Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

2019 has been a busy year for me and I know I’ve missed some great movies. Thus, I decided to use Letterboxd.com to see what popular films have come out that I still haven’t seen. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) quickly caught my eye and when I realized it was an original of the streaming service Shudder I knew I’d found my movie for the evening. The concept of representation of non-white and non-male characters has been a focus of mine over the last two years as a result of my role as a high school film teacher. My student population is diverse yet my selection of films throughout the history of the medium tends to not be. I’m also a big fan of film genre and a documentary that focuses on representation in a specific genre checks many of my interests. 

Horror Noire is a great reason to give Shudder a try

Horror Noire takes the viewer on a cinematic historical journey through Black horror films and the roles of African American characters in the horror genre from the golden age to current films. There are a lot of iconic African American directors and actors of the genre interviewed about the films and discussing the various changes and impacts on the industry and society in some cases. 

The big question you may be pondering is whether subscribing to Shudder is worth it for this film. If the subject intrigues you I’d say it could be a good investment as Shudder does have a solid library of horror titles to watch. This documentary is engaging, informative, and struggles with a truly systemic problem still relevant in the industry so I think paying for a month of the service is worth it. Of course, if documentaries don’t often work for you then this film may not hold your interest as it is mostly talking heads and clips of movies. For me though, I found it to be endlessly entertaining and I ended up adding several films to my watchlist based on their recommendations. 

Jordan Peele seems to be the crux of this documentary’s existence with his consecutive successful horror films Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). Peele is interviewed a few times, but he doesn’t have the most screen time. His interview, however, is on the most unique set of all the interviews and the impact Get Out has had on the industry and the genre is clearly the catalyst of the doc getting made. Peele’s interviews are great and I truly believe I could listen to him talk about the film for hours as he is clearly passionate about the craft.

Three movies that really stood out to me that I immediately added to my watchlist: Tales from the Hood (1995), Blacula (1972), and Ganja & Hess (1973). I’m fairly confident I saw Tales from the Hood when I was in high school, but my memory of the film is foggy at best. I didn’t realize they’d made a sequel in 2018 with Keith David, who is in the documentary, has sparked my interest in revisiting the first and then watch the second.  

My impression of Blacula prior to the doc was that it was just a cheesy blaxploitation film that wasn’t worth my time. While some of the effects and make-up confirm that initial suspicion, hearing the various people in the documentary talking about it and the role the film has changed my perception. Both William Marshall, Blacula himself, and the director William Crain are interviewed about the film and reveal some insightful aspects of working with the studio and getting to create a film that initially was very resisted.

 I wasn’t familiar with Ganja & Hess at all before watching the documentary. The interviews in the film discussing the movie and its importance to the genre intrigued me so much. It’s quiet and contemplative and that’s kind of insane given the era it was released. Like many horror films, the horror aspects of the story are used allegorically more than literally, which offers a compelling insight into the era. 

Final thoughts…

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror is definitely worth your time, especially if you’re a cinephile. I found it to be full of great stories, funny conversations, and, most importantly, very informative about this systemic problem of a lack of representation. If you’re willing to give Shudder a try then I’d say watch this documentary. Horror Noire earns the Must See rating.

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