When Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror was released in 2019, it opened many people’s eyes to the legacy of Black genre filmmaking. Shudder is aiming to add to that legacy with Horror Noire, an upcoming anthology film showcasing six stories of Black horror from Black directors and screenwriters. Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, co-writers of two of the segments, shared their perspectives on the past and future of Black horror at NIGHTSTREAM 2021, in conversation with arts curator, film programmer, and critic Sarah-Tai Black.
Black horror is undergoing a moment right now, but this is not the first time this has happened. The 1990s brought with it a wave of Black genre cinema with the release of films like Def by Temptation, Tales from the Hood, and Eve’s Bayou. Toward the end of the decade, that wave began to peter out, but films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out have paved the way for another renaissance.
“Get Out asked some really important questions that I’ve never seen asked in a movie before,” Barnes says. “One of them is, can Black people even trust the people who claim to be allies? And from the other perspective, if I was white, is there any way for me to communicate the positivity of my intent, the purity of my heart—that I do not want to be part of a racist past? Jordan Peele brought to text a conversation that had been subtextual so that Black people and white people were encouraged to have a dialogue that they had not had earlier.”
Despite the renewed interest in Black horror in the wake of Get Out and the Horror Noire documentary, Due has still experienced pushback.
“We’ve gone from the era where no one knew what Black horror is to an era where some people on social media say, ‘Why do we need Black horror?’” she points out. “Wait—we skipped the part where we support Black horror and have a whole bunch more Black horror creators!”
Barnes, meanwhile, is both optimistic and realistic about this current wave. “What is happening right now is very different from anything I’ve seen happening before,” he says. “This wave will break as well, but what I’m hoping is that enough of us will have burrowed into the system that the next cycles will happen faster.”
Having written for The Twilight Zone in the 1980s and The Outer Limits in the 1990s—both shows he had grown up on during their original runs—Barnes knows firsthand that having a Black writer in the room is a start, but it’s not enough. Whenever he wrote a part for a Black actor, it would inevitably be recast. Since the release of The Unit, a major network TV show that featured a Black actor (Dennis Haysbert) in the leading role, Barnes has sensed a change in the air. But this has only been possible thanks to the people who managed to “burrow in” and enact that change from the inside.
“It’s all about representation behind the camera,” he explains. “Forget about the actors. Forget about the writers. It has to be the directors, the producers, the executives—that’s where you need to have diversity. You put diversity there and it will automatically change in front of the camera.”
Due, whose first novel, The Between, was published in the mid-90s, has also seen the power structure starting to shift. “In the old days—let’s say 2008—if we’d assembled a team to go around pitching and that team included Forest Whitaker who wanted to direct a film version of my book The Good House, we could give a great pitch and the execs would say, ‘That sounds great, really scary… Do the characters have to be Black?’ There was no vocabulary that executives had for that thing called Black horror. There had been Tales from the Hood and Eve’s Bayou. But there had not been enough of a lasting impact, and those directors did not get enough second chances, and the writers’ room still didn’t have a lot of representation. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Due, like many Black horror fans, developed a taste for horror from her mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, who experienced permanent eye damage after being hit in the face with a canister of tear gas during a peaceful protest against segregation in the 1960s. For people like her mother, Due says horror can be a way to process trauma.
“Black audiences really do have a special relationship with horror,” she elaborates. “I’m really glad for all of us that we’re finally at a time where we don’t have to be vicarious in the experience (experiencing the story through white characters) and we can see ourselves be the heroes and the heroines and defeat the monsters.”
There’s a fine line, however, between exploring trauma and re-traumatising people—a line which, as writers, Due and Barnes are acutely aware of. Portrayals of racially motivated violence like lynchings will always be deeply painful to Black audiences in a way that detracts from one of the fundamental appeals of the genre: watching horror movies is supposed to be entertaining.
“There will be a learning process for me as well as other horror creators,” Due says. “How can we move away from the more visceral and re-traumatising imagery specifically, because it’s a visual medium, while still telling a story that validates the horrific experience? The way we tell those stories matters so much. It has to be about real people and a journey, not just a message.”
For Barnes, this moment also presents the chance to critically examine the tropes that perpetuate harmful misconceptions about Black people. Fear comes from the unknown, so the ability to tell stories that audiences haven’t seen before is an opportunity to both excite and create empathy.
“Understand that you have stories to tell, and that the stories that have been excluded before are exotic and more interesting because they haven’t been told,” he advises the next generation of Black storytellers. “You have something valuable, something precious, that being a new perspective.”
Horror Noire premieres on Shudder on October 28th.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)