The Blackening Film Review: Disclaimer
Much as we would love to review The Blackening, we know that our identity as a cis white male would skew our perspective in ways that would misrepresent the film’s true meaning to its intended audience, in ways that might come across a white-man-splaining, so it would probably be best if we withheld from expressing opinions about the film’s content and style….
Ha-ha! Had you going there for a minute, didn’t we?
Of course we are going to review The Blackening, but we could not resist the urge to begin with a paragraph that is exactly the sort of thing the film spoofs. In one of the more amusing sequences, fleeing victims encounter a park ranger, and as everyone knows, in horror movie situations like this, the potential rescuer inevitably turns out to be in league with the killer(s). So it is no wonder that our characters are suspicious, and their suspicions are magnified by the fact that the ranger is white. On one hand, this makes him seem more likely to be the racist killer stalking them; on the other hand, if he really is legit, this casts him in the stereotypical role of White Savior. Ranger White (yes, that is his name!) tries to assuage their fears by insisting he is “one of the good ones,” which is hardly comforting under the circumstances, so he follows up by unleashing a ludicrously on-point disclaimer: “You can trust me, seriously. If I got an invite to the cookout, I’d be honored, but I wouldn’t go…because I know my presence in that all-black space would be a disturbance and undo it being an all-black space.”
That is the humor on display in The Blackening. It is not so much “politically correct” comedy as comedy about political correctness (in the original sense of the word, when it was used self-deprecatingly by liberals wondering whether they were being over-sensitive – long before it became a vague pejorative wielded by the right). It’s the kind of movie in which the former gang-banger who has renounced violence will of course turn out to be still packing heat, and when a friend exclaims, “I knew you had a gun,” he will accuse his friend of racial profiling.
The Blackening Film Review: Deconstructing Racist Tropes
In short, although a horror-comedy toplining a black cast, The Blackening is a far cry from the gross-out shenanigans of such Wayans Brothers efforts as Scary Movie and A Haunted House. Moreover, whereas those films spoofed current trends (Scream, Paranormal Activity), The Blackening is not focused on a particular subgenre, and it does not waste time recreating famous moments from recent blockbusters. Although set in a cabin (actually, house) in the woods, the film’s real reference point seems to be the lethal game at the center of the plot, which recalls such cool cult films as Bodies, Bodies, Bodies and Ready or Not.
The Blackening is not even a parody of recent black-themed horror movies. There are no obvious pot-shots at the work of Jordan Peele, although The Blackening does incorporate its themes more smoothly by simply stating them out loud instead of shoe-horning them in like awkward and sometimes irrelevant subtext.
So, then, if The Blackening is not exactly a genre spoof, what is it? As the tagline (“We can’t all die first”) suggests, the film can be seen as a parody of the tropes that afflict black characters in the horror genre (be it slasher, ghost story, or whatever). More than that, The Blackening feels like an onscreen deconstruction, with the dialogue expressing ideas voiced by film critics and historians, but instead of a dry academic exercise, the film is funny because it states everything out loud, with no pretext of subtlety.
The Blackening Film Review: A Good Horror Film
All that said, The Blackening is actually a good horror film. The characters may conform to genre stereotypes (the Hunk, the Gay Best Friend), but they are as well drawn as in any serious film, and the actors manage to nail the laugh-lines without undermining the tension. The scare scenes are legit frightening, and even the comic dilemmas, like whether to trust Ranger White, are fraught with suspense, the audience anticipating not only a punchline but also possible lethal consequences hinging on their decision. Even the film’s status as a comedy enhances the horror element, as the script is free to play around with and even overthrow expectations in terms of body count and survivors. And let’s face it: it’s well past time that one of these implacable masked killers (in this case wielding a crossbow) turned out to be a bit of a wussy when the tables were turned (credit to Tarantino for doing something similar with Stuntman Mike in the “Death Proof” segment of Grindhouse).
For the record, the story involves a group of college friends getting back together for an anniversary celebration in an isolated house (on the occasion of Juneteenth, of course). The hostess has a reputation for going all-out, but in this case the preparations extend far beyond what she expected: she finds a hidden game room featuring a ridiculously racist board game called The Blackening. In short order, the unseen killer is forcing his victims to stake their lives on whether or not they can correctly answer questions like naming a black character who survives to the end of a horror movie (confession: we could think of several but could not come up with the names during the allotted time).
The Blackening Film Review: Conclusion
As funny as it is on a conceptual level, The Blackening is not quite as funny as it intends to be from one joke to the next, and viewers who are not up to date on hip-hop culture may not catch every verbal references. Also, when the dialogue gets frantic during the panic scenes, it becomes difficult to hear what everyone is saying, which means even more punchlines go unheard. Even so, the best gags are hysterical, such as one character’s handing of an automatic pistol being corrected from the cool-looking but ineffective sideways style favored in gangster movies ever since it was pioneered by John Woo to the traditional upright grip that allows the gunman to actually site his target. Even better is the conundrum of how black characters can summon authorities for help without the risk of being shot by the police – a bit that is milked for a few laughs laughs that build to an even bigger punchline.
The script does a decent job of keeping the audience guessing. It would be a little too obvious to have an overtly racist suspect, so instead, there is a lot of focus on who is the most or least “black” of the group; however, with a limited number of suspects it is not too hard to guess the culprit. There is the additional problem (which also affected Scream and Saw) that the killer’s actions are determined by the film’s concept – lampooning racist tropes in horror films – which forces the script to explain why the killer is doing this when the obvious reason is “because the script needed him to.”
We will cut the film some slack in this regard because it is a comedy, and to be fair, we found its explanation more relevant and credible than the one in Scream. In fact, we actually enjoyed The Blackening more than Scream (though it seems unlikely to have a similar sort of cultural impact). Also, the issue of “who is blackest” actually sets up some interesting ideas in the film: that there is no one definition, that black culture exists on a spectrum, and that obvious signifiers (such as who says the n-word the most) do not really answer the question. It is also worth mentioning that the humorous depiction of the characters is part of a strategy to celebrate diversity, with the obvious victims not necessarily coming to the obvious ends – maybe even triumphing instead of being rescued by the traditional heroes.
In the end, The Blackening may not be a blockbuster masterpiece of the genre, but it is more than a funny spoof. It’s actually a good horror movie with some clever satire. It is the sort of thing that, once upon a time, would have been a “sleeper”: a little film that sneaks into the marketplace and pleases audiences lucky enough to see it, then gradually earns a cult reputation as something worth tracking down.
The Blackening (2022)
1 – Avoid
2 – Not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Although the notion of a horror spoof featuring a black cast might conjure images of Scary Movie and A Haunted House, The Blackening is something else altogether: a genuinely good horror movie that mixes scares with a satirical deconstruction of tropes afflicting black characters in the horror genre. Much of the humor arises from the fact that the film states its themes overtly instead of burying them in subtext, and the mix is in some ways smoother than Jordan Peele’s sometimes forced attempts to shoe-horn thematic weight into narratives that might not support them. We also found The Blackening more amusing than Scream, but we expect to be in a minority on this score. Definitely recommended.
The Blackening (Lionsgate, copyright 2022). Directed by Tim Story. Written by Tracy Oliver & Dewayene Perkins. Cast: Antoinette Robertson, Dewayne Perkins, Grace Byers, X Mayo, Melvin Gregg, Jermaine Fowler, Yvonne Orji, Jay Pharoah, James Preston Rogers, Diedrich Bader. 97 mins. Rated R. US Theatrical Release Date: June 16, 2023.
The Blackening is in theatres nationwide, including several engagements in the Los Angeles area. The film is also available via Video on Demand through Vudu.
Check out more reviews of The Blackening at the links below….