Over the course of the last few years, Hollywood has experienced an uptick in Black horror content. From Get Out to Us (thank you, Jordan Peele) to Swarm to Lovecraft Country to a Candyman remake where the notorious villain is unnecessarily fine, the predominantly white genre has gotten a long-overdue melanated update, with each project offering up poignant, layered commentary on the horrors of being Black in America. Recently released horror-comedy The Blackening also has something important to say about the Black experience, but it doesn’t bother waxing poetic or using extended metaphors and symbolism to talk about it. The point of this story? Blackness isn’t a monolith, and no matter what type of Black person you are, it ain’t easy. (But we’re gonna laugh about it regardless.)
From jump, The Blackening establishes itself as a horror story by tapping into one of the genre’s most common and most frustrating premises: a group of friends meeting up at an isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere. (Why are we still going to the woods?!) Complicating this horror cliche is the fact that this particular friendship circle is made up entirely of Black people. (If you know, you know: the one Black person in a horror movie is historically always the first to die. But if everybody is Black, wouldn’t that cancel out the rule?) Rather than taking a trip to, say, Cabo or Ghana, these college friends choose to subvert the norm by hosting their casual reunion at a luxurious house in the woods for a weekend of shenanigans and binge drinking. Though the vibes start off on a good foot — Spades! Jungle juice! Recreational drug use! — they reluctantly find themselves participating in a sick and twisted competition with higher stakes than a round of Taboo! at game night. Some psychopath has trapped them in their Airbnb, and the only way to escape alive is by proving that they’re the Blackest of the bunch. But as it turns out, Blackness isn’t so easy to quantify, even when your life depends on it.
In a virtual conversation with R29 Unbothered, Antoinette Robertson (Netflix’s Dear White People) shares that The Blackening was one of the most fun, most authentic projects she’s worked on in her career thus far. Despite being a self-proclaimed scaredy-cat herself, Robertson was initially attracted to the role of Lisa, the career woman trying to make time for love, because it checked off two requirements on her list: 1) it didn’t involve her playing demons or spirits — a very Black requirement, by the way— and 2) it turned a very common horror stereotype on its head.
“I never really felt like Black people were represented well in the horror space,” the actress tells Unbothered via Zoom. “Even on the off-chance that we weren't the first to die, it just never really felt like there was a lot of effort put into character development; it just always felt as if we were placed there as mannequins or placeholders, if that makes sense. Always a sidekick or the token.”
I think any reservations might come from the world being so used to ingesting Blackness through the lens of whiteness. It’s clear that we made The Blackening Blackity-Black, and we didn't shy away from that.
“When I initially read The Blackening’s script, I thought it was amazing because it was a brand new take,” she continues. “I love that we're pushing back against these tropes that we've all known about our entire lives. I saw so many beautiful characters with different hues of Blackness, and I knew that I had to be a part of it because someone took the time to really paint us with a different brush in our wholeness to show how authentic we are. They didn't dilute our Blackness or make it palatable for anyone. I feel like if we hold more space and allow more Black creatives to be this innovative and not necessarily conform to what other groups Believe blackness is, we can have way more art in this space — better art, to be perfectly honest.”
To Robertson’s point, what makes The Blackening so well-done is the fact that it knows exactly who its intended audience is and caters to them perfectly. The script, a gory fever dream from the minds of Tracy Oliver (Girl’s Trip and Harlem) and Dewayne Perkins (who also stars in the film), was very clearly written for Black people to experience and enjoy. Of course, the hope is that everyone heads to their local theater to watch it, but it's also pretty obvious that this film is meant for the Black gaze. The for us, by us intent of The Blackening is evident throughout, most identifiably in its running discourse about the complicated and sometimes contrary requirements for qualifying as Black. In order to “win” the game (although sacrificing your friends to survive isn’t exactly a win), our protagonists are forced to individually and collectively reckon with their narrow ideas of what it means to be Black in America, and it’s a relevant topic, especially since the question of who gets to be Black is something that’s always on our minds. If you’re biracial, are you technically Black? If you or your parents were born in Africa or in the Caribbean, are you allowed to say the N-word? If you’re queer, do you still get invited to the cookout? If you’ve never watched Baby Boy, can’t play spades without reneging, or know the steps to Tamia’s “Can’t Get Enough” line dance (guilty on all three counts, Your Honor), can your Black card get revoked?
Ultimately, the script suggests, it doesn't matter who’s the Blackest, and trying to determine that might actually do us more harm than good as a community. After all, the very reason that the characters spend most of the movie running for their lives is because they were so stringent about the unspoken sacred rules of Blackness to begin with. If we’re able to reconcile with the reality that the Black experience can’t be quantified or stratified — as in, there’s no Black experience that is superior or more “right” than another — then we can actually make some real progress in strengthening our community ties from the inside out. We have to root for everybody Black, word to Issa Rae. In the end, we’re all we have.
(Of course, there are always exceptions; not all skin folk are kinfolk. People who dislike Beyoncé simply cannot be gang, and not knowing Andre 3000’s verse on “Int’l Players Anthem” is a strike against you as well. Also, adds Robertson passionately, choosing sweet grits over savory ones is perfectly reasonable grounds for getting voted out by the Black Delegation. I don’t make the rules.)
The Blackening is a horror-comedy with just the right amount of hilarious gags to balance what could’ve otherwise been a sanctimonious kumbaya moment, and that spirit of “play too much” is an essential part of understanding this movie. Unlike other Black horror films that are often burdened with the responsibility of imparting a moral lesson or highlighting some political struggle within our society, The Blackening is intentionally unserious, a reflection of the laugh-so-we-don’t-cry mentality so prevalent in our community as a knee-jerk response to a culture of rampant, deep-rooted anti-Blackness. Nearly every aspect of our lives has been touched by consequences of the transatlantic slave trade, causing Black people in this country to exist in what scholars like Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe would describe as the “afterlife of slavery.” State-sponsored segregation, redlining, voter suppression, police brutality, colorism, healthcare inequity, economic gentrification, even A.I. bias — all of these troubling phenomena and more are repercussions of this country’s innate anti-Blackness. In short, although we know that Black is beautiful, being Black here has always come at a high emotional and mental cost.
Racism, at its core, is ridiculous. No matter what anyone says, there’s no logical reason for anti-Blackness, and instead of trying to make sense of it, all we can do is point out its absurdity. To avoid existential depression, we just…laugh. Humor becomes a coping mechanism for dealing with everyday racism, and the joy that we get despite the pain sustains us. Existing, and laughing while doing it, is resistance, and it’s healing to be this silly — a middle finger to a system that would steal our happiness every chance it gets. So as much as we need to stay woke, we also need to be unserious. Not to be dramatic, but our survival depends on it.
Robertson just wishes that no matter what people leave the theater thinking, they will have had fun at the end of the day. “[Director Tim Story] always tells us, ‘Listen, if you got a message, good for you. But what we're trying to do is have a good time and show you something that was well-made, made with love’,” she explains. “Because this was legitimately a labor of love. This was an independent film right out of a pandemic, and we all just wanted to have fun and be around people who were good and did good work. And we did just that.”
Like most satires, The Blackening won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; there’ll undoubtedly be those who will take offense to the film’s irreverent takes on Black culture. But like all good art, the horror-comedy will be received by the people who need to receive it. And if you don’t get it, that’s okay. This movie probably isn’t for you anyway.
“If seeing different hues of Blackness in its most authentic form offends you, then maybe this film wasn't for you. And that's fine. Not everything is for everyone, but I think any reservations might come from the world being so used to ingesting Blackness through the lens of whiteness,” Robertson shrugs off criticism of the film. “It’s clear that we made The Blackening Blackity-Black, and we didn't shy away from that. So if you are willing to just walk into the theater and have a good time, you will.”
Watch The Blackening in theaters now.