One of the earliest images in the new documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror is of Lakeith Stanfield in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. His character, Andre, is walking down a quiet suburban block when a masked man comes out of the dark and wrestles him into the trunk of a car. It’s a lifetime in a single scene, a fictional rendering of the very real threat of living while black in America — and it sets up the century’s worth of cinema history that will follow in Horror Noire.
Adapted from the 2011 book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films From the 1890s to Present by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, the new documentary is perfectly built for those who found their way to genre through Get Out and want to know more about the history of black horror. It gives a broad sweep of black presence in cinema from the beginning of film time, using movies like Birth of a Nation, Son of Ingagi, Ganja & Hess, Blacula, Tales From the Hood, and many more to trace the peaks and valleys of black representation on screen, fighting against exploitation and otherness for 120 years to become the heroes of their own stories. (For horror nerds, it’s a well-made tribute to a world of art you’ve long hoped would get its due among a wider audience.)
Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning effort from 2017 opens and closes the documentary, serving as both a jumping off point into the past of black horror as well as a looking glass into its future. Black folks in horror have gone from whites in blackface and exotic zombies to slayers of the undead and powerful, charismatic vampires, from one-dimensional best friends to complex leading men and women trying to break out of escapes rooms and the Sunken Place. With Noire arriving on Shudder just before the two-year anniversary of Get Out’s release, Vulture reached out to Dr. Coleman to talk about the long-term effects of Peele’s film on Hollywood generally and horror specifically, the important role women will play is shaping the genre going forward, and what tropes she would most like to see put in the trash bin of history.
So your book has been adapted into a documentary. How are you feeling about it?
My husband said, “Maybe Horror Noire was too early.” I said, “No, it was right on time. It sets up the conversation.” We have these kind of seminal moments in horror films, movies like The Girl With All the Gifts and Get Out, and it’s an exciting trajectory. Almost every year there’s another moment where you go, “This is something we need to pay attention to.” I would say the documentary is not a capstone to that, but it’s yet another beginning, another opening for us to really critically and smartly engage these films. We’re bringing a seriousness and a credibility to it. It is fun and it’s entertaining, but it is really instructive and thought provoking. Maybe there’ll be a Horror Noire part two, both book and movie, and I would love for it to be me and Ashlee Blackwell, who runs Graveyard Shift Sisters, and Tananarive Due, who writes and teaches a course about Get Out at UCLA, and perhaps Mark Harris, who runs the site Black Horror Movies. But whether we’re involved or not, I know that people will now be talking about it for a very long time. It is the black horror of Color Adjustment or Black Is … Black Ain’t. It is the documentary that people will refer back to for the next several decades and say, “This is where we need to start the conversation.” That’s really cool. I’m so happy.
I recently reread the last chapter of Horror Noire, in which you give an assessment of horror generally and black horror specifically from that time in 2011. And you say, “An interesting morality tale boom is likely on the horizon.” A few years later Get Out went into production, and it turns out you called it! That movie really pushed the horror boom that was happening at a smaller level with movies like It Follows into big box office and major awards territory.
And I think it’s going to continue with Jordan Peele’s Us. I haven’t seen it, but in the extended trailer when they say “It’s us,” he is going to force us to look at our social world, our political world, our inner demons, how we are responsible for our neighbors, our climate, who we are today, and where America is at today. I think he’s going to force us to look at our contributions, our culpability, the entire kind of landscape of how we all inform where this country is going. So I’m super excited for that movie. I think that’s the ultimate morality tale.
The first time I interviewed you it was about Get Out, and I asked you if the movie really was as unique as it seemed, or if I just didn’t know enough about black horror to identify a more groundbreaking precedent. And you said no, it is that new. It is that big of a deal. With two years behind us now since Get Out premiered and one year since its Oscar win, what do you see as the sustaining effects of the film?
I was rereading interviews where I say that, so I’m still going to stand behind my answer, but we’re going to put a little asterisk there. The book Horror Noire starts with 1890. From my vantage point as a scholar, a historian would say, “No, we’ve always been there. Black people have always been contributing in significant ways to the narrative,” and those who were paying attention to the genre, they’re going to say, “Yeah, we have always been there for it.” Now, what happens that’s a watershed is that Get Out becomes like a Silence of the Lambs or Rosemary’s Baby. It gets the big awards. That’s important when you’re talking about going mainstream, right? That’s kind of the litmus test. For those of us who have been paying attention to the narratives of the genre, we’re a century in now, but that is a key marker. An Academy Award is the most important award. So yes. This is a renaissance period for horror, particularly for black horror. Absolutely. We haven’t seen it before.
The documentary gives a great sweep of black horror’s peaks and valleys over time, going from eras when progress in representation was being made into subsequent decades where Hollywood would force its regression again. In a post–Get Out landscape, do you see this as a more sustainable turning point? Can that cycle of two steps forward, one step back finally be broken now that we are seeing more substantial institutional resources put behind black art?
Yeah. There’s no question. There are two things that we can point to. The first is what Jordan Peele is doing. Get Out is not a flash in the pan. We’ve got Us coming. Peele is producing a reimagining of Candyman. He’s doing the Twilight Zone. We now see kind of mainstream Hollywood and New York saying, “Wait. We need to be paying attention to this.” Peele was the catalyst. The person who is helpful in this is Miguel Nuñez. In the documentary he says all of a sudden they’re going back and saying, “Wait, can we get a brother in here? Can we get a sister in here?” They are rescripting and rewriting and being more inclusive. So, it’s not just that it’s riding on the incredible talent of Peele. Now we’re seeing a real kind of integration of blacks into the mainstream. We’ve always been there, but now the industry is waking up and saying, “We missed an opportunity, and we need to catch up.” So I absolutely think it’s sustainable.
For the folks who got more turned on to horror through Get Out, one of the most frequent responses I heard to it was how much people loved the metaphor, that it was a so much smarter than typical horror because there was another layer — when that is the whole history of horror right there. The genre is metaphor, and the truth as old as time is that black creatives have often been the ones to advance our artistic discourse, and then white folks in charge of the machine either ignore those advances or openly rip them off. Horror Noire is a century of study, but now in 2019, do you feel like there is a growing recognition that needle has been moved by black creatives? That pioneers are finally being recognized for their contributions?
No question. So here’s the important moment, and I love that you talked about It Follows, Let the Right One In, and The Babadook with Get Out, because the important thing is that these are high-quality, really smart, well invested in a films, right? You know, what William Crain did with Blacula on a limited budget, limited distribution, and look what he’s able to do with that film and the importance of that narrative. Now imagine if he had the resources and the support and the backing that we’re seeing today. So, what I think is a renaissance around these horror films is that we’re no longer doing that kind of lower quality, American International Pictures–type films. We are going for high-quality, diverse voices, diverse stories that come from within and a cultural experience. That has been the game changer, and Jordan Peele starts that.
One of the things that stuck with me most when I read your book was the assertion of horror being subjective depending on the audience, in the sense that movies white viewers see as dramas could very well be horror films to black audiences. And that goes all the way back to Birth of a Nation. That really underscores how if you didn’t see Get Out as a horror movie then you missed the whole damn point. How can a story like that be anything but horror when an entire community of people experiences the world as a horror show of racism? And of course, Jordan Peele said, “Get Out is a documentary.”
Exactly right. I mean one of the scariest scenes in Get Out is when Lakeith Stanfield is walking and he’s like, “I’m out here alone in these creepy-ass suburbs,” and you totally get it. The only thing more frightening than that would have been if he was jogging as a black man alone in the suburbs. That opening scene marks what horror means, what the horrific realities are for African Americans, and Tananarive says in the film, “Black history is black horror.”
The art is derived from that constant experience.
That’s really important. You should say that again: The art is derived from the cultural experience, and that’s what horror has always done and that’s what it’s continuing to do.
The documentary takes care to emphasize the beauty and strength of black folks in horror when they’re actually represented well. And one of the most satisfying things about Get Out was how deliberately it embraced some of those elements while dismantling some of the worst clichés about black characters in horror — the brutal buck, the removal of any interiority, existing only among urban decay. What are some of the tropes you would say need to be left behind the fastest as black horror proliferates in pop culture?
Here’s what I hope we leave behind, and this has to do with what we see happening in the 1980s. As we continue to reimagine movies like Halloween, Poltergeist, Friday the 13th, all of that is born out of white flight. Whites were fleeing the urban to the suburban, and then we were invited to look in the mirror at the monstrous. But in doing that they implicated black and brown bodies. In The Shining, the Overlook Hotel is built on an Indian burial ground. Poltergeist, it’s an Indian burial ground. We’ve got Pet Sematary coming back out again, and even in this period of white flight, black and brown folks are implicated in the evil and the horrific; there’s something so oddly overly religious and deficient about all of us that it seeps in even centuries later and taints whiteness. I’d like to see that go away.
There’s a quote from the book Horror Noire where you say, “Horror for blacks continues to be a study in racism, exoticism, in new colonialism, in which black Americans are portrayed outside of Western images of enlightenment while being subordinated to assist them in primitive images.” I remember seeing Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) in Get Out and immediately recognizing him as an erudite urban character with well-appointed home, a job as a photographer, who then gets invited to the suburbs, which is an area a character like him has almost been barred from in any meaningful way for so long in horror. From the start it felt revolutionary just based on those elements.
I think what’s more interesting is, because of that whole invitation there’s a counterpart. In the suburbs, he’s stripped of home. He’s stripped of his kinships. He’s stripped of his bonds. He says, “I just want to get home,” but safety and salvation is black Brooklyn. Initially it looks like, “Wait, all black people know each other?” Because Lakeith Stanfield’s character, they’re like, “Oh, that’s the brother from the club,” but what it also speaks to is the strength and the bonds of black communities. When Rel’s character comes in the police car and you think, “He’s gonna get shot by the police,” and then it’s him. I mean black folks were hugging TSA agents in the airport for real after that movie! But it also reminds you he’s driving from black Brooklyn into the suburbs, the white suburbs, to save his friend and deliver him back home to safety. And this is the first movie where there is an overt message of black community as safe, as the one where deficiency doesn’t reside. That’s now the white suburbs. That’s the important parallel there I think.
So what do you see as the next step for depiction of black homes in horror? Black characters don’t need to be in the suburbs to be valid, of course, so is it a reclamation of the black urban area?
I think so.
And I hope that doesn’t sound all white-savior. I don’t mean to say these are broken communities that need to be made better.
But that’s exactly the answer, is that you can have black stories coming out of black spaces, and it doesn’t need to be white savior-y right? We’ll see what happens with Candyman, because Candyman has the potential to do that. This is why I like Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou. It shows you a really deep, complex, whole and full story about black life, culture, and history that comes out of a black space. So, it could be the urban. It could be the rural, but now we’re saying there’s a rich and deep set of stories that can come out of blackness that anybody can latch onto. Those stories have yet to be told, and we’ve been writing these stories for very long time. We will no longer tolerate an Angel Heart. We will no longer tolerate a Serpent and the Rainbow.
So after predicting the emergence of the morality tale in your book, what do forecast is on the horizon for horror now that your documentary is out?
I think we have to play pay attention to women. We’re talking about Jordan Peele and even our director, Xavier Burgin, is a black male, but I think women are really stepping out in genre and that’s the next place to pay attention to. I think both in advancing a continued narrative about paying attention to the power of horror, and in the horror text itself, women are at the forefront.