Warning: this review contains spoilers for The Blackening.
While booking tickets for new horror flick, The Blackening, I began to worry. There were so few showings! Was this Scary Movie for another generation of mind-numbed filmgoers? Could it somehow be worse? I felt uneasy as I watched characters drop the n-word throughout the introduction. When the post-title scene cut to a black woman in a wig my grandmother wouldn't have been caught dead in, I sighed and prepared to be annoyed. Yet I soon found myself laughing out loud.
The Blackening revolves around a group of African American friends reuniting in a cabin in the woods for the US public holiday Juneteenth. As the evening progresses, the group find themselves assaulted by game-playing murderers who are, weirdly, armed with crossbows.
There are no real surprises in the plot. The people who seem like the villains are exactly that. But there are many funny twists. The Blackening excels at subverting the very stereotypes it plays upon for its humour.
Meet the crew
The characters parody racist black stereotypes. Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins) is the effeminate queer man (the "sissy") with snappy lines and swinging hips. King (Melvin Gregg) is a reformed thug (the "badman" or "gangsta"), though he still secretly carries a gun. Shanika (X Mayo) is a large, loud, aggressive woman (the "sapphire"), who fusses at the killers, screaming: "Are you shooting arrows at me? No, stop it."
Allison (Grace Byers) is a biracial woman (the "tragic/devious mulatta"), determined to prove herself by decrying her white parentage. Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) is a stylish, well-spoken lawyer (the "black lady") who erupts in brutal rage. Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls) is an athletic personal trainer with a history of womanising (the "black buck"). Lastly, Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) is the awkward, white-sounding, nerdy misfit (the "Uncle Tom" or "Carlton").
These stereotypes are obviously intentional - not only do the characters spend their first hours playing Spades (a well-known game played by many African Americans) but Shanika mistakenly calls Clifton "Carlton" when trying to remember his name.
The film highlights this theme of black stereotypes through the killer's torturous board game. Centred around a grotesque Sambo -another racist caricature - the group must answer a series of questions gauging their level of "blackness". Each person is represented by a game token symbolising their stereotype. This alludes to the Sambo's historical role in dehumanising African Americans.
The Sambo references the earliest film appearance of these tropes in The Birth of the Nation (1915). By alluding to D.W. Griffith's film, The Blackening gestures towards the stakes of such stereotypes. While we may laugh at them on the screen, embracing them as reality bolsters the subjugation of and violation against black people.
Questioning and performing 'blackness'
The film features other significant issues in African-American culture, including: homophobia, notions of "authentic" blackness, intraracial oppression, drug abuse, violent anti-blackness and white allies. For instance, in trying to decide who among the friends is the "blackest", Dewayne notes that it can't be him because he's gay and - as his homophobic family insists - "gayness is just whiteness wrapped up in a bag of dicks".
Dewayne's comment references homophobic definitions of black manhood, exemplified in Afrocentrism (a world view centred on people of African descent, as opposed to Eurocentrism which centres on white western people in cultures like the US and UK) by intellectuals like philosopher Molefi Asante who deemed homosexuality destructive to black liberation struggles.
The film, however, reasserts the logic of black intellectuals like Cornel West, Manning Marable and Audre Lorde, who argue that liberation is fragmentary when we fight racism but accept other forms of oppression like homophobia.
In another challenge, the friends must list five black actors who appeared on the TV series Friends. After they succeed, the Sambo mouthpiece screams: "Wrong! The correct answer is 'I didn't watch that show. I watched Living Single'."
The exchange points to the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" nature of performing blackness. If, as our characters illustrate, they're identifiably black in their behaviour and dress, then they're reaffirming destructive stereotypes. But if they reject this performance, they're criticised for not being "black enough".
This issue is the structural theme of the film. While characters engage in stereotypical behaviours, they often follow it with profound, introspective observations which effectively counter their racialised performance. When Lisa lashes out at Nnamdi like a stereotypical "angry black woman"", she follows it with an apology, observing that she was projecting. As the film acknowledges early on, African-American culture is neither stable, nor monolithic, but ever-changing and intensely diverse.
Reflection on stereotypes
The Blackening also prompts reflection on hypocritical stereotypes about black drug culture. When Allison mistakenly takes Adderall from Lisa's bag of drugs, her intoxication is presented as if she were a turbo-boosted character in a video game.
Adderall may seem a strange choice as it's not a drug typically associated with African Americans but with white college students. While cannabis is overly associated with black lawlessness, its increasingly decriminalised and legalised status throughout the US means that it's likely to be the only legal substance in Lisa's bag. The Blackening therefore highlights our propensity to racially profile different drug cultures. It also alludes to the racial bias that influences prison-sentencing for drug use, where black people are sentenced more harshly.
Their assailants vanquished, the crew ponders how to report the events. Dismissing the idea of calling the police, they devise a safe solution in which their rescuers won't shoot them because they're unarmed. Still, this doesn't save them. And this is the crux.
Debates about who's black enough and who isn't are fruitless and destructive. African Americans survive violent psycho-social assaults from private citizens outside and within black communities, only to face sanctioned violence from legal authorities. And therein lies the horror.
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Author: Maisha Wester - Lecturer, American literature and African American Cultural Studies, University of Sheffield