Film history and history are undoubtedly intertwined. Anyone who’s taken any class on literature knows about contextual analysis and how time and place affect media and how media is best scrutinized with a lens for time and place. HORROR NOIRE: A HISTORY OF BLACK HORROR, a new documentary on Shudder, masterfully analyzes the history of the genre through this lens and tracks the evolution of black horror alongside black history.
From the top of the film, you’ll know what you’ve signed up for. In one of the many powerful moments in the film, Tananarive Due says “black history is black horror,” alongside a montage of images of Black Lives Matter protests, the Rodney King beating, and newspaper clippings about the death of Martin Luther King, which trails into clips of Birth of a Nation. The film takes off chronicling the history of film, touching on a host of topics discussed by some of the greatest black horror icons including Keith David, Jordan Peele, Rachel True and Tony Todd.
Initially conceptualized by FANGORIA Editor in Chief, Phil Nobile Jr., and Graveyard Shift Sisters creator, Ashlee Blackwell, the film got the green light after that historical evening when Jordan Peele won an Oscar for his black horror film, Get Out. Alongside producer, Danielle Burrows, Ashlee Blackwell put together the map of the film, using Dr. Robin Means Coleman’s book of the same name as a guide.
HORROR NOIRE is a brilliant portrayal of the complex relationship we can have with the media we love that doesn’t always love us back. It lets those who have lived the tropes discuss with us their experience, and lets often ignored genre fans break down their relationships with film.
From Birth of a Nation to Get Out, the history of black representation in film is a complex one, and HORROR NOIRE does a flawless job of laying it out in a way that is informed, interesting, scary, and fun. The film is genuinely warm and feels like you’re sitting around talking about film with your best friends.
To whomever made the decision to splice the Crispin Glover Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter dance scene over a discussion of whiteness got me good.
Now as 2019 barrels on, and we look forward to trope transcending horror like Us and Ma, HORROR NOIRE stands as a lesson and a call to action. So when the filmmakers went on tour, I took the opportunity to attend one of the screenings hosted at TIFF Bell Lightbox where I got to interview writer and producer, Ashlee Blackwell, and executive producer, Tananarive Due, both of whom appear in the doc.
Tell me a bit about Graveyard Shift Sisters and why you started it.
Ashlee Blackwell: I started it out of frustration and not feeling like the horror community was recognizing the contributions of black women to the genre. Specifically, Kristina Leath-Malin’s My Final Girl, it was her MA thesis where she talked to black women in 70’s horror cinema and she felt the importance of these women, again, not seeing people recognized in the genre and their contributions, and wanted to document their stories before they disappeared or passed on. Also, Dr. Robin Means Coleman’s book, Horror Noire, which is a comprehensive history of black participation in horror cinema from the very beginning. She was in that trailer. Seeing her in that trailer, I jumped out of my seat like “oh my goodness, there’s actually a book on black horror.” And these women are really focused on a genre that I’ve loved for so long that I’ve felt so isolated from because I felt like I was the only black women that was this deeply invested in it. So googling them and seeing none of these major websites covering them or covering their work, I just decided Graveyard Shift Sisters had to happen. Honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing when I first started. I just got it talking about, saying, is there a community of black women out there who love the genre as much as I do? How can we help each other? And it just turned into utilizing my degrees to build a scholarship around Dr. Coleman’s book and finding other women and other people who were interested in the genre like me who wanted to be a part of what Graveyard Shift Sisters became. It’s much bigger than me, it always has been.
Talk to me about your relationship with horror.
AB: Again, my entire life has been nothing but a series of accidents. Just having the opportunity to be exposed to different horror related films and music videos and TV shows throughout the 1980’s. My mother didn’t shelter me so that was really nice. She and her friends or her boyfriends wanted to watch horror movies, or record one-off HBO, we’d have it in our video library, and I’d be in the room and it was all good. So I was exposed to all of that. The first thing that caught me was the special effects and the makeup and the creature feature kind of films that were coming out of that time like The Thing, Michael Jackson’s Thriller. All that stuff was really striking to me. It terrified me, but I loved it. The feeling, the aesthetic of it. I loved the fact that I was seeing monsters that were sympathetic that were the outsiders and the weirdos because that’s how I felt. That was my basic exposure. Then I started diving into it on my own, and I discovered A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master on local network television. So I just watched that alone obsessively. I fell in love with the idea of the Final Girl and also seeing another Black Girl Nerd which was completely uncommon during that time to see in a mainstream film, no less a horror film. So those were the kind of images that really solidified horror as something that I really deeply loved and wanted to be a part of.
You touched a bit on tropes like the Final Girl and the Black Girl Nerd. Do you find that there are tropes that have been taken back? So I look at the Final Girl who really came from somewhat of a sexist place, she was this version of purity that we were supposed to chase if we wanted to stay alive to the end, and we reclaimed her and made her this feminist icon. Do you think there are any specific horror tropes that have been reclaimed?
AB: That’s a difficult question because it’s very layered, it’s very complex. As you said, there’s always… the Final Girl was… Carol Clover did create it around this psychoanalytic Freudian perspective that’s… to say it’s a little offensive is a complete understatement. The trope for me would be black survivors in horror film. The thing that I’ve always loathed, to be perfectly honest, is when I would have conversations, especially with other black people who weren’t invested in horror as much as I was, they were like “oh the black person always dies first,” and it’s like, I’ve been watching horror all my life and that’s not true. I’d be screaming inside like “what are you talking about?” it’s give and take. For example, the black guy dies first in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, but Keith David lives in The Thing. And Roger is the final survivor in Night of the Demons, and all of these other movies where you do have characters survive. There are black characters that definitely sacrifice themselves for the white protagonist or they’re super marginalised in the film and only there for the body count. So I dislike that trope and I feel like now, today, we are definitely seeing more black characters. Whether they die or they don’t die, they’re at least centralized, you still care about them. One of the most recent examples of that was The Purge: Election Year. Mykelti Williamson’s character, he is the guy who owns the business in the community, he’s invested in it, he’s cooking batches at his employee, to pass it down to him, he has people in the community, particularly black people in his store. They protect him, they help him they all support each other. He also has another layer to his character where he’s able to use his past as a gang member to help other characters survive, but he dies in the end. But he sacrificed himself not for just this white woman who’s in the movie, but also for his community. It’s running the gamut. Get Out is a great example of a black hero, The Girl with all the Gifts is an example of a black hero. You definitely see it in evolution.
How do you find horror to be catharsis?
AB: I’m a little bit nuts.
We all are, we’re horror fans.
AB: But at the same time, it helps me deal with those deeper issues, it helps me deal with the feelings of loneliness. I wouldn’t call myself necessarily depressed but, definitely loneliness that triggers those feelings of depression and anxiety. I see characters who are dealing with these particular situations and these particular emotions and then they find themselves in these fantastical circumstances and they’re able to overcome them. One of my favourite things that I got to do when I talked about films is I talked about this film from 1987 called The Gate. It sometimes gets overshadowed and people don’t talk about this movie much because the main character, played by Stephen Dorff, is a kid grappling with that feeling of loneliness. That feeling of being afraid to grow up in a sense. I think, especially as kids, we all went through that. We had this right of passage where we realized we’re leaving childhood, and that’s scary because the world is scary. We’re so small, in a sense, physically, but the world is so much bigger, and having to deal with all of the scary things that go on in it, it’s frightening. When I say this is horror, it helps you relate to what you’re seeing on screen, so you don’t feel as alone. You see this character overcoming demons, so maybe you can overcome the demons that are waiting for you because they’re right around the corner.
Switching gears to your film, HORROR NOIRE, which is an incredible achievement. I wanted to chat with you about its conception. I spoke to Phil (Nobile Jr.) and he said you came up with it a year ago after seeing Get Out.
AB: Honestly, he doesn’t take enough credit, or he’s putting more credit on me than I’m willing to give to myself. It’s very back and forth between us, that’s our relationship. I saw Get Out and I loved it, and he contacted me first initially. He worked for a local production company in our city and he was like, “Ashlee’s close proximity is the perfect storm so maybe we can work on this and collaborate together on an idea of the history of black horror.” So we had lunch and talked about it and he was like, “I pitched it to my boss, she likes the idea, they want to see if somebody will buy the concept.” So we worked together on it, and when it got the green light, we collaborated on ideas like what are the themes that are running consistently throughout the horror genre. We were able to subtly imprint those things within the chronological blueprint that the documentary is. You see a little bit of that. That’s kind of the genesis, him approaching me and saying, “hey would you like to be a part of producing this documentary,” and I jumped at the opportunity. It was really exciting, especially for me. You know, you’re blogging and everything is great, but you still have a day job, you don’t really like your day job, you’re just there because you want a paycheque, and you want to be able to buy blu-rays every now and then, pay your bills. But having this opportunity to possibly have a real job that you love is incredible. Everybody has been telling me, “thank you so much for your hard work,” and I’m just like, it didn’t feel like work at all because I am so passionate about this subgenre and I know the work so intimately so it didn’t feel like work at all.
Phil Nobile Jr. tells me: I loved Ashlee’s work and had followed it for a while; she seemed to be this lone chronicler of a very specific history. I later learned she wasn’t (folks like Robin Means Coleman and Mark Harris are also doing great, important work in this field), but when GET OUT hit, I couldn’t wait to talk to Ashlee. I knew it was the next chapter in the story she had been telling, and I wanted to help. By the time Shudder came calling, I had left that job for FANGORIA, and wasn’t going to be able to be as actively involved as I wanted. So I brought in an old friend to write and produce with Ashlee, and they did all the work. Then when it was time to film it we found Xavier (Burgin) and his work seemed like a good fit for this topic.
What was your “I can’t believe this is happening,” moment?
AB: Wow. I want to say Jordan Peele, honestly, because we had to jump through so many hoops to get him, and rightfully so because his schedule is so demanding, and everyone wants a piece of his time. So for us to finally get in touch with his assistant, and his assistant said: “okay, give me all the details you need in order for me to fit it into his schedule or if he’s interested.” That was, I believe Danielle Burrows, our other producer, that did all that and she gave him all the information he needed and he said: “ya, sure.” For him to be able to sketch out an hour of his evening time for us was incredible and I could not believe it. I was extremely star struck. Phil joked with me before the interview started, “do you need to throw up?” I was like, “no, I don’t need to throw up, but I am super nervous.” It was surreal to sit in the chair that Chris sat in when he was being hypnotized in Get Out, it was like, I don’t believe this is happening. That was probably the moment for me.
Talk to me about how your previous writing informed how you put this movie together.
AB: I guess it was kind of effortless for me for the most part because I had already, even before Shudder had picked up the documentary for real, I had just read Dr. Coleman’s book over and over again. Just knowing that book so well is what gave me the confidence to go in and have the ideas of who to talk to and what to talk about. That really informed the story that you saw. And also, my writing before, I used her book as a template for a lot of things. Her book is the receipt that I use for a lot of the history, in particular for black women in the genre. I think starting with her book and then literally just looking at all of the names of the movies, some of these are impossible to find, and if not impossible, completely erased from history because they got lost, damaged or destroyed. A lot of Oscar Micheaux’s movies are not easy to find anymore. He had a lot of genre films and I’m so annoyed that they’re not accessible anymore. A lot of other black actors and actresses, just using Robin’s book, I just did some googling. That’s why I encourage googling a lot to twitter followers. You can find some really fascinating stuff. Not just horror history, but there are black history website archives to and it’s really, it’s good stuff.
What are you working on next? I know we can find you at Graveyard Shift Sisters. What else is going on for you?
AB: Nothing I can talk about just yet. There are some phone calls I need to take and things swirling around, but really, honestly, I am not a woman of the spotlight. I like seeing the little shadow of obscurity a bit. So my personal goal is I want to use this as a catalyst to be a college educator and teach this stuff. I want young students, whether they’re academics or filmmakers, I want to be in front of them and give them these tools. Everything I do online, I want to do in the classroom. That’s my personal goal. But there’s some other stuff brewing.
That’s so exciting to hear. Well last one before you leave, what’s your favourite scary movie?
AB: If I had to pick one, I think John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s one of those movies, I feel, that’s perfect in a sense. I would love to actually see it remade. I’ve always replayed this in my head a lot, what if they made it with all women? They’re doing that already with Ghostbusters and all these other films. I want an all-female version of The Thing with similar characters. That’s one of my favourites, it came out my birth year. The special effects are phenomenal. Again, you have a black survivor. Kurt Russell’s pretty badass. You have all of these men who are enclosed in this space and there’s a lot of paranoia going on and it is unnerving, and that dog scene always makes me tear up.
Tell me a bit about your relationship and introduction to horror.
Tananarive Due: My introduction to horror was my mother, Patricia Stephens Due. She was a civil rights activist, and that is really what her strongest identification was but, she was really really into horror. So from a very young age, she was sitting down with me to watch these horror movies. Those old universal horror movies, those creature feature movies like The Wolfman, Dracula, The Fly, The Mole People, all of those black and white classics. And that was really my first introduction, and then for my sixteenth birthday, she gave me my first Stephen King novel which was The Shining.
TD: Yeah, I thought so. And, boom, it was off to the races for me. I just have always loved it. As a kid, I loved the rollercoaster feeling of being scared in a safe way.
I think that’s really universal. That you get to be really scared, but you’re at home.
TD: Yeah, and then you can turn it off and it’s not real. And maybe you’ll have a bad dream, but, for me, horror has always been kind of a fun thing. Even back in the day when A Nightmare on Elm Street came out, one of my friends told me that every time he left the movie theater, he threw up and I was like, “really?”
I love that.
TD: I didn’t take it that seriously. Yeah, it was scary, but it wasn’t like throw up scary. And I have never had that reaction where there was anything unpleasant about it, at least a really good horror movie. But I have to say, over time, I have a better understanding of horror not just as a fun rollercoaster ride for me like when I was a kid, but when I ask myself, what did my mother see in horror? This very serious-minded civil rights activist, what does she get out of it? Because, I mean she loved horror movies, but it… I don’t think it was as much a fun thing for her. I think horror for my mother fulfilled a more important role, and that was to help her through her trauma. Her racial trauma, her physical trauma that she went through in the civil rights era. I think for my mother, in a way that I didn’t even understand as a child, horror was really helping her live a healthier life.
Extrapolating from that, we talk about how horror can sometimes be a catharsis for people. Do you find horror to be cathartic?
TD: I do. I am not always sitting there thinking, “what a catharsis I just had,” not that so much. Not even that I am consciously aware of the catharsis, but, a movie like Get Out, which has a big impact on me is a perfect example of something that helps you visualize a kind of a monster. The racism is the monster, this is the face of the monster, it is a smiling face. It is a face that pretends to be something other than it is. It’s not knowing who your allies are. All those things that make you uneasy in the world were on the screen in a way that was validating. And, yeah, cathartic because Chris escaped. You can walk right up to the monster and have it try to eat you, but you escape. I was absolutely aware of a feeling of catharsis watching Get Out.
I think Get Out, in a lot of ways, like the doc (Horror Noire) is really speaking to the climate. How do you see the timing of those films and cultural climate affecting not just this doc, but what sort of horror do you expect to see coming out of this next decade?
TD: I say over and over again, there’s never been a better time to be a horror creator or a horror fan. There’s just so much happening genre wide. Get Out is just one piece of it, but even the fact that a movie like Hereditary or A Quiet Place would even be in the conversation in terms of the Oscar race, whether or not they get nominated, that people are saying “why weren’t they?” I think A Quiet Place did get a sound nomination (it’s nominated for Best Achievement in Sound Editing). That kind of thing wasn’t what we would expect as horror fans. Horror has this low rent reputation, and I can tell you as an author who’s been publishing horror since 1995 in literary circles, I can tell you as an educator where students are not often encouraged to write genre period, let alone horror. And there is a shift that, you know, horror will be that cheap way to make your way into the film business. You know, shot cheap, get it out fast. It can still be that. And I watch plenty of movies that are that and I enjoy them. But then you have what people call “elevated horror,” which, you know, is in the eye of the beholder, that wider audiences recognize. Has really sharp writing, really good characters, intriguing plots and scenarios, and in some cases raise really good questions. Like the last Halloween movie, all these conversations about healing from trauma after an attack. In real life, generally speaking, it’s not some crazy serial killer who’s chasing you, it’s that family member who’s molesting you, it’s that person you’re on a date with who sexually assaults you, so trauma in real life takes much more subtle form than what we see in the films. So scholars are realizing this is a mechanism through which we can confront trauma head on without having to relive it. It’s something that represents the trauma without making us go through the trauma again and it can have a really healing impact. So I love that more people are recognizing that. And we can expect to see horror from a much more inclusive direction. Black horror is now screaming, “I exist.” We have been here. We have had black horror films going back decades and generations, but it’s only now that there’s any wide understanding among horror fans themselves. Like “oh, part of our genre is also this sub genre called ‘Black Horror.’” Which means sometimes we can confront race head on, and sometimes just means these characters happen to be black. There is long standing erasure of black and other people of colour in horror. I’m all for it. I was very excited when Japanese horror started to really come into popularity and I can’t wait to see more Mexican horror and more horror from Latina creators in the United States using their mythology and their stories. Here’s the thing about horror fans. I like to tell the story of the first time I say The Ring. It was, back in the day, a video tape. My husband, Steven Barnes, a science fiction writer, was scouring the internet as he always does, for great new horror and he heard about this film called Ringu that had all these great recommendations. So we ordered it from who knows where, and it showed up, this third generation video tape that was so bad, that we couldn’t read the subtitles. It was bad. But, we had never seen anything like that before. And it turned out we didn’t need the subtitles. And we sat captivated from beginning to end. They say that the measure of a good horror film, or a film period, is one you can watch with the volume turned down. We couldn’t understand what anyone was saying but we totally understood what was happening in the film.
TD: That’s the thing. I crowdfunded a short horror film called Danger Word in 2013, directed by a black woman, Luchina Fisher, and we were talking about that in our Indiegogo video, that black horror was having its time. There are stories that we have to tell that are not being told that are not just about the kind of tropes that black characters have been relegated in a lot of mainstream horror films. We really felt very strongly that we do have a unique prism through which we can make horror, even if it isn’t necessarily about race. It will look a little different, it will be a little different, the characters will speak a little differently, the relationships will be a little different. In the way in Japanese horror, in The Grudge, the aura is coming in different directions and the filmmaker is using space differently because the house was built in Japan, so the space is being used differently and horror fans just love novelty. If we watch a lot of horror films, we’ve seen it all already. I’ve seen the
family moves into the house in the woods” story a million times, and I will see it a million times again because I love that story.
TD: As long as you bring something new to it and you bring characters I believe in, then I am there. I am there. So that, I think is something that’s a win-win situation for everyone. Because Get Out was so successful, and I did see a trailer for a horror movie that has Latina characters, and I am like “yes!” Because I think in terms of box office receipt, black and Latina viewers are disproportionately represented among horror themes. I think that is true. Up until very recently, that was never reflected. I mean we’re happy to see a white family go move into a house in the woods and we’ve seen that a million times, and then I see a trailer for a movie like Jordan Peele’s Us like “ooh.” Whoa, now it’s the black family on vacation where catastrophe strikes and it’s just a little extra thrill when the little girl looks like you when you were a little girl. It’s just a more personal element to it. As a horror fan, I’m excited about that and I’m also excited about the rise of women in horror as filmmakers and actors and screenwriters. Everybody wins. Everybody wins when something is new and different in horror.
You’ve talked a lot about universal characters, and you were touching on these universal tropes and universal scares. What sorts of themes in horror do you think are universal and what themes do you think are specific to you as a black female horror writer?
TD: I just screened a film called Eve’s Bayou for my Black Horror class by Kasi Lemmons from 1997. It’s a film about the loss of innocence and that is absolutely universal. It takes in an entirely black community, a fictitious black community called Eve’s Bayou in Louisiana and there’s a little hint of voodoo themes in it, but the heart of that story is the horror happening in that household. So household horror is universal. Same with toxic relationships. Those lines being crossed. The gaslighting that happened within families. All that is universal. There’s so many things. Isolation. Confronting your fears. Really, as a writer, a lot of what draws me to horror in the creation process is to take a character who has no idea the horror thing even exists. This is completely new to me, like, “what, there are demons?” I have a book called The Good House where a woman has been cut off from her heritage having to do with her grandmother’s spiritual practices. She just didn’t know anything. So when something would happen to her, when something went wrong, and a multi-generational curse impacted her son, she had to figure it out fast. She goes from knowing nothing and being just terrified to figuring out what she has to do and facing down a demon. Standing up to a demon. That’s huge! I love that arc of going from “huh?” to “Bring it on!”
That moment in an ensemble piece, because there’s always a character that is more fearful and has more common sense than everybody else. And that moment where everyone gets on board finally, and we are all finally on the same page, we all get that there’s really messed up is happening here and we start to figure out, “what are we gonna do?”
In some movies, they don’t really have much of a chance. It’s like relentless and you’re running and screaming the whole time. Blair Witch is like that, there isn’t a whole lot of time for meetings and planning. Then there’s those cabin in the woods ones, not the movie, but the-
TD: Yeah, the subgenre. The trope. Those movies. They do get some downtime. Where they can plan. Where they can come up with “what are we going to do?” “Can we keep watch?” “Is there a book that we have to uncover?” “Is there a ritual we have to do?” I love watching characters stand up. In horror, they’re not always going to win. Very often in horror movies, everyone will die, and it’s about the journey. But, done right, if they at least gave it a shot, if they weren’t complete idiots and they gathered their courage along the way, it’s okay if they died because we do die.
I just can’t stand movies like Alien: Covenant, the last two Alien movies.
I’m an Alien: Covenant apologist.
TD: Okay, I’m sorry.
You won’t insult me. I am very aware of my blind spots.
You have to know they’re dumb. I can’t stand dumb characters in horror movies. So that’s like my one pet peeve. Ignorance is one thing. But just, “we’re gonna go out in this brand new environment and we’re not even gonna wear gloves.”?
“Yeah, we’re just gonna take our helmets off and breathe the air.”
TD: “We’re not gonna follow basic protocol”?
TD: And science fiction horror is one of my favourite kinds of horror. Next to haunted house and demons, science fiction horror, I love. Like the creature on the ship or that kind of science fiction, Get Out is kind of science fiction horror, I love science fiction horror. But my minimum standard is, I have to believe the characters are real. And being dumb and doing things you’re not supposed to do challenged the assumption that they’re real. The minute I’m like “no one would do that,” I opt out of the movie. I think some movies use that, they make the characters so dumb that you’re supposed to be rooting against them.
Yeah, so you root for guys like Jason.
TD: Right. And I can get on board, but I just need to know where I’m supposed to fall on it. If I am feeling sympathetic, it’s tough. I find it a little bit tougher now. The mother/ child horror, especially a young child. (The) Babadook is a great one, I love that, it’s my favourite. I do feel that peril a little more than I did, more of a pinch, like ahhhh, I don’t know if I can finish watching this. Which I never had before. It’s a new feeling to me. But, to me, that’s just the mark of a story where I believe in the characters and I want them to win. I know, in horror, sometimes they don’t win. The worst feeling is when you’re watching a movie, and you love all the characters and you’re like “no! This is a horror movie, I forgot.”
I think that’s why people had such a strong reaction to the Us trailer where Lupita says, “put your shoes on,” because it is such a “yes! That’s what a mother would say to her kid.”
TD: Thank you! Be ready. Stay ready.
Get ready. I know what’s coming.
TD: That is a great line.
Circling back a bit where we were talking about tropes, do you feel like there are any black horror tropes that have been taken back? So, for instance, I always look at the trope of the Final Girl and how she was based on a sexist trope, she was prized for her sexist ideals, but women have kind of taken that back. Now we love the Final Girl, we’re rooting for her, and we made her into this feminist icon. Do you think there is a black horror trope that has been taken back or that you would like to see taken back?
TD: I think one of them that we’re getting a better understanding of is the trope of what I will call for the purposes of this interview the “Cowardly Negro.” The “Cowardly Negro” back in the 1940’s, someone like a Mantan Moreland character who was best known for doing buggy eyes and those kind of comical, comic relief sort of child like personalities throughout the story. But if you watch a film like King of the Zombies where he appears, and he’s really, in some ways the star of that film. If you really look at it, except for the buggy eyes, he’s just got common sense. It’s like, “why are we going in there? Well if you want to go in there, you open the door.” It’s funny, “hahaha, isn’t he a scaredy-cat?” That trope; every black comedian has a joke about why that’s true. If black people were in horror movies, this is the old joke that black comedians tell, everyone from Eddie Murphy to Richard Pryor to so many other comics talk about the fact that if you put a black person in a horror movie, it’ll be a five minute movie because the second the ghost says “get out,” they’ll be like “okay.”
TD: And that’s it. And scene.
So, it’s this common sense. And where that common sense comes from, not everyone, but traditionally, and certainly historically, blacks have been in too many situations where things went sour fast. They’ve been in too many situations where the whole town got burned down by a mob. Or where someone got pulled out of their house and got lynched. Or someone got shot by a police officer. Or some sort of a gang shooting. There’s just too many times. They’ve learned that everything seems fine, then, damn it’s not fine, and when you hear or see something that doesn’t look right, you don’t walk toward it, you walk away from it. That common sense.
There was a show called Scare Tactics on Syfy. And I don’t know if they chose people on this basis, but my husband and I used to joke that if it was a person of colour, they were gonna be a runner. And often that was the case. Some people were more polite, and they’re feeling creeped out and that something’s not right, but they’re being polite. They’re sticking it out a little bit and they were following the rules as designated. Then there are people who are like “no.”
“Nope, I’m outa here.”
TD: So I feel like that is something that, that “get your shoes” moment is reflecting in the Us trailer, this level of just common sense. Just this, something’s not right, I can sense it in my bones, let’s slow down and make some plans accordingly. So that’s one, I think, that “Cowardly Negro” is actually the smart one.
Another trope, “First to Die,” is one that comes and goes out of fashion. We went through a long phase where that was true. But it’s not always true. I think more and more filmmakers have accepted the fact that this has been a crutch that the horror film industry has leaned on where you need secondary characters to show that the danger is real. The black characters were often the secondary characters, so what happens when black characters start to move into the lead position is that’s not going to be the case. Something else will have to show that the threat is real. It’s not going to be a throwaway black character like Scatman Crothers in the film version of The Shining.
TD: Right in the chest. As soon as he walks through the door.
You have an amazing resume from writing to teaching to your accolades, what are you working on now?
TD: I am working on an original horror screenplay. I’ve worked on adaptations in the past and it suddenly dawned on me that working with studio execs and network execs might not be the best way to create a script. Why not create one from scratch that’s exactly what I want and let people mess with it later? So that’s something that I’m doing. I also have a novel in progress called Reformatory which is about a haunted reformatory and I’m hoping to finish that in the next few months.
We’ll keep our eyes out for it.
I always wrap up asking my favourite cliché question. What’s your favourite scary movie?
TD: Oh, come on! My favourite. Oh, it’s so hard.
Get Out is so exciting to me. That always pops into my head when people ask me that and even that might extend the past couple years just because of what it represents. But also, as a horror movie, I just love it and every time I watch it, I see something different. I loved A Quiet Place, I thought that was very clever. It took the audience into the film by forcing us to eat our popcorn quietly. I’ve never had a movie do that before so I thought that was amazing. It was immersive in a way, so that was great. I love so much horror. I watch little teeny movies I’ve never heard of from other countries. It just has to be scary and it has to be intriguing.
How did you become involved in HORROR NOIRE?
TD: I was just thrilled to be invited to be an executive producer on HORROR NOIRE because I love that it existed, that it was even a thing. And they wanted me to be a part of it, I was thrilled. It was the first time I executive produced something that wasn’t my own film. So, it’s really just been an honour. I use Dr. (Robin Means) Coleman’s book in my class so I knew the book Horror Noire before I got invited to join. And I just consumed it. When I found it, I decided to teach the black horror class, The Sunken Place at UCLA, after Get Out came out, so it was like the fall of 2017. So that was the first time I found the book and I inhaled it and I learned so much and I couldn’t wait to just meet her. Now the idea that I’ve gone from just fangirling over this amazing scholarly book to see it adapted, and adapted so well, which doesn’t always happen when there’s a film adaptation and you hold your breath, but in this case, I think the film came out great. The team is amazing. I know that Ashlee Blackwell and Phil Nobile and Danielle Burrows did the hard lifting in terms of getting it set up. We were lucky to get Xavier Burgin to come in as a director. I was just glad to be invited, so yay.
I’m sure they were happy to have you. Were you super involved in the filming? Did you have these moments of, “I can’t believe I am standing next to Candyman?”
TD: I didn’t have as many great moments as I wanted to because I was travelling during shooting and I was so mad. But I did get an opportunity to be there the day Rusty Cundieff was there from Tales From the Hood, Ken Foree from Dawn of the Dead, that was a huge thrill to meet him. And Keith David when I think about it, he has just been in every movie. Just everything you can think of. It did feel like rubbing shoulders with masters, and had I not been travelling, I would have just been hanging out at the shoot all the time. The couple of times I went in, I had the best time, and it’s so validating to find a community. Every time I turn around and there’s a community, whether it’s at the Bram Stoker awards, like I went to Stoker-Con at the Queen Mary. There was this moment where they had a short film night, and they put on these short films and there’s a room full of people, strangers, all ethnicities, and you’re all sitting there like five year old kids watching the screen because we all love horror movies. This is my family.
These are my people. These are my freaks.
TD: Right. We are all here. We can’t explain it but we all love this stuff. It does something for us. It gives us something. So I really really felt that way on the set, like I have found my people. I am so happy for these actors who are being rediscovered. Tony Todd is in the news now. Rachel True is getting heard on social media. I’m just excited all around.
If you haven’t watched HORROR NOIRE, have no fear as it is currently streaming on Shudder. For more information on Ashlee Blackwell/Graveyard Shift Sisters, you can follow her on Twitter at @graveyardsister and make sure to check out her website at http://www.graveyardshiftsisters.com/. For more information on Tananarive Due, you can follow her on Twitter at @TananariveDue and Instagram @tananarive1.