If you know me and my relationship to film, you know I”m a sucker for self awareness. Not necessarily self referential indulgence in the vein of The Deadpool Effect, where the crux of the entire experience is predicated on pop culture and fourth wall breaks. There’s a thin like between awareness and indulgence, and “The Blackening” could be easily dismissed as being the latter. Especially since the film is directed by Tim Story, a filmmaker with a more miss than hit filmography for my tastes. Thankfully, this movie is intentional in its satire and hilarious in its delivery, twisting black horror tropes on their head and shedding light on the constant genre pitfalls that, while we all agree shouldn’t exist, center around the race of the character.
Even in its tagline, “They can’t all die first!” “The Blackening” is incredibly aware of its own stereotypes, and relishes in them to great effect and works even better if you’re familiar with what the film is satirizing.
Story (“Tom and Jerry,” “Ride Along,” “Barbershop“) directs from a script by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins. “The Blackening” follows a group of friends celebrating a 10 year reunion at a remote cabin in the woods. After a night of drugs, drank and Spades they discover a hidden game room with a board came called The Blackening. The friends of course think it’s a joke, but soon discover that there is a menacing figure behind the game, and they must either play and survive the game or die one by one. Hunted and trapped, the group must rely on each other and their “blackness” to beat the tropes and not be the first to die in a cat and mouse slasher night of horrors. It stars Dewayne Perkins, Jermaine Fowler, Antionette Robertson, Sinqua Mills, Grace Byers, Melvin Gregg, and X Mayo.
It is important to recognize that “The Blackening” is not meant to be an outright parody or spoof, so you will be let down if you’re expecting a “Scary Movie” type comedy. Additionally, the film is also not meant to be an overarching critique the entire horror genre ala “Cabin in the Woods” or the subversive “Scream.” This is important because “The Blackening” is not nearly as silly as you might expect nor it is it as outright scary as the slasher element may lead you to believe. This is a targeted satire meant to be a scathing critique on black stereotypes in horror films, and seeks to blend that thoughtful comedic analysis with a mildly haunting horror film. “The Blackening” is pretty light on scares, punctuating most if not all tense moments with a joke that land more often than not. For all its attempts at critiquing itself and the tropes that make up the sum of its parts, there are some genuine laugh out loud moments, especially if you’re already versed in the kinds of things the film is satirizing.
Perkins and Oliver’s script is sharp, layered with deep cut references made for cinephiles who have been pointing and yelling at the screen every time a black character does anything remotely close to contributing to age old stereotypes. We can say alleged” all we want, but “The Blackening” works because it is deeply rooted in truth, and wouldn’t work if its themes weren’t instantly recognizable with the smallest of reference from the film’s characters. More than that though, what truly makes film work is the honestly of black friendships and relationships. The characters all feel like someone you know, and each represent not just a different part of your larger group, but also varying degrees of blackness and black stereotypes. Perkins and Oliver seem acutely aware of the dangers of being exploitative, and avoid that by being honest about the archetypes that make up the leads and smartly satirizing them in their own unique ways. Everyone is enjoyable in the cast, and while some may get more screen time and character depth than others, each one in “The Blackening” is given their own moments to shine and deliver some laughs.
Story seems to understand the assignment too, letting his characters relish in their comedy and letting most of the jokes breath. “The Blackening” is rapid fire funny, and while some of the jokes may feel cheap and undercut some of the more introspect elements of the satire, I can’t pretend I wasn’t laughing to tears at a lot of moments throughout the film. It is especially funny when they all are forced to test their blackness, and you start to see how each view each other’s own identity through their own stereotypes and prejudices. The entire catalyst of events and motivations behind what is going on centers around these judgments and questions of what does it mean to be black, and who would you consider the blackest and why? It is thought provoking if you dig into it, but Story understands that the best delivery for such heavy handed, introspective thoughts is tried and true comedy. “The Blackening” owns itself in every way, and delivers a truly enjoyable and funny experience.
Speaking of experience, “The Blackeness” works best in a large crowd. This is a film that thrives when surrounded by infectious laughter and hollering, largely because it relies not just on how black people are treated in horror films, but simultaneously relies on the audience that recognizes them when they occur. “The Blackening” needs an audience to point at the screen and shout “WHY WOULD YOU SAY/DO THAT” and the classic “BITCH DON’T YOU GO DOWN THERE!” It almost begs for it, and the level of audience engagement adds to the overall enjoyment of the experience. Trust me, you don’t want to be the only one at home who pulls a Leo Meme when they drop a “Sister Act 2” reference, or laugh so loud you scare your cats when you see a whole room full of grown ass adults sing the O’Reily Parts theme song. Trust me, this works best in a crowd full of people ready to shout and laugh and sometimes do both together.
I don’t know that “The Blackening” is good enough to rush to the theater and see, and I will grant some criticisms that viewers left feeling the film doesn’t do enough of either (comedy or horror) to have worked for them. But I do think that if you want to get the most out of a really funny, self aware comedy, then it is best seen on the big screen with the largest crowd you can find. It’s a For Us By Us kind of film that requires solidarity to tap into the hilarity. It may date itself with forcing some of the more current pop culture jokes like “Trump is bad!” from time to time, but the deeper critiques and thoughtfulness under the surface will let this black horror satire survive the night and make it to sunrise.
I’m sure every character will immediately remove my black card, but does anyone wanna teach me how to play Spades?
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“The Blackening” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.