Review: Shudder's HORROR NOIRE is the Best Documentary You'll See All Year
I feel super unqualified to write this, but I am going to do my best. Shudder’s (the very best app for horror fans) very first original documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Cinema hit the streaming service last week, just in time for Black History Month. The doc takes a look at how black people have been utilized in film, from The Birth of a Nation to the still unreleased Us. Captivating the audience with interviews from some of the most prominent black performers in horror and historians/educators, Horror Noire is a, much like the dubbed “black horror”, a film for everyone, but mostly aimed at the target demographic.
Documentaries are incredibly hard to review; how does one who is programmed to look at narrative, aesthetic, and critical theory able to craft a review when documentaries don’t adhere to these rules? However, here, that isn’t a problem. The narrative is simple: black people have been misrepresented in film since the beginning of cinema. Yes, I said FILM, because Horror Noire is not just about horror films. Noire focuses on everything from period dramas to blaxploitation, showing clips of white men in black face and films such that portray the race as nothing but pimps and wife beaters.
But this is a horror site and (mostly) a horror documentary, so what do they focus on in our beloved drama. Well, it’s everything you’d think. Night of the Living Dead’s genius (and unintentional) casting of Duane Jones in the lead role. Actors Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) and Keith David (The Thing) have an amazing back and forth, commenting on how this casting choice changed the game and impacted them. They move on to Blacula, and believe it to be incredibly problematic, if not enjoyable.
Noire then begins to cover everything else: the black female who was usually a Voodoo priestess, the white savior, the black savior who was present only to save the white girl (aka the sacrificial negro, as it’s dubbed in the film), and, everyone’s favorite misconception, the black guy dies first (which they point out does not happen as often as we think). The interviewees comment on how they were never cast as the main character, always the sidekick, but it was nice to see themselves represented, even if the case in which they were was problematic.
And yes, it is problematic. But the question becomes; should we stop liking these movies because of this? Of course not, but in a world where most people believe in equality and social justice, we can still enjoy films of yesteryear while also understanding how they affected those who were unjustly represented.
Finally, we get to today. Jordan Peele is a huge part of the finale, as the interviewees comment on how Get Out was a game changer (and it was). Peele comments on how Black Lives Matter shaped his writing and redrafting of the script. Others mention how the white audience members around them were rooting for Chris the entire film, proving the fact that if you have an engaging and sympathetic main character, everyone can get behind them.
Horror Noire is a masterclass of storytelling in documentary form. It is a history of cinema, a history of horror and a history of civil rights. Genre fans will be happy to see some of their favorites, like Miguel Nunez, Jr. (Return of the Living Dead), Ken Sagoes (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors), Rachel True (The Craft), Tony Todd (Candyman) and Kelly Jo Minter (The People Under the Stairs) comment on how the past has affected them, how their time shaped them and how the future excites them. If you don’t have Shudder, get it (seriously, $4 a month) and watch this damn documentary, because it’s probably the best you’ll see all year.