A Shudder Original: “Horror Noire”


HORROR NOIRE is a 90-minute documentary on black horror, on the SHUDDER horror streaming network starting Feb. 7. (Here’s more info and a link to the trailer: https://birthmoviesdeath.com/2019/01/07/horror-noire-a-history-of-black-horror-documentary?fbclid=IwAR2I0CzspNZVq9lxhULXqDgx6z0WUVcbeVesp1qCUynFfmHjhhTQeQWQ-gU)

My baby Tananarive Due, being famous as is her natural place in the universe, is a co-executive producer and one of the featured interviews. Wonderful. She shines here, as she does in her novels and award-winning short stories, her UCLA “The Sunken Place” master class, or in our online Afrofuturism and Black Horror webinar courses.

There are some who ask: why does there need to be a category of “black movies”? Why not just “movies”? Why? Because people are not honest and awake. If they were, the world would look different. If you cannot believe there has been de facto segregation and promotion of differential worth in the image systems of film, you haven’t been following me.

One measure was the ability of black men to have sex in movies that are accepted by the general public. This was measured by domestic box office in excess of 100 million. The very first movie to do it was CREED in 2016. The second was CREED II in 2018. Give me a few non-Rocky examples, and I’ll close the door on that one. (BTW…about 20% of movies that earn over 100 million have love scenes, so you can stuff whatever you were about to say about the limitations of PG-13. I’ve heard it.) That’s Second Chakra “group and personal reproduction” stuff.

But a more subtle problem is the promotion of values considering survival, which is “First Chakra” stuff, the base of Maslow’s hierarchy. And boy oh boy, does talking about this ever poke the bear.

The Sacrificial Negro trope is one experts discuss in Tananarive’s documentary, “Horror Noire.” Over the last few days I’ve been called a racist, and criticized for not being thrilled that the only black characters in BIRD BOX died protecting white genetics. It is fascinating how resistant people are to hearing what I’ve said. Even supporters think I’m saying that “black people die sacrificially in all movies” or “there are no movies in which black people survive” or something.

NO. Here is what I’m saying:

  1. A character is defined as someone with at least one line of dialogue.
  2. There are dozens of American movies (69 at last count) I’ve listed where all black characters, or all black men, die.
  3. There are NO American films in which all white characters die, if ANYONE else survives. Not one.
  4. It is almost laughable how difficult it is for people to grasp this, so used are they to being central to the story. “What about Django Unchained?” they’ll ask, with a drop-the-mic voice. I mean, WTF? And entire TOWN survives. LOTS of secondary characters with dialogue. But the fact that all the CENTRAL characters die blinds them.
  5. I have had people accuse me of denigrating the concept of sacrifice. No, I don’t. But it’s “tragedy of the commons” time when you promote the notion that X’s should be honored to go extinct for Y’s, when Y’s NEVER return the “honor.”
  6. No single film is responsible for this. ANY individual film can be explained away. You have to look at the PATTERN to get it.
  7. And yes, I consider the images we support in films to reflect our values. From this perspective, yes there is a connection with the concerns of BLM. I see Trayvon Martin and Rodney King in there, as well as patterns of incarceration and discrimination.
  8. It isn’t unique to America, or white people. ALL people tend to have mythologies that place them as central to the narrative, and to the universe. “God made us first and loves us best” is pretty typical. If you’re watching a Japanese giant monster movie, you’d better believe the Japanese will be the heroes who save the day. Nothing wrong with that. But if you have a multi-racial, multi-ethnic culture, unless you are willing to be HONEST about this, you are encouraging those minorities to believe in a fiction, when the system is actually stacked against them. ADMITTING that the system is stacked destroys the myth of “the commons” and the level playing field. So the game is to tilt the field, and simultaneously swear its level, blaming them for their damage. If honest, this would be bad enough. But this is gaslighting. It is your creepy uncle molesting you and saying you asked for it. It is evil.
  9. No, this isn’t a conscious conspiracy. It is the result of human tribalism, most of which operates on an unconscious level. No one is being asked to do anything: not stop doing this in films, not boycott or anything else. Just…tell the truth. Wake up. And make your choices based upon your values. But stop lying about it. That’s enough.
  10. To repeat: I don’t consider this to be some problem white people have. I consider there to be nothing special about white people at all, neither positive or negative. It is just one of the downsides of human perception, multiplied across numerical and cultural advantage. I’ve written two novels (LION’S BLOOD and ZULU HEART) laying out clearly my belief that people are just people, but history is a bitch.

I have laid out that thesis dozens of times, and people still “don’t get it,” still misquote and misunderstand. Either it is impossibly complex, or there is unconscious motivation not to understand. “It is difficult to awaken someone who profits by remaining asleep” is a saying. A nastier version of that is “You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.” I’m willing to assume this is mostly unconscious.

But if I try to explain why, say THE UNFORGIVEN or THE GREEN MILE (film version) are problematic, it can be difficult. Even harder explaining why INFINITY WAR, which flirted with this trope but didn’t’ quite seal the deal, hurt to watch. And the conclusion: the situation will change not when black people educate white people, but when there is diversity BEHIND the cameras. That changes the images. A generation after that, those images become totally standard, nothing special, and people will wonder why there was ever resistance.

So “Afrofuturism” and “Horror Noire” are simply filling in those gaps. And the people who complain most are, in my experience, those who gave George Zimmerman a pass and mock “SJWs”. That’s fine. They can be good neighbors.

What they cannot be is brothers and sisters. Family.

And…why Horror Noire? Because horror allows us to vent our fear so that we can live productive lives. And a movie like “Get Out” asks questions we’ve never seen in our culture, that allow the venting of emotional poison as well as triggering new conversations: what do we need to trust each other? Can anyone be trusted? That fear is there. And walking out of that movie you had white people and black people standing around the water cooler talking about things they had never said before.

And that is healthy for everyone.

So…in another generation or so, movies like BLACK PANTHER and SORRY TO BOTHER YOU won’t be revolutionary. They’ll just be…movies. But we’re not there yet. And celebrating the courage, and creativity, and vision, and honesty of these artists, separate from the “color blind” (as if anyone can really be that. “I don’t see race” some say. And then in the next breath, ask “why do black people X or Y,” which is simple self-delusion) approaches to film evaluation is a valuable thing. And a community celebrating its visionaries is universal human behavior.

At least we’re being honest about it. And honesty is the first step, always.


Steven Barnes


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