The Blackening Roasts Racist Horror Tropes and Slays the Crowd

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The Blackening Roasts Racist Horror Tropes and Slays the Crowd

In a world where horror movies still kill “The Black Character” first, Tim Story’s The Blackening is due satirical justice. Where Scary Movie or A Haunted House type parodies have taken their swipes at exclusive racial tropes prevalent throughout horror history, The Blackening makes a more substantial mockery of the genre’s cultural omissions. Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver and co-writer/actor Dewayne Perkins centralize Black storytelling, inherently lashing back against the whitewashed horror blueprints audiences once recognized as canon, subverting the slasher prototype with nothing but the Black experience. It’s better as a comedy than as a wickedly sharpened thriller, making The Blackening one of those surefire “see it with a crowd” pleasers.

There’s a little bit of everything in The Blackening. A group of college friends reunites 10 years later to recreate an epic Juneteenth celebration, meeting at your standard horror-grade cabin in the woods. Scream influences the structure, You’re Next the villains, Beyond the Gates the conflict—the list goes on. A group including Lisa (Antoinette Robertson), Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), Shanika (X Mayo) and more have their horror movie knowledge tested by a crazed killer, bringing a Saw element into the fray in addition to Ghostface’s phone quizzes. That’s what happens after the characters open a tabletop game titled The Blackening (searingly dubbed “Jim Crow Monopoly”), forced to survive a deadly contest targeting their Blackness.

None of that is to say The Blackening is a copycat. Horror cinema influences future horror releases, filmmakers build upon the past, and movies like The Blackening recall familiar narratives as a means of pointing out follies. Jay Pharoah and Yvonne Orji dunk on Scream 2’s cold-open deaths of Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps as possible cold-openers themselves. Multiple characters call out the dumbfounding Caucasian logic rampant in horror movies with rightful ridicule. Oliver and Perkins’ screenplay abounds with nostalgic horror references that are fresher than the lowest hanging fruit—though working in famous horror movie names for a cheap pop is inescapable even here. There’s a genuine interest in addressing horror’s failings through gut-busting roasts that sizzle and sear, especially how older horror cinema portrayed Black characters when there were hardly any Black creators behind mainstream horror releases.

The Blackening is a comedy-first horror-comedy, which makes sense from the director of releases such as Barbershop and Ride Along. Actors hit their lines with the precision of Jason Voorhees’ ax finding a death blow, oozing charismatic communal chemistry that continues to be frequently funny despite the presence of backwoods crossbow murderers. There’s no solo superstar to highlight. Perkins grabs your attention with the snap of his fingers; Grace Byers channels her inner “Final Girl” warrior. X Mayo always has a saucy one-liner loaded, while Melvin Gregg exudes a frost-bitten chill vibe that puts us at ease. It’s an ensemble with barely any weak spots—including everyone’s favorite “that guy” character actor playing the token white park ranger: Diedrich Bader.

It’s hard to be as enthusiastic about the film’s horror counterbalance. There’s a desire always to make that extra joke, which takes away from the razor-sharp suspense of horror-comedies like Cabin in the Woods or The Return of the Living Dead. The film’s broader concept is brilliant with an even more brilliant tagline (“We Can’t All Die First”), but its landing is a wobbly dismount. One character’s brand of geeky, socially-awkward comedy will be a divisive hit or miss. If it misses you—like me—it’ll highlight the story’s inability to conclude as uproariously as it enters. So much of The Blackening is knockout horror-comedy gold, like in-movie reactions to the obscenely racist board game design, which makes its latter dullness a minor frustration. Emphasis on “minor.”

Tim Story’s The Blackening is ground-standing Black horror that’d make trendsetters from Rusty Cundieff to Jordan Peele proud. It’s a crowd-slaying comedy that skewers the horror genre over a spit with an injection of Black commentary that’s authentically unafraid to push the needle. There are third-act problems that see the slasher-killer story running thin, but that probably won’t bother anyone just here for a hoot and a holler. Never particularly ooey-gooey gory, nor scary enough to haunt your dreams like Freddy Krueger, The Blackening thrives as a mainstream horror-comedy that cleverly embraces changing times instead of clinging to an outdated past.

Director: Tim Story
Writer: Tracy Oliver, Dewayne Perkins
Starring: Grace Byers, Jermaine Fowler, Melvin Gregg, X Mayo, Dewayne Perkins, Antoinette Robertson, Sinqua Walls, Jay Pharoah, Yvonne Orji
Release Date: June 16, 2023

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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