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8 Jul 2023


NextImg:Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Blackening’ on VOD, an Uproarious Comedy Skewering Horror Tropes Via the Black Experience

Where to Stream:

The Blackening

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The Blackening (now streaming on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video) spoofs the living shit out of horror movies, much to our delight – and frankly does it in a far more refreshing manner than the recent Scream movies. In this case, the main hub of spoofery is the longstanding trope that Black characters in slasher films always die first, but what happens if ALL the characters are Black? That opens the door to the type of social commentary that screenwriters Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins fold into this smart, consistently amusing satire. 

The Gist: Nice CABIN in the WOODS you’ve rented there! It’s nestled far enough from anything that nobody will hear screaming, should it happen to occur, and has a dark creepy basement and a “game room” that probably weren’t in the Airbnb description. Shawn (Jay Pharaoh) and Morgan (Yvonne Orji) are there first, decorating for the Juneteenth party that’ll also serve as a reunion of their college friends. They find the game room, and it’s actually pretty cool, a cozy spot lined with shelves full of Monopoly and Etch A Sketch and other fun stuff, and a table with a board game out and ready to play: The Blackening. At the center is a racist “sambo” face that not only speaks Black history trivia questions, but somehow is capable of replying to Shawn and Morgan. Curious! None of this is not unsettling in the least, and before you can tell them to SCREAM or GET OUT, a creepy figure in a mask – a disfigured version of the “sambo” face – emerges to get all murdery on ’em.

So there’s your cold open. I’m not spoiling anything, promise. The millisecond you saw those people you knew they were doomed. That’s how these movies work, and this movie takes how these movies work and skewers them just like the antagonist fires crossbow bolts at the protagonists. Speaking of which, there are seven more: Allison (Grace Byers), who’s always been the butt of jokes because her father is White and her mother is Black. Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins) is pissed at Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) because she’s his bestie, yet hasn’t told him that she’s back with her ex Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), who used to cheat on her back in the day. King (Melvin Gregg) is a reformed gangbanger, now settled down and married to a White woman. Shanika (X Mayo) is the funny one, always quick with the one-liners. And Clifton (Jermaine Fowler) is the neeerrrrrdddd with thick glasses, and who invited him, anyway? Shrugs all around.

We hang out with these folks for a while, getting to know them as they get high and play cards and catch up and see old grudges reemerge, even though they’re a decade on from that crap and probably should be past it by now. Oh, and they also wonder where Morgan and Shawn are, but they must be somewhere else or maybe hiding so they can f— with everyone, which is how they start explaining away the weird things that are happening. Like, say, doors locking on their own, specifically the one to the game room where sits The Blackening, with the disgusting face that compels everyone to put their heads together and name five Black actors who guest-starred on Friends (that’s a tough one). And of course the masked guy shows up to stalk them just as the molly is kicking in. At this point, if you pause the movie and start the pool to see who dies and in what order, well, that’s the big overarching thematic joke of the movie – a joke that very well may be on you.

'The Blackening'
Photo: Everett Collection

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Scary Movie movies – which may not have aged well, but may nevertheless see a revival of interest after The Blackening – are the jumping-off point for a bevy of nods to self-aware horror flicks like The Cabin in the Woods, Scream and Get Out, and less self-aware ones like Saw and Friday the 13th. But the ideal double-feature pairing for it is Bodies Bodies Bodies, another incisively witty genre spoof.

Performance Worth Watching: Perkins gives himself some of the best lines here, ranging from “I’m gonna need so much therapy if I get through this!” to “I’ve never been so happy to see a White savior!” 

Memorable Dialogue: Nnamdi probes King about his marriage:

Nnamdi: You’re really in the sunken place!

King: Balls deep.

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: The Blackening funnels the Black experience through broad comedy by way of skewering shopworn horror tropes, and it’s hard to tell what penetrates deeper – the bad guy’s crossbow darts, or all these flinty one-liners. The film begins with a cold open introducing the appalling board-game premise, shifts to a lightly character-driven gabfest with hints of comedy, then stomps on the gas as chaos ensues. The intensity, suspense and jokes ramp up, as do many metaphors for and references to the Black experience, some delivered with a knowing wink, others more plainspoken. 

None of this means the film is inaccessible to any audience, though. When its characters quip about how stupid they are for splitting up, or deliver the “Save yourself!” line followed up by “I didn’t mean it!”, it treads ground very similar to Scream. Its freshness derives from shrewdly coded jokes – although some of it is flat-out commentary – delivered, and surely received, with knowing recognition (the Blackening “sambo” face’s toughest question? “Who among you is the Blackest?”). Beyond that, a committed and consistently funny cast gets to wink and play within genre cliches, from jump scares to convenient power outages and the lone White cop who shows up on the scene to not make anyone feel even a single iota safer. Actually, they do more than just wink and play – they kick the crap out of those cliches, none more deserving than the one dictating when Black people are supposed to die. 

Our Call: The Blackening is horror-comedy with intelligence to match its wit. STREAM IT.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.