The Blackening is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Officially recognized in 2021, Juneteenth is America's newest federal holiday, enacted in remembrance of America's oldest and most terrible crime. To commemorate the abolition of slavery, members of the African American community have long marked the anniversary of June 19, 1865, the day a Union general in Galveston, Texas issued General Order No. 3, informing all the formerly enslaved people in that Confederate state that they were now free.
Now, since General Order No. 3 came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was actually issued, and more than 240 years after White Americans began kidnapping and enslaving human beings, the day's legacy as a moment of "celebration" is—like most things connected to the subject of race in this country—complicated. Even among the Black community there are widely mixed feelings about the appropriate way to mark the occasion. Should Juneteenth be a day of celebration? A day of reflection? A day of mourning? Can it somehow be all those things at once?
None of that really has anything to do with director Tim Story's funny new slasher comedy The Blackening—except it does, in a way. First, on a strictly literal level, the film's story concerns eight Black college friends who gather for a Juneteenth reunion, only to be hunted by a would-be serial killer playing sadistic games.
But what really got me thinking about the movie's relation to the holiday is how it smartly recognizes the needs to commemorate injustice and to celebrate freedom, and somehow manages to do both.
For—pop-culture literate almost to a fault—The Blackening and its characters are hyper-conscious of every damaging and denigrating horror-movie trope Black people have been forced to embody. Throughout Hollywood's history, Black characters in horror have often been introduced as gross stereotypes, and they've usually been disposed of prematurely as sacrificial lambs—all for the amusement of largely White audiences.
But The Blackening manages to do more than simply acknowledge and satirize these cinematic injustices: it actually manages to rise above them, turning an acknowledgement of White culture's crimes into a genuine celebration of Black culture and survival, accessible to all audiences but unapologetically made for Black people.
Every holiday needs its movies. We have Christmas movies, Valentine's Day movies, Veteran's Day movies, and at least one Groundhog Day movie. Channing Godfrey Peoples's excellent drama Miss Juneteenth (2020) may be the first 21st century film in the new holiday's canon. But—smart, funny, and sub-textually pointed—The Blackening makes a strong claim on being the first great Juneteenth comedy.
The Blackening is written by Tracy Oliver (Girl's Trip) and Dewayne Perkins, based on a popular sketch video by Perkins' Chicago-based comedy troupe 3Peat. Like the best comedy sketches, the premise of that piece was brilliant in its simplicity: since everyone knows the Black character always dies first in the horror movie, what happens when all the potential victims are Black? (Easy: they just have to figure out who among them is the most Black.)
A version of that same scene is at the center of The Blackening, but of course Oliver and Perkins have to build on the premise to fill out a 96-minute running time. Wisely, they don't attempt to do so by putting more on this absurd frame than it can reasonably hold: the tone of The Blackening stays primarily satiric, and the comedy stays fairly broad.
And while the characters now all have names, personalities, and inter-relationships, The Blackening—always conscious of its tropes—deliberately assigns each character a recognizable horror- and/or Black-character stereotype. Bi-racial activist Allison (Grace Byers), in her Rosa-Parks hoodie, is the "good girl," the one we would bank on to be (in horror movie parlance) the Final Girl. Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) is the Hot Girl, which would normally earn her an early death—especially when we learn she is having a secret relationship with her historically unfaithful ex, Nnamdi (Sinqua Wells), a gym trainer who fills the Jock/Alpha-Male role. Dewayne (co-writer Dewayne Perkins) is Lisa's disapproving Gay Best Friend; Shanika (X Mayo) is the "sassy" comic-relief party girl; King (Melvin Gregg) is a reformed "thug"; and Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) is the bespectacled nerd none of the others really remember that well.
So The Blackening is cleverly meeting its horror-movie requirements, while filling out an entire cast with stock "token Black" figures, any one of whom could plausibly be the only person of color in another scary movie. And, once a maniacal, hooded, crossbow-wielding killer starts playing Jigsaw-like games with them, we start doing the math in our heads to predict the order in which these slasher-film stock-characters will get knocked off.
But The Blackening, having apparently satisfied our formulaic expectations, starts thwarting them immediately, in terms of both plot and character. There isn't a lot of time to deeply develop any of the characters, but they all seem (and are played) like actual people: none turn out to be as reductive as their types suggest, and none are treated as mere punchlines or as disposable fodder to up the body-count. (Fowler's Urkel-esque character is the most cartoonishly drawn—that performance jars with the rest of the film a bit at moments, threatening to push it into Scary Movie territory—but even Clifton turns out to have hidden depths.) Each character proves brave and resourceful at various points, and the group actually works together reasonably well. They all know the stupid decisions they are expected to make in a horror movie, and they're admirably determined not to make them. (When someone suggests the group should split up, everyone erupts in a collective groan: they've all seen those movies.)
So though the comedy in The Blackening is broad, there's a mission-statement working beneath the surface. Even as parody, this movie isn't going to treat its Black characters the way other movies would. (The film's opening scene with Yvonne Orji and Jay Pharoah seems to offer two disconnected, sacrificial characters—a la Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett Smith in Scream 2—but even that horror cliché will turn out to be subverted.)
The heart of the film—and the source of its funniest moments—is still the premise of the sketch, expanded here into a more comprehensive interrogation of the idea of trying to police what being Black has to mean. Forced by the killer to play the titular board game (like the game of Life with a grotesquely racist plastic spinner), the friends are asked to answer questions about Black culture to test their authenticity.
The conceit is funny, but—like everything else in The Blackening—it's also cleverly subversive: after a century of Black characters having to navigate a lot of White nonsense in horror movies, this is a film in which a villain's origin story may be rooted in a game of Spades, and survival may hinge on having an opinion about which Aunt Viv is better, knowing the second verse of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," or understanding that the correct answer to any question about the TV show Friends is that Living Single did it first, and better.
So The Blackening works as a celebration of Black culture, while simultaneously undermining the notion that the culture is monolithic, or that there's only one way to be Black. (Is Dewayne "less Black" because he's gay? Is King less Black because he's married to a White woman? Is Clifton less Black because he's never seen Friday?) The references come fast and furiously—certainly, every Black horror movie gets a name-drop at some point, from People Under the Stairs to Candyman to Get Out and beyond—and I have no doubt that for every joke that registered with this lily-White critic, two more went right over my head. So much the better: I enjoyed the hell out of The Blackening, but it wasn't made for me, and if its tests are culturally biased—and they gleefully are—then turnabout is more than fair play.
The Blackening, it should be noted, is not, and does not try to be, particularly scary or violent. This is not a horror/comedy hybrid like Evil Dead or The Cabin in the Woods, but a straight-up (and very funny) comedy, fueled by a healthy dose of menace. And though I might have wanted a little more suspense in the mix—and even a slightly higher body-count to give the film more substantial stakes—this too, I think, is in service of the film's subversive intent. The Blackening isn't interested in bloodying or slaughtering its characters for entertainment purposes like Hollywood has done for decades. It's much more interested in letting its fabulously stacked cast shine, celebrating its characters' differences, and demonstrating that the most radical thing a Black person in a horror movie can do is live.