The documentary tells the untold history of blacks working in horror, with guests including director Jordan Peele.
In-between munching on your kids’ Halloween candy, lovers of horror can sink their fangs into the new Shudder original documentary “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.”
“Horror Noire,” directed by Xavier Burgin, traces the history of black people in Hollywood through their connection to the horror genre.
It includes the way black people have been caricatured and exploited in the genre, and how the future of horror is being shaped.
The documentary features a wealth of interviews from scholars and creators in black horror such as Oscar-winning director Jordan Peele (“Us” and “Get Out”) and actor Tony Todd (“Candyman”).
“Horror Noire,” the namesake of Robin Means Coleman’s book, is available on Shudder, a streaming service that’s basically the horror version of Netflix.
The film’s executive producer is Tananarive Due, an award-winning author who teaches black horror at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Due talked about her mom’s interest in horror, which sparked her own love for it, how black history is black horror, and the significance of the new five-year Monkey Paw Productions deal that Universal Pictures recently finalized with Peele.
Your mom got you into horror. What attracted her to it?
I’m teaching a course right now that I’ve been teaching since soon after “Get Out” came out. It’s called “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival and the Black Horror Aesthetic” at UCLA.
To contextualize it, that course started up again for me this fall; and these stories are still very fresh to me. I put a picture of my mother up on the screen for my students to see when she was being arrested at a 1963 Civil Rights demonstration in Tallahassee, Florida. She was wearing dark glasses. I explained to my students she was wearing these dark glasses because in the previous protest march, a police officer threw a tear gas canister in her face.
For her entire adult life after that, she often wore dark glasses, even indoors. She had a heightened sensitivity to light, which was a very visible scar, left over from the Civil Rights era. Now I’ve come to understand I think my mother loved horror because she was a civil-rights activist.
What’s the connection with civil rights and your mom loving horror?
Horror has this power to help us confront our trauma in a very concrete form and then walk past it; because it’s a movie, it’s not real. Whatever I’m going through isn’t as bad as having a demon in my house [laughs]. There’s police brutality, but I’m so glad that demon in the closet isn’t real [laughs]. That’s an oversimplification. But I think it doesn’t always have to deal with racial trauma. A conversation developed from the recent “Halloween (2018)” movie, with women talking about how Laurie Strode confronting her trauma is kind of a vehicle for all trauma survivors, especially women trauma survivors.
Can you explain how black history is black horror?
Those pictures that flash across the documentary tell the story. There’s images of lynchings and beatings and this sort of quietly-accepted terrorism that black families were living with under Jim Crow, which wasn’t that long ago; and we’re still fighting off hidden vestiges of the slavery and Jim Crow eras that have reached our education, public policy and policing.
When you literally have grandparents who have stories about the time so-and-so was lynched; when your family stories include running and hiding and sudden violence -- that is horror. It’s not that it was happening to every family at every moment. But so many families have it as part of their family history: stories of running, hiding and being attacked because of race.
That’s what I mean by black history is black horror. A lot of families have had to learn to just be quiet and try to “move past” those stories. There are so many black families where people won’t talk about why someone has a much lighter complexion than someone else. There might be a hint that there was a white employer, but no one would tell the story of what happened, because there was no recourse for so many years against sexual and physical abuse, and even murder.
A lot of us have those stories in our history and they’re painful stories; and they’ve caused a lot of damage. I really do think that’s why so many black women I know told me they came to horror from their mothers and grandmothers, which was certainly true for me.
“Horror Noire” starts off with “The Birth of a Nation” and shows how black men were depicted as monsters. Have you seen recent examples in horror that subliminally suggest black people are still monsters?
One of the more frustrating aspects of “Horror Noire” is seeing a fantastic response to it from the industry and horror fans. There’s a lot of white supporters, because they love horror. Mostly what I hear is it’s eye-opening and “thank you, thank you!” I’m like, “okay, that’s great -- anytime!” But then when it comes to the actual application of the lessons [that black horror movies present about racism], I still sometimes see the same tropes cropping up: the sacrificial negro trope and the spiritual guide trope.
I really hope “Horror Noire” is part of the beginning of a conversation where there’s more widespread understanding of tropes and cliches and how race and ethnicity can be misused, not just in horror, but in all films. There’s still a long way to go. Having just said that, I see tremendous strides. I wouldn’t want to be represented as feeling like this isn’t working, because it is working.
This new deal with Jordan Peele is the direct result of a studio understanding what Jordan Peele said in “Horror Noire” that white audiences will come to see these movies if you make them, or certainly enough of them will. Also it’s about the freedom to be able to make films that are addressing a black community.
What impact are you expecting Jordan Peele’s new deal to have on the black horror genre?
It’s an exciting time in the news. I feel like it’s hard for some people to even understand the impact of a deal like this where Jordan Peele is basically a franchise unto himself. He’s a franchise with the expressed purpose of uplifting inclusive voices. Taking chances on young directors like he did with with young woman director Nia DaCosta for [his remake of] “Candyman,” highlighting a premier actress like Lupita [Nyongo] in “Us,” and those very necessary conversations in “Get Out” that really helped people contextualize our political times.
Do you think people of color who write horror are being taken more seriously by Hollywood these days?
As you saw in the documentary “Horror Noire,” there has been black horror before “Get Out.” But I couldn’t overemphasize the impact of Jordan Peele’s work in helping all of us who are genre writers feel seen.
In Hollywood, feeling seen doesn’t mean “That’s nice, that feels good.” In Hollywood, feeling seen means when you have a meeting with an executive, you’re not introducing him to a new concept every single time.
You’re not introducing this fantastic/almost whacky idea of having a black person in the lead of a film, even if it’s not specifically about race, because so often even if you can have a conversation, or in the past certainly, if you could have these conversations about black castings… the reason we have so many familiar stories told over and over again is because they were specific ideas about what black projects looked and felt like.
Artists like Jordan Peele are part of this lineage that’s really helping to show the world that black stories can look an endless number of ways.