How 'Antebellum,' 'Lovecraft Country' and More Horror Stories Are Centering Black Experiences
By Stacy Lambe
While horror has long been an enduring and successful genre of storytelling on film and TV, marginalized voices and people of color have rarely seen their experiences reflected onscreen. That is, until Jordan Peele’s Get Out and his follow-up, Us, finally shattered any preconceived notions about who could tell these stories -- and just as importantly, who could star in them.
“The fact that there’s, you know, a small handful of films led by Black people, to me, was the horror itself,” the director said in the 2019 Shudder original documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, which traces the untold stories of Black people’s contributions to the horror genre and how they’ve finally been embraced by Hollywood.
Three years after Get Out, the 2020 fall season has seen the arrival of several new horror stories -- Antebellum, Bad Hair, the now-delayed Candyman as well as HBO’s Lovecraft Country -- created by and starring people of color while also breaking the tropes and stereotypes that have limited their presence in the past.
“The roles you’re offered as a Black woman are so dismissive and not really central to the plot, and it’s just incredibly exciting to have voices coming along like a Misha Green, like a Jordan Peele, [who are] flipping this classical genre on its head, deconstructing and centering Black voices in [where] we’ve been shut out of for so long,” Lovecraft Country star Jurnee Smollett told ET.
Notably, what connects all these projects, is an urgency to confront the real-life horrors of being Black in America, tackling issues of institutionalized racism and white supremacy head-on and making them feel even more timely amid the cultural reckoning sparked by the killing of George Floyd. In fact, as Peele has previously revealed, he changed the ending of Get Out to reflect the racial violence that erupted and sparked the initial Black Lives Matter movement at the time.
“Part of what’s so interesting about seeing Black and queer folk leading the narratives in the genre world, is that so much of what we experience day to day could be considered a real-life horror story,” Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, star of the Shudder original Spiral, explained, adding that “in many ways it’s the perfect foundation for storytelling in the horror genre world. It’s an opportunity for marginalized voices to reclaim power and rise up as the hero of the story as opposed to the villain or victim, it also potentially serves as a platform for our history of trauma to be told in a way that humanizes us to the masses without marginalized civilians being put in a position to have to explain or dig up their own personal trauma in order to be understood.:
While Peele may have altered Get Out to give Black audiences a much-needed ending never seen before, Janelle Monáe said Antebellum does the opposite. “I think this film will trigger,” she said of the brutal plantation horror story, which shows bodies being beaten, lynched and raped.
The same goes for Lovecraft Country created by Misha Green. She is flipping notoriously racist author H.P. Lovecraft’s notions of horror on its head. “I think the monsters are a metaphor for the racism that’s always been running through America and globally,” she said, while actor Jonathan Majors added, “White racists, or racists in general, are that much more terrifying than a shoggoth.:
Here’s a look at this fall's tales of Black horror being told -- and how they’re centering marginalized experiences -- onscreen.
While trailers for the thriller from writer-director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz evoke Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the film actually more closely resembles Get Out, with a twist that connects modern times with an era that so many in America try to forget. Monáe plays Eden, an enslaved woman trying to escape a “reformer plantation,” where she endures unrelenting violence at the hands of white Confederate soldiers.
As the actress previously said, the imagery of this film will provoke audiences in “the same way that I struggled when I saw Sandra Bland, when I saw Mike Brown, when we saw George Floyd, when we heard about Breonna Taylor.” But as much as it may evoke uncomfortable emotions from Black audiences, she hopes that it will also force white people to hold a mirror up to themselves.
“This film does a great job of reminding folks that when our ancestors were stolen, they didn’t steal willing slaves. Our history books want us to believe that it was a choice,” Monáe explained. “No, we were stolen. You stole doctors, you stole lawyers, you stole teachers, you stole healers, you stole artists, you stole mothers, you stole daughters. This film humanizes Black women and it reminds us that when we lose a life, we're losing somebody that mattered.”
What sets Green’s acclaimed series (which is also executive produced by Peele) apart is the uncovering of forgotten or overlooked real-life terrors and blending them with a fictional story inspired by Lovecraft’s supernatural horrors.
Starting off as a road trip through Jim Crow America, Lovecraft Country expands into a saga of horrors that includes surviving shoggoths, fending off pagan societies, moving into a haunted house and confronting a case of dueling identities while also depicting everything from sundown towns to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 to life in Korea during the war.
“The history that is just as horrific as the monsters we made up, all of that has been buried,” Green said. “One of the reasons for my love for the project and my excitement to do the project was uncovering all of these things that we have not been told when we center a narrative just around whiteness.”
Smollett, who is helping to redefine what it means to be a “scream queen,” added, “There is such a danger when the truth is distorted and when your history has been overlooked for so long… It’s a real honor to be a part of something that centers our voices in such a radical way."
Described as a horror satire, the film tells the story of an ambitious young woman working in the 1980s image-obsessed world of music television who gets a weave that truly has a mind of its own. Justin Simien, the creator behind Dear White People, was inspired by the discovery of Asian hair-possession horror movies, like the South Korean film The Wig. But in order to translate something like that for U.S. audiences, he knew he had to root it in the Black, female experience. “This is my way of writing a love letter about all of the BS that Black women have to go through,” Simien said, explaining that he was raised by “a village of Black women” in Houston, Texas.
In addition to starring newcomer Elle Lorraine, the ensemble cast features Blair Underwood, Jay Pharoah, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Michelle Hurd, Robin Thede, Vanessa L. Williams and Lena Waithe, who is currently developing her own horror anthology, Them, for Amazon. All of whom, the filmmaker said, had a shared understanding about “what this movie would mean and how it will serve the social conversation happening right now.”
And for Simien, “it’s critiquing systems of white supremacy,” he said. “That is to me one of the most urgent issues facing us. So, it’s a fun movie. But like Dear White People, which is also very serious and it’s about something that I think is actually horrifying in American society to this day."
Starring Bowyer-Chapman as Malik, one-half of a gay couple who move to an idyllic small town with their daughter, Spiral is another film that owes its existence to Get Out. Soon after settling in, their white neighbors take an unexpected and uncomfortable interest in the family, leading to horrifying consequences. What makes it a worthwhile watch is that it’s one of the few modern queer-themed horror films that deals with themes of otherness and rejection that’s also prevalent in many Black experiences.
“I could relate to so much of what my character Malik in Spiral had experienced,” the actor said. “Growing up being the only Black queer person in straight white spaces. Seeing through the veil of illusion all around us that’s ripe with white supremacy, implicit biases and micro-aggressions that seemingly only he is aware of. Having the people who claimed to love me the most, a white partner, my white family members, those who in my younger years I depended on for my survival, food, shelter, affection, also acting as my greatest oppressors.”
He added, “In many ways, my life experience and that of so many folk like myself has involved spending so much of our lives in a nightmarish parallel universe where the daily horrors we experience are simply not believed, and the extraordinary speed at which we are vilified and piled on by the mobs of the status quo is dizzying and crushing.
Directed by Nia DaCosta and co-written by her, Peele and Win Rosenfeld, the new Candyman film is considered to be a direct sequel to the 1992 original that launched a franchise about a killer spirit with a hook (famously played by Tony Todd) that is summoned by saying his name five times to a mirror and openly denying his existence.
The sequel will return the story to the Cabrini Green neighborhood in Chicago where Candyman terrorized its tenants a decade after the last of the towers were torn down and replaced by luxury condos. One of the new residents of the gentrified area is Anthony McCoy (Watchmen Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose chance encounter with a “Cabrini Green old-timer” reveals the true horrors behind Candyman’s existence.
Abdul-Mateen says the film, along with The Trial of the Chicago 7, are very important projects that “continue the theme of putting out work that speaks to the current state of the world and highlighting areas where we still have a long way to go.” Like Watchmen, which confronted issues of police brutality and systemic racism, he believes Candyman will unveil the true horrors behind forgotten histories that comes with upward mobility and gentrification in places like Chicago or Candyman’s macabre end that resulted over discrimination against an interracial affair.
“Those are two projects that I think will continue the theme of putting out inspirational projects that are calls to action, that teach and that are culturally and historically relevant, especially given where we are right now in our current climate,” Abdul-Mateen continued.