Review: ‘The Blackening’

Black Horror Characters Survive To Get The Last Laugh In Hilarious Slasher Comedy

Whether you’re a Black moviegoer or not, you already know the trope: the Black character always dies first in a horror movie. I knew it even as a junior movie fan growing up on classic slasher films; if there was anyone who looked like me, they were going down and going down early! The Blackening, the hilarious parody from director Tim Story and based on the hit Comedy Central digital short, asks an important question: Who dies first when all of the characters in a horror movie are Black?

The answer is a rip-roaring, laugh-out-loud funny blast that you’ll want to watch with a roomful of your family and closest friends. While there’s a lot more social commentary and jokes than actual scares, atmosphere goes a long way. This is one of those movies where you don’t mind people pointing and shouting at the screen, checking off the ridiculous horror tropes right along with the characters, predicting who will die next, and guessing who is underneath the killer’s mask.

From the very beginning as we’re introduced to a remote house in the woods, arguably the most well-known cliche of all, The Blackening tells you that it’ll leave no trope unscathed. A Juneteenth weekend reunion of old college pals brings together every stereotype under the sun. There’s the gay guy Dwayne, played by co-writer Dewayne Perkins, his best friend and high-powered attorney Lisa (Antoinette Robertson), who has secretly reconnected with her ex-boyfriend Nnamdi (the suddenly ubiquitous Sinqua Walls) over Dwayne’s objections; King (Melvin Gregg), a gun-toting former criminal now married to a white woman; raucous drunk Shanika (X Mayo); Allison, who is touchy about her mixed-race heritage and lighter skin tone; and nerdy misfit Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) who may or may not have been invited.

The rare short that manages to retain an economy of exposition as a full-length feature, The Blackening cleverly unpacks their complicated relationships before the action gets going, including at a rundown gas station ripped straight out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s here that the first mystery rears its ugly head, as well as the micro-aggressions that Black people face every day. Minutes later, the group encounters a White cop (Diedrich Bader) who is suspicious of their presence at the AirBNB.

Once inside, the group are unable to locate the two people who actually organized the weekend (Jay Pharoah and Yvonne Orji, who get a very Scream-esque introduction). They also discover, after a few contentious games of Spades, that the home has a secret, creepy gameroom in the back. That’s where they find The Blackening, a board game adorned with a racist blackface piece in the middle. Taking its cues from Saw, the friends are challenged by a leather-masked killer to answer questions about blackness or one of them will die. Eventually, they are challenged to pick the one among them who is the “Blackest”, and that person will be killed first.

Co-written by Perkins and Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver, The Blackening sharply examines what it means to be “Black” and how far we will go to prove it to ourselves. The quiz features questions on the “Two Aunt Vivs” from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; recite the “black National Anthem”; name a Black character who survived a horror movie. Are you Black if you don’t know the answer to one of them? Or to ANY of them? What if you’re a Black person who voted for Trump…twice? The cracks begin to form, the alliances begin to take shape, as the friends accuse and shame one another in an effort to save their own lives. The darkest member of the bunch, Nnamdi, who is literally from Africa, doesn’t think it’s fair that the Blackest one of them should have to die. That’s convenient, and very funny. Dwayne says it can’t be him because he’s gay. Hey, this IS Pride Month, right? Can’t kill him first.

The Blackening works best when defying the familiar horror tropes, rather than embracing them as it eventually has to do. There comes a moment when, and every horror movie has it, when the prey must split up. It never works out, and the group even acknowledges it’s a stupid idea. But they do it anyway, not because it makes sense but because the story needs it. Fortunately, these moments that break your immersion are few and far between.

There’s a level of comedic talent gathered here that is truly remarkable. Perkins is probably the breakout actor of the bunch, as Dwayne is flamboyant, petty, self-serving, and unafraid to use his sexuality to his benefit. The other that really stands out is X Mayo, who gives off serious Tiffany Haddish vibes as the hard-partying Shanika.

In a post Get Out world, movies that utilize genre to tackle serious themes such as race are getting sharper, and The Blackening manages to have some things to say while also delivering a good time for audiences. And not just Black audiences. While there are certain jokes that Black moviegoers will be especially attuned to, the tone of the film, its light-hearted look at friendships, and comedic violence are for everyone to enjoy.

The Blackening opens in theaters on June 16th.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
The Blackening
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-the-blackeningWhether you're a Black moviegoer or not, you already know the trope: the Black character always dies first in a horror movie. I knew it even as a junior movie fan growing up on classic slasher films; if there was anyone who looked like...