Even more than its numerous accolades and impressive box-office haul, the lasting legacy of Jordan Peele’s Get Out may be that it initiated a renaissance in Black horror cinema. It’s played a key role in ushering in a wave of fearsome titles on both the big and small screen — from Peele’s own Us and Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts to Justin Simien’s Bad Hair and HBO’s Lovecraft Country — that refract their thrills through a socially conscious lens.
Thus, it was with great excitement that a collection of esteemed Black directors and writers got together for the “Future of Black Horror” panel at ShudderFest on Saturday to discuss where the rejuvenated movement is headed. All of them agreed that none of what’s happening now would be possible without Peele’s groundbreaking 2017 film.
Hosted by Rise of the Black Panther writer Evan Narcisse, the panel was part of the virtual Halloween festival put on by the horror streaming service, and featured Tales from the Hood director Rusty Cundieff, professor and Horror Noire executive producer Tananarive Due, Lovecraft Country writer Shannon M. Houston, author Victor LaValle and Monkeypaw Productions cultural executive Kamil Oshundara. To a tee, they credited Peele’s Oscar-winning modern classic with opening doors for Black creatives, who following in the footsteps of gems like Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973) and Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou (1997), have used horror to comment on the very real racist terrors that Black people face in their daily lives.
“I think Black horror is the realization that the material reality, every day that we live, is horror. And Black horror uses cinema to bring us closer to understanding and confronting the monsters in our everyday life,” said Oshundara. The ability to flip typical horror dynamics — where Black people are often portrayed as beasts, fiends and shadowy figures — has been part of the key to the genre’s resurgence in recent years. Nonetheless, Oshundara also believes that Get Out’s popularity had to do with its ability to speak to a wide collection of viewers.
Black horror uses cinema to bring us closer to understanding and confronting the monsters in our everyday life. Kamil Oshundara
“Because Get Out appealed directly to audiences of different classes and races, and had a lot of, I would say, white characters in the story that were borderline villains and also main characters, I feel like that really allowed it to apply to a lot of different audiences. And I think it also allowed it to really transcend the idea of black horror being only for black people,” Oshundara said.
Due agreed, pointing out that “horror audiences like novelty. And I think that’s one of the saving graces of Black horror. Because sometimes, yes, it’s often a critique of race relations — not always, but often. But white horror fans want to be scared by something new. New images, new mythologies, just a different way of thinking, a different approach to characterizations. That’s kind of the fuel for the horror fan: show me something I haven’t seen before.”
White horror fans want to be scared by something new. New images, new mythologies, just a different way of thinking, a different approach to characterizations. Tananarive Due
While Black horror frequently addresses both present-day systemic racism and the sins of the past, Due remarks that one of the challenges faced by those working in this field is how to depict the scarring violence of history — which should be shown to educate viewers and to validate those experiences — while avoiding re-traumatizing audiences. “It’s a real balancing act going forward,” she said.
As befitting an hour-long conversation on this rich topic, the ShudderFest panel also touched upon a number of other key facets of Black horror, including the time-tested cliché of killing off Black characters first, Hollywood’s increased interest in empowering artists to tackle scary stories from a distinctly Black perspective, the role that revenge and catharsis play in sagas about oppression and survival and the particular obstacles that Black women face in this arena. That last issue, Houston says, exists to this day, meaning that despite the considerable progress that’s been made, “the fight continues.”
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