painfully overdue education in cinema that should be essential viewing for film students and film buffs alike.

Now Streaming Exclusively on Shudder.