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What Do We Learn About Racism From Black Horror Like ‘Get Out’?

A chat with Xavier Burgin, director of ‘Horror Noire,’ about the unique terrors that come from being Black in America — and what the recent renaissance of Black horror films can teach us

At the 2018 Oscars, Jordan Peele held aloft the golden statuette that signaled his Best Original Screenplay win for his horror film Get Out. “This means so much to me,” he told audiences around the world. “I stopped writing this movie about 20 times because I thought it was impossible. I thought it wasn’t going to work. I thought no one would ever make this movie. But I kept coming back to it because I knew if someone let me make this movie that people would hear it, and people would see it.” 

Peele was right, of course. Millions of people did see and hear it. His work was so affecting in its commentary on racism in America that not only did Get Out win an Oscar, it initiated a new renaissance of Black horror films and shows. Peele himself followed it up with a second Black horror film, Us, wrote the script for the upcoming Candyman remake and helped produce Misha Green’s super-smart Lovecraft Country on HBO, which examines the raw, unresolved history of anti-Black racism in the U.S., as seen through a lens of horror. 

Meanwhile, in the last couple of weeks alone, Justin Simien’s Bad Hair, a Black horror satire about a killer weave that thoughtfully explores the challenges people of color face trying to get ahead in racist workplaces, debuted on Hulu; and Netflix released Remi Weekes’ His House, a Black horror film about South Sudanese refugees in the U.K. who find their newly adopted country as dangerous as their homeland. Not to mention other similar 2020 offerings such as Antebellum with Janelle Monáe, Spell with Loretta Devine and Black Box with Phylicia Rashad.

That said, how effective is a horror film as a tactic of critique and racial education? How much do non-Black audiences really learn about the terror of racism from a movie like Get Out or a TV show like Lovecraft Country? And is the recent renaissance of Black horror actually working to educate non-Black people about the unique terrors that come from being Black in America? 

For answers, I turned to Xavier Burgin, the director of the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, which is based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s earlier book, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. Over the course of a long phone call, the Alabama-born, Emmy-nominated writer/director and I discussed everything from why psychological horror is so much more effective than physical horror, how Black audiences don’t need Frankenstein’s monster and the supernatural to terrify them and the ways in which white audiences seemingly need to see Black characters beaten and killed to experience any empathy for them. 

It seems self-evident that Get Out kicked off the recent Black horror trend. Would you say that’s accurate?

I’d definitely say it’s accurate. To be completely honest too, one of the big things that got Horror Noire off the ground was Jordan winning the Oscar. I think that made folks realize like, “Oh, this is a thing. This is an actual genre. This is something that needs to be looked into.” 

Jordan Peele did an amazing job with that film — especially with his creation of the Sunken Place — he used psychological tortures and terrors as opposed to physical tortures. By focusing on the mind, he seemed to make non-Black people understand the unique psychological tortures of being Black in America, as opposed to the physical torture. In terms of your direction as a writer, did what Peele do with Get Out inspire you to start thinking about psychological horror as opposed to physical horror? 

One of the things that I’ve written recently definitely leans more toward psychological  horror — it was specifically a horror mystery — but I made it clear that I wanted psychological stuff, so that we’re scared of the situation that I’m eliciting, not scared of this big, bad monster that’s coming after you. 

For a lot of audiences, they think that horror has to be specifically an antagonist that’s constantly chasing you, and physically doing irreparable harm to you. While that’s good in a story — you need someone relentlessly coming after you — there’s something to be said about having this antagonist that’s operating on a psychological level that doesn’t always need over-the-top graphic violence to get its scares across. That’s something we need to invest in more as filmmakers because shock value can only go so far. Also shock alienates Black audiences when we’re the subjects of the shock value. It’s just on us.

The upcoming horror reboot, Candyman, is a story of American racism acting as the father to a monster. The villain is an undead son of a former slave, a man who once lived in the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago, and has come back as a supernatural force, looking for vengeance. 

The original movie was based on a Clive Barker short story. So you have this white guy writing a story centered on the horrors that Black America has suffered at the hands of white America and its history of slavery. And it was beloved by Black audiences. But now we have a remake written by Jordan Peele. With a Black filmmaker, obviously it’s going to be a very different lens. What did you think of the original Candyman and Tony Todd’s portrayal of the Black ghost, who is, essentially, Frankenstein’s monster but with American racism and cruelty playing the part of Dr. Frankenstein.

I love the original Candyman. I love everything that Tony Todd does. He’s an amazing actor. I consider that film a classic. Of course, like with all things, are there problems with it? Sure. Like, one thing I can think of is the fact that — as with so many films shown from within Black America meant to show places considered ‘hoods, places you might consider “the ghetto” or whatever you want to call them — it’s oftentimes used to show the conscience of white America. But what it says is: “This is dangerous, you shouldn’t go here.” Because, in Candyman, you have this white woman who goes into these areas that she “shouldn’t be in,” that are unsafe and scary for her. 

Even when you’re saying something critical, sometimes even just by showing it, or making that a part of the narrative, you can feed into an overall negative understanding of Black people — especially, when you consider that so many people, in general, are never going to meet a Black person. What if Candyman was the only Black film that someone has ever seen? What if that person never actually gets to interact with actual Black people? What if Candyman — and not just Candyman, but in general, this world of “the ghetto” — is how they see Black people? That’s not good. That’s not good at all. That’s part of the entire discussion of what it means to deal with Black horror.

In Horror Noire, many of the interviewees focus on how safety is a Black priority, due to our lived experiences, and how, for Black people, American culture can often feel like a living horror film. Do you think that in some ways this gives us an advantage as creators — because when it comes to horror, we can find more things scary in a credible sense, and we’re not so reliant on creepy creatures?

I feel like white folks oftentimes have to create things to be afraid of. Because when you think of white America, what does white America actually have to be scared of — other than the things that they create to be scared of? I feel like we, as Black folks, when we look outside, we can see horrors in what’s happening in a way that white people can’t. This is why so many white ideas about horror are supernatural or extreme. Whereas for us, horror is found in the everyday. Nothing that you can show me on a movie screen is going to be as scary as what I can find on YouTube, for example. So it really does give us a more unique understanding of what can be a horror story.

At the same time, I find it interesting that while it gives us more understanding, we sometimes have to be a bit more careful in what we actually want to jump into horror and talk about. That is, if we want to care about our communities. Because whereas Black creators can just go make a horror about anything, a lot of times the horrors that we’re dealing with can very much be a real life thing. It can be scary. 

Think about a Freddy Krueger or a Jason movie. In those slasher movies, you see all of these white children, teenagers, early adults, just getting slaughtered. It’s fun. It’s funny. Maybe you’re a little scared, but you’re laughing. With an all-Black cast, though, that same slaughter doesn’t feel as funny or scary; it just feels like real life.

I have a hard time watching Black teens get slaughtered. They never become faceless, at least not in the way that white teens in a horror movie are presented.

It never feels like that. It doesn’t feel like I’m just watching a movie. It feels like I’m watching what’s happening in America. So I’m not really entertained. I’m not really escaping. It just feels like I’m reliving the trauma that we constantly deal with. And that’s something that’s harder for us as Black creators, especially within the horror space. It’s always that question: How do we make this entertainment? How do we speak to what we’re going through without it feeling like we’re just re-traumatizing a Black audience?

Do you draw lines, or have artistic feelings that you trust? Like, when do you know you’re going too far, or that you’re putting Black audiences at risk of being re-traumatized?

Oh, man. I’m not sure if there’s an exact line or science to this. What you have to keep in mind is, the subject matter is something that’s still super, super-sensitive, and maybe it’s not going to be looked upon favorably. But the biggest thing in my head is: Does it fall into the graphic area? You can have a scary part, but you don’t necessarily need to see the character… Like, you can see them angry or scared, but to see them cut up into pieces or radically tortured, like in a Saw movie, that’s over the line. When you start getting toward that type of level of torture porn — then it becomes a bigger problem. 

Slavery’s still a very sensitive topic for us, but 100 percent we’ve seen enough rape, murder and general suffering in these slavery films. Personally, if I’m going to watch a film, I don’t need to see those things anymore, not on such a graphic level. Because I know what happens. Sometimes when I see that stuff in film, it feels more like it’s being done for a white audience than it is for us. Because do we need to see that over and over again? Have a free range of exploring horror ideas, but if your idea needs or necessitates overwhelming violence visited upon a large number of Black people, there might be something wrong with how you’re building out the story. 

What about the cultural value of horror — and specifically, Black horror — as an allegory for non-Black audiences, movies that transform the Black experience of racism and turn it into an allegory with horror? Do you think that for a non-Black audience, sometimes they may need to see more pain, or have it rendered more graphically in order to feel as equally moved?

You think about a movie like 12 Years a Slave — or any of these movies where we see one of our people getting gunned down and tortured. While I appreciate 12 Years a Slave — it’s one of my favorite movies — I’ve only watched it once or twice. It’s just so hard to get through. Meanwhile, right now in America, we’re at a point where we’re seeing white Americans — a good amount, like, 40-something percent of our nation — 100 percent enlisted in these same ideas. Some of these explicitly racist types of people who would bring slavery back if they could. So the question then becomes: What have we really changed if all you’ve done is shown another Black death on screen and nothing actually changes in overall attitudes? 

If the white audience needs to see us pummeled, killed, beaten, raped or tortured in order to feel empathy — that almost feels like it’s showing more of an inhumanity about them and what they need in order to feel and empathize. They don’t need that when they’re watching a white protagonist suffer. So why would they need that from a Black protagonist? Why would they visually need to see so much pain to actually have empathy for us, instead of just appreciating us for being humans, too?

Do you think that horror can help non-Black people intellectually grapple with and attempt to understand what we go through? Even if they can’t fully feel it.

I 100 percent think that. Get Out worked really well as a tool for that. What it did to scare didn’t require that it have any gore or any overt violence — at least nothing where you felt like cringing like you were watching a Saw movie. Get Out definitely hit a lot of people. One of the things I loved about it is that it showed that there’s also racism in these liberal areas. Sometimes that can be more insidious because it isn’t in your face. I’m not saying that Get Out is the only way, but for me, it makes clear that we can deal with these problems and talk about them without leaning into some of the Black pain that white audiences sometimes seem to run toward.

Being a Black creator, you know how often we get used as symbolic monsters to terrify white America. But you also know we’re not monsters to ourselves, even if we know that we’re the monster in someone else’s imagination. How do you use this dichotomy when you see “the monster” in radically different racialized ways? How do you connect with an audience member so they no longer see us as the “spook” in real life?

It’s the question, what about THE horror films that have a Black person terrorizing white folks? While that might be seen as catharsis to some of us, for others, it could be seen as leaning into the stereotypes that white America already believes about us. Like, if you could find a story of slavery but also subvert the trope at the same time, you could have something that’s really strong, but you have to be so careful about it. Because the one thing that I’ve learned as a filmmaker is the messaging that you want the audience to get from a film doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what they’re going to take away from it.

I was talking to a white friend of mine who took their suburban white mom to see Get Out again, and when the mom was sitting there watching the entire movie, she was scared. She was rooting for the guy, but she literally didn’t understand any of the underlying messages to it. When she got back home, one of the things she asked was what was with the whole scene where they were putting up their hands — doing the auction. She just didn’t even realize that an auction was happening. That’s not an indictment of Jordan’s work. It’s just the audience. Because, again, we’re talking about a masterpiece of a film. It’s an interesting and fair question, and it’s one of those things that if someone really delves into it and tries to deal with it, it can work. But it can also easily backfire as well.

Do you think that after a non-Black audience member watches a movie like Get Out, they can actually gain a better understanding of the Black experience in America just by seeing it through the allegory of horror? Like, for younger generations, do you think Gen Z will have better racial awareness thanks to watching and reading Black horror?

I think so, but I also think that better understanding isn’t going to solely come from a movie. People could already be learning — they have social media, they see the problems and they see the solutions that are put out by Black and brown people. So for me, especially these white, young Gen Z that are coming up, they probably can get something out of Black horror, but it’s not going to be solely due to the fact they came to that movie. It’s because they’ve already been researching and listening.