THE ANGRY BLACK GIRL AND HER MONSTER is a film about anger and grief. Anger is a by-product of grief; it is a form of emotion that erupts from the heart when your sorrow is too great to bear, and your brain can no longer deal with the feelings that flood your mind and body.

Grief is a potent state of mind that can make you desperate and feel like you are losing your grip on reality. It is clearly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s book Frankenstein about the creation of a man from spare parts of human bodies, an action in Shelley’s book that is also born out of grief. It is difficult to understand precisely how much grief can alter your state of mind until you experience it yourself. Grief’s equal is love; grief comes from the loss of love in death or other causes. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t acknowledge the depth of the pain of losing love or loved ones.

THE ANGRY BLACK GIRL AND HER MONSTER is a tragedy filled with hope. In the film, Vicaria is a brilliant teenager who believes death is a disease that can be cured. After the brutal and sudden murder of her brother, she embarks on a dangerous journey to bring him back to life. As Vicaria, Laya DeLeon Hayes has strength and a sense of purpose. Hayes gives the character such an unstoppable belief in herself that you accept the character without question. You might never have considered casting a teenager as a version of Victor Frankenstein, but writer-director Bomani J. Story did, and it’s a stroke of brilliance. Vicaria is a genius who is so powerful that she doesn’t take abuse from anyone, including a school teacher who tries to condescend to her. One incredible moment shows her father using his rage to make the teacher stop trying to break his daughter’s spirit. You can see where Vicaria gets her strength of character and sense of self-worth. It also points out why geniuses behave impatiently when confronted with small-minded criticism.

Vicaria is angry about a lot of things, and rightfully so. The film shows the obstacles and the prejudice that the girl faces and how death haunts the neighborhood where she lives. Death has taken her mother and brother, and she fears losing her father, so you can see her motivation for her attempt to cure death. None of it is fair, and you can think of your own life that might have been relatively safe versus the danger that stalks Vicaria and her family through no fault of their own. Vicaria’s passion for defeating death is as believable as Victor Frankenstein’s or another Frankenstein stand-in, Herbert West, in Re-Animator.

You can feel the tragedy of Vicaria and her father’s losses and understand what drives both characters. Their choices might not be the best, but they are doing their best under the circumstances, and a subtext of the film is that a constant state of grief and fear that haunts Black people in real life is a factor in some of the decisions that they make. The film is another that goes a long way toward giving the characters a sense of dignity and respect that other films have not offered to their people, similar to Huesera: The Bone Woman. Framing the violent deaths of Black people as a societal disease, one that Vicaria believes can be cured, is a particularly poignant and relevant theme.

The film does work on the level of a horror film. It tends to curve towards a more realistic horror, but some of the standards of the slasher genre do apply. There is gore and some violence that is made more brutal by the realistic nature of the horror. It’s not a film grounded in fantasy despite its most significant influence. The details of the resurrection are presented matter-of-factly, which works very well. The focus is on the horror of everyday life and the fear of loss, which, quite honestly, is scary enough. Does it have a great jump scare? Yes, and it worked on me because I was so invested in the story and the characters that I forgot that someone might try this particular trope on the audience. That is precisely how you should work a jump scare moment.

Cinematographer Daphne Qin Wu crafted a crisp and rich palette for the film. Concerning visual language, one of my favorite moments is the halo of light surrounding Vicaria when she looks at her fallen brother and is struck by inspiration, similar to when Jada quizzes her on the periodic table. Wu also understands how to light Black skin which makes the film even better.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the core family unit, their loving bonds, and their utter refusal to be defeated. Once again, giving these characters and people dignity and understanding and showing black excellence even in adverse circumstances is a beautiful example to Black girls and girls in general. It successfully makes the story of this particular Black genius relatable to all. The entire cast, consisting of Laya DeLeon Hayes, Denzel Whitaker, Chad Coleman, Reilly Brooke Stith, Keith Sean Holliday, Amani Summer Boyles, and Edem Atsu-Swanzy, work very well together and are all given moments to shine. In particular, Hayes, Chad Coleman, and Amani Summer Boyles stand out in a cast that all turned in memorable performances.

Bomani J. Story does an exceptional job of reinterpreting the Frankenstein myth and making it believable in modern dress. A little note about the “monster” that Story added to the tale fascinates me. Whenever the “monster” grabs someone, his touch leaves burn marks on their skin. Is it the electricity coursing through their body? Is it analogous to the branding of flesh? Could it be both?

Another thing is that I find it very difficult to refer to the character as a monster and that tracks with the original story. Frankenstein’s “monster” is an intelligent character who doesn’t know how to react to ordinary situations. After all, he’s a reanimated corpse who doesn’t even understand who he is. He is capable of love and violence and is sympathetic, as is the “monster” character in THE ANGRY BLACK GIRL AND HER MONSTER. We call other human beings monsters when we don’t understand them, and that is a powerful undercurrent in the film, mainly as reflected by the one white character of the schoolteacher. The lack of empathy for Black people and how they are frequently branded as violent and monstrous for standing up for themselves or for political reasons is a vital thematic element in the film.

There are nods to Shelley’s work, I will leave you to discover them, but Story’s reimagining has given the old tale a new life. It’s like he is the mad scientist who has revived the corpse of a story done to death. He is the creator who has given it a new life as a meaningful story to a modern audience, which is really cool when you think about it.

THE ANGRY BLACK GIRL AND HER MONSTER had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Make sure to read our SXSW coverage here.

Dolores Quintana
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