We know the setup. A group of friends all agree to meet in a cabin in the woods for isolated quality time. They all met in college but they’re now professionals settling into their 30s. So, what’s the twist? They’re all Black and they’re there to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday to commemorate the slaves in Texas learning that they were finally free. In the present, these Black professionals are an example of how far we’ve come. But, even now, whiteness is still a danger. The cabin they’re staying in is owned by a white family, and everyone around them in town is white. It’s a horror story, but not quite the one we’re used to. Because in this story, tragedy is met by comedy.
Maybe that’s an overly serious way to describe a horror comedy, but the implications of The Blackening are heavy. A celebration of freedom becomes a fight for survival, and there really isn’t anything blacker than facing racism with humor. The kind of humor that comes with knowing all the odds are stacked against you, and yet you still have to keep going. These young Black folks look death in the face and laugh. Even the film’s tagline — “We can’t all die first” — is a playful battle cry, acknowledging the way the horror genre tends to dispose of us in favor of white heroes. They know that they’re not expected to survive, and that’s why they have to.
The Blackening (2023) Official Trailer – Grace Byers, Jermaine Fowler, Melvin Gregg, X Mayo
The Blackening movie, based on the viral Comedy Central short of the same name, protects its characters with a shiny gloss of meta-commentary. Director Tim Story, best known for helming Barbershop, encases this horror story in a space where jokes flow easily and death rarely comes. It’s not quite Scary Movie, but it’s a far cry from the dread we’ve experienced in Black horror in the wake of Get Out. Recently, Black horror has centered on bleak suffering, trying to mimic the work of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut but without any of its humor. The Blackening seems to be a direct response to that.
When Lisa (Antoinette Robertson), Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins), Allison (Grace Byers), Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), King (Melvin Gregg), Shanika (X Mayo), and the awkward Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) arrive at their cabin for Juneteenth celebrations, their friends Morgan (Yvonne Orji) and Shawn (Jay Pharoah) are mysteriously absent. They try to ignore their unease by immersing themselves in games, drugs, and most notably, friend drama. But screenwriters DeWayne Perkins and Tracy Oliver find a way to make the danger personal enough to force them into action. It comes with the introduction of a strange room, which contains a game they’ve never heard of before, The Blackening. A caricature with a face that mimics the cork-blackened, red-lipped racist images that permeated entertainment since Jim Crow sits prominently on the game board. It speaks in a cheerful yet threatening voice, unsympathetic to its players.
Initially, everyone is game for the challenge. Their genre savviness provides much of the humor. The film is at its strongest when acknowledging the inherent danger of being Black, and how it has forced us to be more cautious. When we as Black people watch horror movies we always tend to point out how poorly white protagonists make decisions. We wouldn’t just walk right into danger. We wouldn’t trust any person with a badge. And most importantly, we wouldn’t sacrifice ourselves to save any white people. The characters in The Blackening do none of those things, acting quickly and pragmatically with minimal time to cower and angst about what they need to do.
Beyond the racial critique inherent in the film, there’s a strong focus on inequality within friendships. But the themes don’t really connect as well as they could to the main story. In most slashers, the characters get offed when they’re alone. But in The Blackening everyone is a united front, totally in sync with each other comically and emotionally so there isn’t much cause for change. A major rift within the friend group, whether it be a growing economic divide or an intellectual disagreement about race and politics, could have been compelling to explore in a horror setting. One of the great things about Story’s breakout film Barbershop is how it showcased the way Black people can disagree and get into heated arguments, before eventually coming together again. But instead of exploring the ways certain friend groups can be in conflict and unknowingly create a social hierarchy, The Blackening is solely interested in the dynamic between two members of the group — Dewayne and Lisa.
Unfortunately, that conflict is the weakest part of the film. The idea behind it is a compelling one: relationships between straight women and their gay best friends can be imbalanced. Gay best friends, onscreen and in life, are often seen as walking support systems, providing encouragement and comfort whenever necessary. This is how Dewayne feels about his relationship with Lisa. But their storyline is still ultimately weighted in her favor. We know nothing about Dewayne outside of his relationship with Lisa, even though he’s friends with everyone in the group. And when it comes time for their climactic argument with each other, we as an audience have very little to go on. What did Dewayne lose during his time supporting Lisa? Was there romantic love in his life? Is there any now? And why did it take such an extreme situation for these two to work it out?
Ultimately, The Blackening suffers from being a bit too undercooked when it comes to its characters and themes. But the chemistry between the cast of The Blackening and free-flowing jokes keep the film afloat, even as it becomes increasingly clear that the stakes aren’t as high as they could be. Byers, Gregg and X Mayo are the standouts here, providing the film with its biggest laughs both verbally and with their physical comedy. The game board itself feels somewhat underutilized, but it’s effective in getting these characters where they’re going. Where they arrive isn’t quite where we expect, but it’s a fun ride all the same, resulting in The Blackening being a standout in horror comedy movies that have been released in recent years.
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