Time to call it, folks: Tim Story is a hack.
Without the first two Fantastic Four movies, the 2004 Taxi movie nobody remembers, the 2019 Shaft requel nobody saw, the Tom & Jerry atrocity from a couple years back, or any help from the timeless universal star power of Kevin freaking Hart, that just leaves the Barbershop franchise carrying Story to relevance. This despite the fact that Story’s had fuck-all to do with that franchise since he directed the first movie over TWENTY YEARS AGO.
Yet here we are with The Blackening, a horror-comedy set in a remote forest cabin, complete with a mysterious slasher playing bloody cat-and-mouse with a hapless victim pool. The central gimmick here is that almost every actor in this cast is black. Let’s run down the roll call, shall we?
- Morgan and Shawn (respectively played by Yvonne Orji and Jay Pharoah) are the hapless couple who get killed off at the prologue.
- Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) has a nasty habit of stirring up drama by way of her sex life.
- Allison (Grace Byers) is a biracial woman with a chip on her shoulder.
- Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins) is the resident gay best friend.
- King (Melvin Gregg) is an ex-con in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.
- Nnamdi (Sinqua Wells), son of an African immigrant, is a serial heartbreaker and perpetual fuckup.
- Shanika (X Mayo) is the resident big black woman.
- Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) is the socially awkward nerd stereotype.
Rounding out the cast is Diedrich Bader — the only major white actor — in the role of Ranger White, perfectly riding the line between horror and comedy in the role of a white law enforcement officer who may or may not be trustworthy in this context.
What we’ve got here is a film built around two time-honored horror slasher tropes. First is the conceit that the most useless and unsympathetic characters will always get killed off. And in this movie, ALL the characters are useless and unsympathetic. This admittedly works quite well for the comedy aspect, and it helps the horror aspect quite a bit as well. But it doesn’t work so well for the character drama or the racial commentary. Do any of these characters learn and grow with the revelation that they’re all acting like threadbare two-dimensional black stereotypes? That’s ambiguous at best.
The second major conceit is of course that the black character always dies. No joke, this is explicitly written directly into the slasher’s M.O. So much of the plot is about testing the characters’ knowledge of black history and pop culture, trying to figure out who among the cast is the “most black” (i.e.: “first one dead”). During one pivotal scene, the slasher outright demands the victim pool to select the blackest character among them to offer up as a sacrifice.
This brings up a fascinating thematic question: What exactly does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be “more black” or “less black”? Is a black person any more black if they were born in Africa or born to African parents? Are they any less black if they have white parents or if they married white? What if they vote Republican? What about sexuality, how does that factor in? And if any particular factor makes someone less black or not black, then what are they instead?
Exploring these questions through the medium of film is a fine idea. Exploring them through a horror/comedy film in the context of characters saying “Hey, I’m not as black as that other guy” to save their own lives is a wickedly demented concept. But it doesn’t quite fit together.
To start with, the “slasher-horror” aspect doesn’t work because the film is depressingly short on kills and blood. Yes, it helps that the killer is able to kill quietly and at a distance with the use of a crossbow, that’s freaking awesome. That said, it kills the vibe that we’ve got such a massive pool of victims and nearly all of them get out of the film alive. I’m not sure if that was done with the intent of subverting established tropes, but it doesn’t really work in any case.
(Seriously, this got an R rating? Fuck outta here.)
More importantly, it’s hard enough to make a balanced horror-comedy. But making a balanced horror-comedy that also delivers keen satirical insight on race is something we’ve yet to see from anyone who isn’t Jordan Peele. So what we’ve got here is a film trying to be a balanced horror-comedy while also delivering keen satirical insight on race WHILE ALSO acting as a Jordan Peele parody.
To the filmmakers’ credit, it’s worth considering that there was definitely room for a meta parody of the “Jordan Peele” trend in horror. I know that’s typically the bailiwick of the Scream franchise, but the franchise was always geared toward much broader industry-wide trends. Moreover, neither the late Wes Craven nor Radio Silence were equipped to tackle Jordan Peele and his favorite cinematic topics, for obvious reasons. Then again, it’s not like Tim freaking Story was equal to the challenge either.
That said, Jordan Peele is such a singular industry-shaking talent that I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone talented enough yet detached and objective enough to parody him effectively. Do we go with Malcolm D. Lee, who inherited the Barbershop film franchise? (Also Space Jam: A New Legacy — hard pass.) Nia DaCosta, whose big horror claim to fame was godfathered by Peele? I could see any of the “Lovecraft Country” directors taking this on, but that series was godfathered by Peele as well. Maybe this script could work under F. Gary Gray, or maybe go long and toss it to Stella Meghie. I digress.
I’m genuinely sorry to say that The Blackening does not transcend its premise. I’ll grant that it’s funny enough to pass for a comedy, but it’s not intelligent or thoughtful enough to work as a biting treatise on the black experience, and it sure as hell isn’t bloody or scary enough to function as a horror film. This was an extremely high-risk/high-reward concept, and it would’ve been a feat of pure genius if all this potential was realized, but none of these ideas come together into something greater than the sum of its parts.
If this had been a quick sketch on SNL or somewhere on YouTube, this might’ve worked. With the premise stretched out to feature length like this, I can only give this a home video recommendation at best.