One of the most enjoyable trends in recent cinema is the leitmotif of self-parody that also enhances the very tropes that are being aped. Perhaps the best examples are Knives Out and Glass Onion, which send up the conventions of the whodunit while creating genuinely ingenious whodunits. But it’s not limited to just that one genre. Several Disney films of late self-reference and build upon traditions they arguably invented to explore new storytelling angles (Zootopia, Moana, and Encanto all come to mind to varying degrees), the entire franchise is a parody of illogical action films while reinforcing the fun of that very lack of logic, and just last week Wes Anderson seemingly acknowledged the accusations about his own quirky pretentiousness by offering what is arguably his most self-aware film yet in Asteroid City, poking gentle fun at his critics while having pretentious giggles in the process.
The same is true for The Blackening, which saw a limited release last week (appropriate, as the film takes place during a Juneteenth getaway) before going nationwide this weekend. Taking its cues from literal decades of horror movie clichés, especially when it comes to black characters and viewers, the movie exceeds the parodic goofiness of the Scary Movie series and goes for legitimately insightful meta commentary, successfully calling out the pitfalls of the genre and making a smart, independently compelling bit of modern survival horror. Think of this as the other side of the cultural coin from the work of Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, and Nope are all brilliant). His films focus on relevant and resonant scares by tying the conventions back to the lived experience of the audience in the real world, with occasional humor to make it even more relatable. This movie, however, goes for the laughs first and foremost, by populating itself with a cast that is itself part of that audience, encouraging participation through the comedy to fuel the scares.
The jokes come rapid fire, with the vast majority of them landing quite effectively. This starts from the very first sequence, where a married couple, Morgan and Shawn (Yvonne Orji and Jay Pharoah, respectively) show up for a 10-year college class reunion party at a cabin in the woods (the location itself is often cited by the cast for its stereotypical death trap history in film). Morgan, who organized the get-together, is a major fan of board games, and has planned several for her group of friends over the holiday (though, in a really well-written runner, most of them just wants to play Spades). When a designated “Game Room” is discovered, the pair sees the prominently placed titular activity, complete with its minstrel-esque mascot. Commenting on the racism of the character (and the fact that their first task is to name a horror movie where a black person doesn’t die), they note that not only are the minorities the first to go, but the most well-known actors (arguing that Orji and Pharoah themselves fit that bill) only exist in these flicks to be the earliest fodder because low-budget horror can’t afford A-listers. You can guess what happens next, as this film’s budget was only $5 million.
After this hilarious introduction, the rest of the group trickles in. There’s Lisa (Antoinette Robinson), who is reconciling with her ex, Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls) after his unfaithfulness, though they arrive separately because Lisa hasn’t gotten around to telling her gay best friend Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins), who openly resents Nnamdi for cheating on her. Additionally, there’s Nnamdi’s friend and former gang member King (Melvin Gregg), assertive biracial lawyer Allison (Grace Byers), boisterous queen bee Shanika (comedian X Mayo), and nerdy Clifton (Jermaine Fowler from Coming 2 America), who kind of reminds me of Jamie Foxx in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 before he becomes Electro.
Upon arrival, two things become immediately apparent, which are among the few genuine flaws this movie has. First, there’s a confrontation with local law enforcement in the form of Officer White, played by Diedrich Bader. He’s an obvious red herring, as it would be oh so easy to make the one prominent Caucasian actor in the cast be the bad guy. The film even begs you to make that assumption long before this point, as the opening credits list the entire cast, and his name immediately jumps out as the whitest person possible in this ensemble. It’s like in TV procedural shows where you know the “Criminal of the Week” is the most famous person listed as a guest star. Thankfully, the story still gets some decent mileage out of his varying levels of cultural sensitivity to make it not feel like a waste.
Second is that, if you’re paying even the tiniest bit of attention, you know instantly who the real killer is. The actual violence is carried out by a hulking masked man with a crossbow (great weapon choice, by the way, as it opens the door for real scares and hysterical misfires), and there are closed-circuit TVs and cameras in what can only be a reference to the Saw franchise (I wonder if the writers watched Spiral before penning this script), but there is no real mystery at all as to the mastermind’s identity. I’d say that this is a case of the filmmakers giving their crowd some intellectual credit, but the movie does present itself as having an actual twist to reveal, and it’s just not there. From the moment the group’s dynamics are established it should be as plain as the nose on your face, and if it’s somehow not, the clues thrown in aren’t so much hints as they are instances of “HOW DO Y’ALL MOTHERFUCKERS NOT SEE THIS?!” Again, I’d say that’s part of the gag if it weren’t being presented as an earnest bit of audience participation.
Anyway, once everyone’s together, they too find the Game Room and the blackface board. At that point, the doors are locked, the lights are cut, and the trap is sprung. Everyone in the group is given a token that represents some aspect of their personality, and are instructed to play as one. They must draw cards and answer questions about their “blackness” and black representation in popular culture. If they’re right, they advance towards the finish line. If they’re wrong, the consequences are deadly. Refuse to play, and they will all be killed.
This central instrument is key to why this movie is just so goddamn fun. Not only does it allow those involved to give lie to the tired and tokenistic exercises of the entertainment industry, but it also holds a mirror up to identity politics itself, and it’s always hysterical. One second the group is struggling to name black actors who appeared on Friends (with a payoff so perfect I wouldn’t dare spoil it), and the next they’re told to willingly sacrifice the one of them that they perceive as the “most black.” It’s brilliant and essential commentary that also happens to be funny as hell.
It reminded me of one of my first communications classes in college. One day, we had a discussion topic that essentially boiled down to whether or not there was a “proper” way to depict any racial or ethnic group in media. What is the ideal way to portray a group of people to a larger world, particularly if they’re a minority trying to find an audience among the majority market? Is The Cosby Show any more or less “appropriate” than Sanford and Son or Family Matters, for example? Are the stories and jokes any more or less genuine based on who tells them? It was fascinating all those years ago, but the whole thing was sort of taken in a hypothetical vacuum. Here, the characters are literally laying out their racial bona fides, arguing just as adamantly on skin tone and direct lineage to Africa as they are about whether or not they’ve ever seen Friday.
This sort of comedically discerning commentary carries throughout the film. There’s a rich awareness of the trappings all around them, and because the framing device of the story sets the stakes in no uncertain terms, it prevents things from coming off as pure silliness. There’s a real struggle, for instance, when Allison suggests that the group splits up when the killer unlocks the house. She doesn’t know she’s in a movie, but she’s seen a lot of them, and the game itself has told everyone that this is the context we’re dealing with. As such, she has to reconcile the type of scripted logic that always leads to a gruesome death in the media with her own internal logic that ostensibly shows six people versus one threat, and reasons that smaller groups offer a greater chance of survival for the most people. It’s a borderline profound deconstruction while also being downright gut-busting because everyone on both sides of the screen knows the danger, and in a morbidly ironic way it’s almost worth dying in some horrible fashion so long as you don’t go out like a chump who should have seen it coming.
This is where the film derives its thrills, enough to make it worthy of just being a straightforward horror film if it didn’t want to do the comedy. The ability of the entire cast to recognize the contrivances that could lead to their respective dooms is juxtaposed spectacularly with the expectations that come with the genre. As the film’s tagline says, “We can’t all die first,” but does that mean they can also outsmart the tropes and all survive? That’s the suspense, and it plays nearly to perfection thanks to the commitment of the cast and the absolutely sharp writing.
Honestly, there’s only one other manner in which this project gets docked, and it’s one that I sincerely didn’t think I’d have to do. Unfortunately, as great as this movie is, I do have to institute a “Jump Fail” penalty. Given the myriad ways that The Blackening openly mocks some of the cheesier elements of horror, I was really hoping that jump scares would not be a noticeable part of the equation, but sadly, they are, and they’re played straight rather than being part of a larger joke. And for a while, I was genuinely concerned, as the allowance of five was exhausted in the first 20 minutes. Not only were they lame, but it was the same type each time, with one character looking in one direction, seeing something nebulous that creeps them out, only for another character to either startle them from behind or run up to them with a wide-eyed scaredy face. It’s fine if this happens once or twice, but five times in 20 minutes? Fool me once…
Thankfully, the film properly checks itself before it wrecks itself, and after the initial glut, there are only two more bad jump scares, keeping the final grade well above average. This is a ton of fun, and the type of movie you can watch over and over with your friends no matter your racial or ethnic background. If you love scary movies, you’ll love The Blackening. If you love smart comedy, you’ll love The Blackening. If you love meta filmmaking, you’ll love The Blackening. It has some shortcomings, but overall it’s an absolute blast, and if you end up sitting on your couch and yelling at the screen, you can take comfort in knowing that basically everyone involved created this just so you could do exactly that without feeling guilty.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other genres would you like to see given this treatment? How well would you have done in the actual game, regardless of your race? Let me know!