‘The Blackening’ Review: Tim Story Centers The Black Gaze In Horror Comedy Written By Tracy Oliver

The Blackening is a potent blend of comedy, and thrills that parodies and challenges the genre’s tropes, specifically those around a mostly Black cast. Under the direction of Tim Story and script by Tracey Oliver, it pays homage to some iconic horror franchises like Scream, Friday the 13th, and Saw with a bit of Cabin In The Woods sprinkled in for some extra razzle dazzle. In the midst of the chaotic hijinks, the narrative centers Black American culture and all of its complexities. The film stars Jermaine Fowler, Antoinette Robertson, Dewayne Perkins, Sinqa Walls, Grace Byers, X Mayo, Melvin Gregg, with Yvonne Orji, and Jay Pharoah. 

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The story starts at a cabin in the woods like most horror movies these days. Morgan (Orji) and Shawn (Pharoah), a couple who are a part of a group of college friends reuniting after 10 years. The plan is to vacation together and have a grand ole party.  When the two find a game called the Blackening in one of the back rooms, they get curious. Equipt with a sambo-faced timer, play pieces, and voice over, the duo gets curious and engages with the game. The first question is: “Name a Black character that survives any horror film.” They answer the question wrong, so now there is hell to pay. 

The rest of the group Lisa (Robertson), Nnamdi (Walls), Dewayne (Perkins), Allison (Byers), Shanika (Mayo), King (Gregg) and Clifton (Fowler) arrives much later, and made sure to bring all their personal baggage with them. Lisa and Nnamdi are in a relationship again after being broken up for 10 years and Dwanye is upset they’re back together, King is trying to leave his gangster past behind, Shanika and Allison, just want to drink and get high, while Cliffton, the nerd of the group,  just wants to fit in. They also stumble upon The Blackening game and let their curiosity get the better of them and they get trapped into a deadly game of Cat and Mouse. The group must now rely on their wit  to stay alive. Their life-or-death predicament also triggers introspection about their beliefs on race and identity.

Culture and friendships form the crux of the narrative, presenting an ensemble of homies ready to risk all for one another. The premise of camaraderie is particularly relevant in these divisive times which shows what togetherness does and does not look like. For example, look at Clifton as a character. He’s a Black republican who voted for Trump twice, and he can’t play the Spades card game, which makes the group weary of him, so he’s used to represent those more nuanced relationships among the community. 

Oliver’s script partnered with Story’s direction, capture the culture through an unapologetically Black lens. The characters’ use of African American vernacular, along with body language that are particular to the Black experiences which is always a refreshing change from typical Hollywood offerings. What really sets the film apart is its humor that doesn’t compromise its poignant message for cheap laughs. The comedic bits disarms the audiences, making them more susceptible to the film’s deeper themes.

The Blackening cleverly weaves humor with introspective points on Blackness in the American context. There is a spectrum, there is no one way that Blackness operates, and the viewer sees how that manifests, especially within a group of people under duress. Black culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the characters examine that externally and internally. The revelations that come from this examination are applied to the group toolbox of survival skills to use against the killer. 

Oliver’s script also makes a point to showcase the heroes can be someone other than a cis-straight man. Black women, fat Black women, and Queer  individuals who are frequently sidelined in mainstream media are empowered here as they exhibit strength, intelligence, and resourcefulness to become the ultimate saviors.

The Blackening is hands-down one of the best comedies of the year. The combined and balanced elements of comedy, horror, and insightful social commentary will have folks talking about the film long after its over. 

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