The streaming horror platform Shudder, a part of AMC Networks, recently released its first original documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. Written by Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows, and based on the book of the same name by Robin R. Means Coleman, the film examines the historical portrayal of black people (and caricatures) in horror. It opens with the beginnings of American cinema itself in films like The Birth of a Nation and Night of the Living Dead, follows its story through the rise of the blaxploitation era, and continues through the present day. With interviews by African-American directors, actors and writers, Horror Noire offers a behind-the-scenes look at how difficult it can be not just to make films that break stereotypes, but to get them to audiences.
Horror Noire director Xavier Burgin is a graduate of USC's School of Cinematic Arts. He's directed episodes of the Emmy-nominated Web series Giants and won multiple awards for his screenplays and short films. Burgin spoke to critic Carolyn Hinds about his history with horror, the entwined threads of race and fear, and what he didn't learn in film school.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Carolyn Hinds: Not only is Horror Noire the first film which comprehensively documents the history of black characters in the horror genre — with a black director, writers and interviewees who are black creatives in the genre — it's also the first film of its kind to be made for a site like Shudder. How does it feel to be the first to do a project like this?
Xavier Burgin: You know what's so crazy? I've had folks say that to me, you know like, "Whoa! You've made the first documentary in this type of genre. You directed this first documentary, and it's also the first big thing for Shudder as an original documentary." It's when folks told me that, where I was like "Holy s***! That is what happened." [laughs] For me it was like, "OK, you bring me in, you're making something that deals with horror and blackness, I love it. I want to be a part of this, and you know, I want to make sure I do a great job.
It's kind of overwhelming now to look at it and be like, "We did pioneer something." The team, we pioneered something that was completely new, and we haven't seen before. But literally when we were in the trenches shooting all of the interviews and putting it together, I wasn't thinking about that. I was just thinking about: I want to make sure that what we make is good.
CH: In the film, [writer and educator] Tananarive Due says something that sticks with me, which is that "black history is black horror." And the thing about horror is that we always think of it as fiction and fantasy. But when you're talking about blackness, and how it's portrayed on film, the bad things that happen, particularly in the horror genre, for black people, that's a reality. I watched your short film Other, written by and starring Vanessa Baden Kelly, and what Tananarive said is true. In our daily lives as black people, we don't know what could happen to us when step out our doors, because people hate us simply for the color of our skin. It's one thing to face horror in fiction on screen, but another to be surrounded by it in real life.
XB: Yeah, it's true, and interesting that you bring up Other, because most folks wouldn't even consider Other a horror film, because it's nothing supernatural. The whole thing about it is that to be black in the world, but especially in America, we're dealing with a supremacist government. We're dealing with white supremacists walking the street, donning torches. We're still dealing with so much of the stuff that — so many people thought after Obama, that we were post-racial, and that was just not the case at all. If anything, things got even worse, and I feel, I guess as a black person we're dealing with this on a regular basis.
If we're not in it, and it's not happening to us, we're seeing it, we're hearing about it constantly. So to live in a lot of ways can be horrific, because unfortunately, for a lot of white folks, you're not going to deal with these type of things in the same type of way. You're not going to deal with these type of racial terrors, so you don't see it as horror and it's not something that you are ever going to truly deal with, or that's in your vocabulary, or that's in the lived experience that you're going to have.
I'm not saying — it's not the only thing to blackness, [I'm not saying] the terror and all of that type of stuff is intrinsically black, but it is something we deal with on a regular basis that many other people, especially in America, just don't understand or will never really view in the same that way we do.
CH: One of the most popular films in the last few years is Get Out, which had a huge cultural impact in the black horror genre. Do you think people are becoming more open-minded to listening to black people speak about racism because of Get Out, and that the horror genre is a useful tool to communicate what black people are feeling to audiences?
XB: Well here's what I think: Of course there's been films that deal with race and horror before, but Get Out is the biggest one that has been seen on such a culturally huge landscape. That's made a huge difference. What we really haven't had in horror on a larger scale is looking at it like Get Out, from a racial context in what that horror means. So, what I'm hoping for, not only for myself as I hope I get to make more stuff and I get to go into horror, but also for the black creatives that are doing horror right now — have you had a chance to look at the Horror Noire Syllabus that they put out?
XB: They're putting out all of these people, contemporaries not only from the past but especially now these young black filmmakers who are making horror that is specifically race-based, that deals with what we go through. I think a good example is a filmmaker named Kellee Terrell who did a film [Blame in 2014] about what it means to a have a black boy be a part of, unfortunately, a rape, and how the girl this happened to comes back to haunt the boy's father as he makes the decision to report the boy or not. His son. And that to me is huge right there, because you never [had] something like that, and that is a part of contextualized horror, and we need to see more of this on a larger scale because horror just hasn't dealt with it.
I'm hoping that we're going to see more films that delve into this type of horror, because right now in a lot of ways, Get Out is the only horror film that's been seen in this context, on a larger scale.
CH: Your documentary is a phenomenon itself on social media, especially Twitter. There are a lot of people who don't watch documentaries, but when you have a film like this that is used as a launchpad for how race is discussed in film, I think that's a pretty big deal too.
XB: You're 100 percent right. I'm trying not to brag, or anything like that.
CH: No, brag away, you and your team did an amazing job.
XB: [laughs] You're 100 percent right. To have a documentary that specifically deals with this, that goes into this type of genre, that opens up this stuff — we literally now have folks that are going back and watching Demon Knight (Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, 1995), or going back and watching Ganja & Hess, or they're going back and watching Blacula. So, they're finally getting a taste of what black creatives within the genre having been trying to talk about, for a long time, and I think that's huge. When I came into this, I wanted to make a documentary that black folks felt good about, first and foremost. That's what mattered to me above all else, and it's only a huge grace and happiness that it's resonating beyond that, because that's necessary as well.
CH: You've won awards for your short films and scripts, you've worked on the series Giants, which is available through Issa Rae's Color Creative, but what was it like working with the people you spoke to for a project like this?
XB: Honestly it was humbling, because I watched Rusty Cundieff's Tales from the Hood when I was younger. I watched Ernest Dickerson's work, I've seen Mississippi Damned, I've seen Blacula when I was younger. But it was my first time really getting to really know [Blacula director] William Crain.
I'll put it like this: One of the most important things to me when I was doing this documentary, was you know – of course I was behind the scenes watching the camera, making sure everything looked great. But to actually get to hear William Crain talk about being a director in the early '70s, as a 23-year-old black man, making this type of film and all the pushback he was getting, was absolutely illuminating. Because honestly, and I hate to even say this, I don't think he got the career he deserved, because even though he got to make his film, he didn't get to make as much stuff as he should have. That spoke to the racial dynamics of the time, and how really it's only now truly — like from the '90s and up — but really now we're starting to see more folks saying "OK, black films, black creatives are important and we need to get them on the screen."
So, to hear these folks that basically pioneered the way, which I hope to push forward myself not only with the documentary, but with my narrative stuff, is humbling. It's crazy to hear their stories and know that they were the building blocks, and we still have so much more to be done within the horror genre, and then all other genres as well when it comes to getting or voices out there.
CH: Is there something that you learned or thought of about blackness and how it relates to film that you never thought of before while making Horror Noire?
XB: If I had to say anything that I got that was new for me, was really digging into the history, and how integral black folks have been in the horror genre, but also in film. I literally did not know that were these two filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, doing this type of work back in the early 1900s. I went to film school at USC, the No. 1 film school in the nation, and this type of information that I was getting from — the pioneers like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams doing this all the way back when, that was something I did not know until I did this film. Which to me — I'm happy I know now — it's a travesty that as a black filmmaker, this wasn't being taught to me in the avenues of the school's institutions that I was learning film from.
CH: And that has to do with who the people are that are the instructors. If I'm going to be blunt, if it's mostly white people who are making the curriculum, they are not going to think about the things that are important to black students, or Latinx, or Asian-American students. And that's why films like Horror Noire are important, because they encourage people to do research for themselves.
XB: Yeah, 100 percent. When I look back at USC and going to film school, it's one of the best experiences that I've had. I learned so much about how to direct, how to write and all that type of stuff, but the majority of the ... I think I had two black professors.
One was a screenwriting professor, and the other one was an editing professor, who was one of seven professors within a certain class. But it was two of the ... what, 20 to 25 courses or more that I took? And that's a problem. Because that means I'm not going to get perspectives and ideals that I need from this because, not saying that white folks can't do stuff outside of their own wheelhouse, but they're going to focus on the type of things that they see as important. If it's mostly white folks in an institution, things are just going to lean white, that's just what's going to happen regardless.
CH: Was there any particular horror film that was part of your decision to become a director?
XB: When it comes to horror, I can tell you the film that I remember the most is one with Laurence Fishburne, Event Horizon, an old-school horror film back in the '90s that I watched as a kid and it just freaked me the hell out. I don't know why my parents let me watch that, but I did, and it's one of the things I always kept in mind within the horror genre when I was coming back to it. But just as a person coming into film, I'll be honest: It was a case of me back in college saying, I know writing, I've done this.
But I'm a black boy from Mississippi, from Alabama, so nobody was even really telling me that film or doing something creative could be the route that I was on. My family said, "You could be a teacher, doctor, engineer," things to that degree. So, it really wasn't until I hit college, and I took one of these classes where I made a horrible film — and I'll never show it to folks — but it made me realize that "Oh, this is an avenue that I can take," and that was all the way back in 2010. That's when I started pushing myself to say, "Film is the route that I want to go." It's been almost a decade when I realized this is what I want to do, the route I want to take to get my voice out there.