How ‘The Blackening’ Shakes Up Horror Movie Stereotypes

What began as a smiley punchline exchanged in the underground realms of kitchens and living rooms has long since entered the mainstream. Now everyone knows: in the American horror movie, you can expect the black character to die first.

That joke forms the basis of new horror-comedy “The Blackening” (in theaters June 16), which arrives with the tagline “We can’t all die first.” A June 16 weekend in a remote, cavernous cabin turns deadly for a group of friends when they discover a board game in the basement. A Sambo figurehead takes center stage and tests them on various touchstones of black culture: What is the second verse of the black national anthem? How many black actors have starred in the TV show “Friends”? A masked figure emerges from the shadows to impose the deadly consequences of wrong answers.

“The Blackening” is based on a Comedy Central skit of the same name originally developed by comedian Dewayne Perkins, who co-starred in the film and wrote the screenplay with Tracy Oliver (a “Girls Trip” screenwriter). . In a video interview, Perkins said the concept was born during his time on the Chicago comedy circuit.

“All the black people who did skits were like, ‘Oh yeah, we always individually feel like we’re the most expendable in a lot of institutions that we’re a part of,'” he said. “So it was kind of an impulse. If we’re rounding up all black people in horror movies, then they should have a system for who’s going to die first.

In short, a group of black friends facing a killer must decide who is “blacker” – and therefore likely to be killed first. Of course, the comedy is in what naturally follows: everyone together trying to prove they’re the least Black. A character vomits repeated attempts to insist that ‘All Lives Matter’, the crippling response to Black Lives Matter. After seeing the sketch, Oliver reunited with Perkins to adapt the play into a feature film. (“The Blackening” recreates the short in one of its funniest scenes.) Initially attached as producer, Tim Story, best known for “Barbershop” (2002), fell in love with the script and also chose to realise. “It’s something I really wanted to put on screen,” Story said.

Comedian and actress Yvonne Orji, who plays Morgan, was also drawn to the subversive storyline. “We’re knocking down the stereotype and I love every time the stereotypes are knocked down,” she said.

The prominence of black characters in the horror genre reverses a heavy legacy that has often deployed them as comic relief or unceremoniously dispensed with them; Perkins explained that it was a deliberate decision to play with these archetypes so that the film would be in constant conversation with this story. “My character is a gay best friend, which is a trope. All of these characters, at first, their origin is a trope,” he said. “Then we use the film to constantly nurture that character. And allowing the trope to become a fully realized character was the goal.

Although “The Blackening” functions primarily as a comedy, the film also offers dynamic moments of suspense and chilling fear, a result of Perkins and Oliver’s enduring admiration for horror cinema. “It was my favorite genre to come,” Perkins said. “I think that’s why the film is so embedded with references.”

And the references abound. An incomplete list includes “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974), “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977), “Friday the 13th” (1980), “The Evil Dead” (1981), “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (1984), “People Under the Stairs” (1991), “Jumanji” (1995), “Scream” (1996) and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (1997). “The Blackening” thrilled audiences last fall when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. And ahead of its release, it will screen as part of the Tribeca Festival, including a June 13 screening at the Apollo Theater.

Story brought his comedy-directing experience to the film’s funniest elements, but he saw a challenge in delivering on his scariest moments. “The cool thing about just being a movie buff is that you end up studying all types of those genres,” he said. “I always wanted to play with horror, but I had to find something that was still in my world.”

The title of the film recalls an idea mentioned in a recently published book, “The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema From Fodder to Oscar”, by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris. The authors describe the rise in representation of black cinema in the late 1960s – or the “Blackening”. The two writers are particularly united in their love of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), in which the black man dies last, albeit doubly tragically: he manages to survive a zombie apocalypse before being killed by a vigilante. crowd. Harris credited the film with inspiring what he called in an interview his “love for horror”. Coleman and Harris chronicle these cycles of diversity – which inevitably come to an abrupt end – in their book, from the era of Blaxploitation to the urban horror of the 90s and now to this respectable last generation of so politicized horror. transparent.

Although she explained the rise and fall of these past movements, Coleman said, “We’re moving away from what I conceptualize as Blacks in Horror for Black Horror, which is really a reflection of black life and culture. , experience.” Coleman, an academic who also wrote “Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films From the 1890s to Present,” praised innovation in recent horror films, citing Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” (2021). “There’s art, there’s music, the vernacular, it’s all there.”

A testament to the genre’s sudden rationalization, at least two of the cast of “The Blackening” can already count salient features of this wave of social justice horror among their work. Sinqua Walls, who plays Nnamdi, recently appeared in the Sundance Grand Jury-winning film “The Nanny” (2022), and “Saturday Night Live” veteran Jay Pharoah, who plays Morgan’s boyfriend Shawn, was in the horror comedy “Bad Hair” (2020). Pharoah said he was happy to be in these genre films because of their distinct popularity.

“It’s going to be a niche of people or that cult fanbase that you have no idea who’s watched your stuff over and over again,” he said. “They can quote anything and they know how you die. It’s just a cool thing to be part of.

For Story, filming “The Blackening” was joyful.

“What was great about making this movie,” he said, “it was immersed in the celebration. I mean, that’s what’s so fun about it. We’re giving the base to lots of great conversations. We want it to represent us and our many sides, and also invite others to do their part.

Sound produced by Adrian Hurst.

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