Here’s a film that really hit me with a reminder of how things differ between inspiration, promotion, and reception. The Blackening comes from a place that makes sense to me – a horror-comedy designed to interrogate Black characters’ roles in those spaces. From a marketing angle, the choice was simple – poke fun at the trope that the “black guy always dies first,” which is inaccurate and a more complicated discussion. Fortunately, this review will focus on my reaction to the film, which is far more positive than expected. With a sharp script, lots of laughs, and an enjoyable ensemble cast, The Blackening sits strong as a horror-comedy made up of Black characters with a great eye on how to play things broadly and cleverly.
The setup is as basic as it gets for a classic horror scenario. A group of friends travels to a cabin in the woods for a college reunion celebration. There are varying amounts of drama concerning some of these people based on the ending of past relationships and the friendship status of others. After settling in, circumstances lead this group of friends to a back room containing a board game called “The Blackening.” As it turns out, there is a sociopath behind this game who uses it as a challenge to test this group’s degrees of Blackness to determine which of them will die first.
Given the title, it’s not as though The Blackening is a subtle film. I can say more about the references made, but the board game design features an old-fashioned (i.e., racist) caricature at its center, and the killer wears a blackface mask that is designed to be triggering. It’s very purposeful but speaks to how this film wants to handle its messaging. All the humor that comes through is rooted in significant commentary concerning how people of color are treated in horror movies and media in general.
Not hurting is how personal The Blackening wants to get regarding the various friendships. While there’s a heightened element involving the comedy and horror of it all, the script by Tracy Oliver and Dwayne Perkins (who also co-stars in the film) takes the foundation seriously. That may lead to more bickering between friends than needed when watching a movie about a masked killer wielding a crossbow, but it shows how this film is not just a complete joke from start to finish.
Okay, but how about the comedy? Yes, this movie is often hilarious. Jermaine Fowler is perhaps the most out-and-out funny because he plays against type, adopts a certain kind of vocal performance, and says the most ridiculous lines. Still, this cast, as a whole, shines. It helps that they arrive as real types of people, not just joke machines, even with the plentiful one-liners from X Mayo and Perkins or deeper bits from Yvonne Orji, Jay Pharoah, and Melvin Gregg.
The Blackening is really cooking most when it has these characters playing the game and dealing with the questions at hand. Going into the darker-skinned Aunt Viv vs. the lighter-skinned Aunt Viv from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or discussing how many black characters were featured on Friends allows for so many funny lines to bounce back and forth. Still, even outside the realm of Black-themed pop culture, the movie has more on its mind.
There’s never a choice to dial back on the Blackness to keep all audiences caught up. The game of spades comes up quite a bit, but this film has no desire to stop and explain how to play, let alone dig into the origins of the Black national anthem. This very much feels like a Black horror film from the post-Get Out era that doesn’t need to dumb down what it’s going for, at least when it comes to the comedy. The Blackening can be silly just as well as it can play things smarter.
Director Tim Story is at the helm and is likely the film’s weakest aspect. I respect Story for being a Black filmmaker who has managed to create four separate film franchises (Barbershop, Think Like a Man, Ride Along, and Fantastic Four). However, his efforts tend to suffer outside of getting good work from ensemble casts. With The Blackening, I just wish he had a better sense of how to deliver on the horror element. This may not be a movie that wants to emphasize the gore (this is a pretty tame film, all things considered), but it could still use a lot more help when it came to developing higher tension and generating stronger scares.
I would go as far as to say this movie isn’t as brutal as it could be. Sure, I like this ensemble and wouldn’t want to see them broken up all that significantly, but that’s also part of the point, right? I shouldn’t want these characters to die, but if the film pushed harder in that way, raising the stakes in the process, it could have allowed for a stronger result. However, without getting into where this story goes, I can see benefits in how things play out, especially in a world where follow-up entries are never out of the question with horror.
With all of that said, The Blackening is an enjoyable experience, regardless of whatever minor flaws I see. It has the laughs and the wits to deliver something that nails its commentary while also just being a lot of fun. This is a strong cast, and their interactions are frequent highlights. As a film happy to examine tropes, flip them around, and dig in on relating other aspects of Blackness to horror and otherwise, there’s plenty to take in when it comes to a solid horror-comedy, regardless of who dies first.