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'Our art is the most policed': NYCC Black filmmakers panel on 'difficulty rating' of making horror

By Nivea Serrao
Black Horror Movies

From Lovecraft Country on HBO to director Nia DaCosta's highly anticipated reboot of Candyman, the success of Jordan Peele's Academy Award-winning horror film Get Out, and his follow-up Us, has led to a wave of projects that center the Black experience within the horror genre, while also tackling the very real subject of racism.

Today's New York Comic Con panel on "The State of Black Horror Post-Get Out" dug into this, with Entertainment Weekly staff writer Chancellor Agard moderating a conversation between filmmakers Justin Simien (Bad Hair), Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (Antebellum), and Rusty Cundieff (Tales from the Hood 3) discussing their choices to venture into the genre, how they approached depicting things like racism and slavery, and the added difficulty of being a Black horror director. 

For Dear White People creator Justin Simien, the decision to make horror movie Bad Hair was a natural one. Sure, it was inspired by Korean and Japanese hair horror films, but it was also tied into a very real cultural element for Black people. 

"I thought it was odd that there was no American version of that [the use of hair as a horror motif]," said Simien of his upcoming film, which sees a Black woman get a weave in order to get ahead in the world of music television in 1989, only to discover her newly-acquired hair has a mind of its own. "Hair is an actual element of horror for Black people." 

For Simien, it was clear from the beginning that the project had to center around a Black woman, so he specifically sought out his Black female friends from the film and television industry so that he could discuss their experiences, and get the "very specific horrors" of their experience right, while still telling a story that had what he describes as a "bit of a queer sensibility." 

"As a gay Black man, I was raised by Black women. I saw what they go through just to be on the radar of society," explained Simien. "To me, there was a lot that could be said about that in a fun entertaining movie, [while] also shedding a light on what is a horrific experience for a lot of people."

Gerard Bush, one of the co-directors of the Janelle Monae-starring Antebellum, felt there was a lot of room within the genre to both push the envelope and also strike an emotional chord with audiences. 

"When you're dealing with the issue of race in America, so much of that as it relates to the Black experience is as psychological as it is physical as it is spiritual and environmental," said the director, whose nightmare the movie is based on. "[So] horror seemed like a genre that had the most options for us, in terms of being able to explore this subject."

One of the things they didn't shy away from was depicting the violence and brutality of slavery within their film, one of the major critiques the movie has faced since its release on video on demand a few weeks ago. 

"We wanted to have a meaningful conversation. We weren't looking to create something milquetoast [or] something that was entertainment for entertainment's sake," said Bush. "It was crucial that we get this 'medicine' out and we bury the 'medicine' within the thrill, so we could have a conversation about it and move towards action as it relates to race in America." 

He went on to add, "The brutality of slavery and what that means, it was important that we at least give you some idea of what that experience must have been. It's the tip of the iceberg in terms of the research that we did. It doesn't even come close to what our ancestors faced at the time. But what we're trying to say in it, is as much as you think things are changing, the white supremacy is simply hibernating [and] evolving and preparing to attack at a time when you don't expect it." 

Rusty Cundieff, the director of the Tales From the Hood series — which Simien actually credits as a having inspired him — agreed with this, recalling some of the push back the first two films in that series received for their commentary on both Trump and the police. "You just have to go with your gut and go with what you believe, because you're going to get push back politically and socially... You really have to go with the story you want to tell and let the conversations be damned." 

He went on to address some of the critiques that Black directors sometimes face regarding incorporating difficult topics within their work, with some viewers wishing they would either stick to comedy or horror, without touching on other issues. 

"If you have something in your heart. You should say it," Cundieff explained. "There's tons of horror movies and movies that deal with absolutely nothing."

Bush agreed, stating that Black filmmakers are often subjected to more scrutiny than their white peers. 

"Our art in particular is the most policed. It is over-critiqued. There's an expectation around what we say, how we say it, when we say it, that has a difficulty rating that is much more arduous than what other filmmakers and artists have to go through," said the director. "But that's part of what makes the art so special. I hope that in the future these stories that have the audacity to be expressed how they want to be expressed... hopefully, by us doing movies and shows like this, we're opening up the world to say, 'let's stop placing limitations on the kinds of stories we can tell."

Simien also agreed, reflecting on how their work can impact audiences and what that means for the future of the genre. 

"The fact is that in this country we are not allowed, we are not shown the way to really confront our past, and so it stays with us," said the director. "It's a tight rope to walk because these movies are bringing up trauma in audiences in a way they've never experienced in a movie before because they've never seen a movie with people like them in it, dealing with things that are horrific in their lives. And so in that way Black movies are experimental. Who knows where our involvement in this film and genre is going to take it. I don't think there's any way to anticipate it. We need the experience to get in that thing and figure out where it's going."   

Tales From the Hood 3 premieres Oct. 17 on SYFY. Bad Hair arrives Oct. 23 on Hulu. Antebellum is available to stream on VOD. 

Click here for SYFY WIRE's full coverage of New York Comic Con Metaverse 2020.