Racist horror tropes are the first to die in the slasher comedy 'The Blackening'
When Keenen Ivory Wayans's Scary Movie became a huge hit more than 20 years ago, the trope about Black characters in slasher flicks – that they're usually the first to die or rarely survive until the very end – was already decades old, and still going strong. One scene in the spoof directly references Scream 2, a movie released just three years earlier, where Jada Pinkett Smith's character is stabbed to death in front of a movie theater audience before the opening credits have even rolled.
The DNA of Scary Movie can be peeped in The Blackening, a very funny new horror comedy directed by Tim Story. Like its cinematic ancestor, there's also a direct reference to Pinkett Smith's Scream 2 character and plentiful jokes and gags poking fun at unique aspects of Black culture. Yet much has changed over the last few years as Black creators have found more opportunities and mainstream success exploring blackness through a horror lens. Black characters are all over this genre now, even triumphing over the bodily threats they face from their horrific predators. The Blackening acknowledges this and thus poses an apt and ingenious question as its premise: What happens when every main character in the slasher flick is Black?
A group of friends comes together for a Juneteenth weekend getaway in a cabin in the woods, bringing with them years' worth of camaraderie and, in some cases, unresolved tensions stretching back to their college days. Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) and Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls) are exes secretly hooking up again – much to the chagrin of Lisa's gay best friend Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins, also a co-writer of the screenplay), who can't forgive Nnamdi for treating her terribly when they were dating.
Allison (Grace Byers) is the biracial friend of the group who seems to have (white) daddy issues; Shanika (X Mayo) is the flamboyant lush; King (Melvin Gregg) has a shady past but appears to have settled comfortably down into Buppie life; and Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) is the nerdy, socially awkward Trump supporter and outsider who nobody else really vibes with.
They pop some party drugs and get in maybe half of a game of Spades before things start going sideways. The power goes out, and they stumble upon the house's game room, which features The Blackening, a trivia board game with the terrifying image of a Sambo as its centerpiece. ("Jim Crow Monopoly!" cracks one of the characters.) Suddenly, a creepy masked figure appears on an old black-and-white TV, warning them that if they refuse to play the game, their other friend Morgan (Yvonne Orji) – who arrived a day early and is now being held hostage in an undisclosed part of the house – will die.
It's a simple enough setup that's based on a sketch from Perkins's improv comedy group 3Peat – and there's a version of The Blackening that could easily have suffered from the problem of there not being enough there there to sustain a feature-length film, like so many insufferable SNL skits-turned-movies. But in adapting it for the big screen, Perkins and co-writer Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip) manage the tricky balancing act of keeping the laughs flowing steadily and crafting a believable narrative arc.
In a breezy 90 minutes, the crew's dynamic is clearly established and challenged as grudges are resurfaced, crossbows get flung, and bodies start dropping. The delight is derived from the highly specific comedic details, which consistently manage to take well-worn observations about Black culture – a fraught relationship with the TV show Friends and how certain signifiers might mark some people as "Blacker" than others, for starters – and stretch them in a myriad of unexpected directions. The ensemble gels well together, settling into a comfortable pattern that reflects the rat-a-tat flow of a viral, meme-filled thread that hasn't yet drifted from the insular space of Black Twitter and into the wider Internet world. (The oft-repeated, melodic inflection that's deployed every time a character colloquially uses the N-word is itself a thing of comic beauty.)
Most refreshing is that these characters are far and away among the smartest would-be victims of a deranged movie stalker. That doesn't mean less-than-ideal choices aren't made sometimes or that everyone makes it out alive – you can place your bets ahead of time if you'd like – but it seems safe to say many Black viewers have yelled at the screen for the preposterous decisions made in countless movies like this one. The Blackening will be a different experience. When Dewayne carefully and nervously shut a door that was mysteriously flung open, I felt proud – no one in their right mind is going to willingly peek out to see what's going on outside while staying in a cabin in the woods at night. Nope, we're good on that.
There's a twist that feels at least partially indebted to the spirit of Get Out in that it digs a bit deeper on a sociocultural level than most spoofs ever aspire to. (Consider this the urbane, Hillman grad play-cousin to the Scary Movie franchise's juvenile middle schooler.) It works while maintaining the film's edge and silliness until the very end. The Blackening meets the moment, and it doesn't feel like a spoiler to say that it boldly imagines a world too few horror movies dared to depict for years – one where Blackness survives and triumphs.
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