Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror has been making the rounds recently. Released as an exclusive on Shudder, the documentary explores the history of black people in the horror genre, from the ugly roots where black people were written as literal monsters by films such as Birth of a Nation to modern black horror film Get Out. The documentary has received critical acclaim for exploring a topic often swept under the rug or ignored entirely. But what’s lesser well known is that Horror Noire is based on a book. This book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from 1890s to Present by Robin R. Means Coleman explores the same topic in its pages, providing an excellent companion piece to the documentary or vice versa.
Coleman’s interest in the black horror genre began with seeing Night of the Living Dead on rotation at a drive in theatre. In that film, Ben is one of the first significant black protagonists represented onscreen in a non-stereotypical fashion. He takes charge of the situation and lasts beyond his white peers, until the end of the film. There, Ben is shot and disposed of by a group of men hunting down zombies. He’s cast aside with the other dead, his body burned as the credits roll over this image, a terrifying end to the film. This film made an impact on Coleman and began her scholarly research in horror.
In the book, Coleman defines horror films through the lens of black representation through two lenses. “Blacks in Horror” include black actors in significant roles but their roles are stereotypical. ‘Black Horror’ meanwhile finds horror films shaped and created by black directors, writers, etc. to create thematic works that resonate with their audience. Examples of ‘Blacks in Horror’ include films such films where black people serve as the comic relief, the victim for the monster, or have black culture portrayed through a white audience’s eyes, often not well. ‘Black Horror’ includes films such as Blacula, Tales from the Hood, and Get Out. These distinctions are examined critically throughout the book with a wide variety of horror films featuring black people or made by a black audience are dissected in detail, with the lines between the genres often being blurred depending on the era.
Coleman defines each era of black horror by the decade, from the earliest silent films to the modern age, showcasing how black representation goes up and down via the decade. It is interesting to showcase how horror allowed black people representation and true power onscreen, despite being marginalized at the same time. Horror, as Coleman defines it, allows a sense of retribution and equalization that other films genres would not provide for a long time. In this sense, Blacula is defined in the book’s pages as a truly wall shattering piece of piece, dismissed by white audiences but embraced by a black audience, as a black vampire looms large onscreen.
Horror Noire is a must read for fans of the documentary, as well as fans of horror and film history. Covering in-depth aspects of tons of ‘black horror’ films, from the mainstream to the cult to the exploitation, this book is heavily recommended and sheds new light on what has often been unfairly dismissed as a trash genre, showcasing how much horror has meant to generations of black audiences, in shades of good, bad, and the ugly.
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