How Blackness turns horror movie stereotypes on their head

What started as a smiling bug circulating in the secret realms of kitchens and living rooms has long since permeated the mainstream. Now everyone knows: in the American horror movie, you can expect the black character to die first.

This joke forms the basis of the new horror comedy “The Blackening” (in theaters June 16), which arrives with the tagline, “We can’t all die first.” A Juneteenth weekend away at a remote, cavernous cabin turns deadly for a group of friends when they discover a board game in the basement. One of the sambo symbols occupies the center of the painting and tests it on several axes 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 determine the deadly consequences of wrong answers.

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

“All the black people who were in the sketch were like, ‘Oh yeah, we always feel like we’re individually the most expendable in a lot of the organizations that we’re a part of,’” he said. “So that was kind of the impetus. If we put all blacks together in horror movies, they’re going to have to have a system that determines who dies first.”

In short, a group of black friends who are confronted by a killer must decide who is “blacker” – and therefore liable to be killed first. Of course, the comedy is in what naturally follows: Everyone put together is trying to prove they’re the least black. One character is held back by repeated attempts to insist that “all lives matter,” the deadpan response to Black Lives Matter. After seeing the sketch, Oliver tracked down Perkins to adapt the piece into a feature. (“The Blackening” recreates the short in one of the funniest scenes.) Initially attached as producer, Tim Story, best known for “Barbershop” (2002), fell in love with the script and additionally chose to direct. “It’s something I really wanted to bring to the screen,” Storey said.

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Comedian and actress Yvonne Orji, who plays Morgan, was also drawn to the subversive script. “We’re turning the stereotype on its head,” she said, “and I love when stereotypes are flipped.”

The appearance of black characters in the horror genre upends a legacy of perils that it too often used as comic relief or casually snubbed; Perkins explained that it was a purposeful decision to play with these archetypes so that the film would be in constant dialogue with this history. “My character is a gay best friend, which is a trope. All of these characters, at first, have a metaphorical origin. Then we use film to constantly feed that character. The goal was to allow the trope to become a fully realized character.”

Although “The Blackening” functions primarily as a comedy, the film also delivers dynamic moments of suspense and chilling terror, a result of Perkins and Oliver’s lifelong admiration for horror cinema. “It was my favorite genre,” Perkins said. “I think that’s why the movie is included with references.”

There are many references. 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), “The People Under the Stairs” (1991), “Jumanji” (1995), “Scream” (1996), “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (1997). The Blackening boosted audiences last fall when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Prior to its release, it will be shown as part of the Tribeca Festival, including a showing on June 13 at the Apollo Theatre.

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Story brought his experience directing comedy to the funnier elements of the film, but saw the challenge of tackling its terrifying moments. “The cool thing about being a movie fan is that you end up studying all kinds of these genres,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to mess with horror, but I had to find something that was still in my world.”

The film’s title 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 increase in the representation of black cinema in the late 1960s – or “blackness”. Both writers are especially united in their love for George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), in which the black man dies last, albeit tragically: he manages to survive the zombie apocalypse only to be killed by a guard. mob. Harris credited the film with inspiring what, in an interview, he called his “love of horror”. Coleman and Harris chronicle these cycles of diversity—which will inevitably meet an abrupt end—in their book, from the Blaxploitation era to ’90s urban horror, and now this latest esteemed generation of transparently politicized horror.

Although she has been responsible for the ups and downs of these past movements, Coleman said, “We’re moving away from what I imagine black people in horror to black horror, which is really a reflection of black life and culture and experience.” Coleman, a scholar who also wrote “Horror Noir: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to the Present,” has praised innovation in modern horror films, citing “Candyman” (2021) by Nia DaCosta. “There is art, there is music, slang, it’s all there.”

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In a testament to the genre’s surprising fluidity, at least two of the actors on “The Blackening” can already count standout features from this wave of social justice horror among their works. Sinqua Walls, who plays Nnamdi, was recently featured in the Sundance Grand Jury Award-winning film “The Nanny” (2022), and veteran Jay Pharoah, who plays Morgan’s boyfriend, Shawn, was in the horror comedy “Bad Hair” (2020). Pharaoh said he was happy to be in these kinds of films because of their outstanding popularity.

“It’s going to be a certain niche of people or this fan base that you have no idea about, that have watched your stuff over and over again,” he said. “They can quote everything and they know how you die. It’s so cool to be a part of it.”

For Story, filming “The Blackening” was fun.

He said, “What was so great about making this movie, it was so overwhelmed with celebration. I mean, that’s what’s so fun about it. We’re giving the basis for a lot of great conversations. We want it to represent us and us on so many sides; inviting others as well to do their version.”

Sound produced Adrian Hirst.

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