Director Tim Story’s slasher The Blackening has a killer premise: if all of the characters are Black, who dies first? In the adaptation of 3peat’s Comedy Central short, co-writers Dewayne Perkins and Tracy Oliver strand a group of friends at a remote cottage in the woods for Juneteenth (yes holiday horror!). Unbeknownst to them, the weekend is more than just a reunion: they’re being pitted against a Machiavellian game master intent on deciphering their level of Blackness in order to kill them in the appropriate order.
While the film isn’t Scream levels of meta, The Blackening fuses social commentary about the Black experience in contemporary America with slasher conventions in a highly entertaining fashion. It doesn’t hurt that the characters are extremely likable – to the point that when the bloodshed begins, you worry for their survival because no one is expendable.
Reuniting for a weekend of Spades and drinking after a ten-year gap, the group is made up of lawyer Lisa (Antoinette Robertson), her former boyfriend (and current secret lover) Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), and her gay best friend Dwayne (Perkins) who still hasn’t forgiven Nnamdi for breaking Lisa’s heart back in college. There’s also lovable drunk Shanika (X Mayo), dancer King (Melvin Gregg), slightly neurotic light-skinned Allison (Grace Byers) and awkward outcast Clifton (Jermaine Fowler).
The group’s history has already been unpacked on the road and at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque gas station long before the group arrives at the palatial deserted cabin in the woods. They’re welcomed by possibly racist Officer White (Diedrich Bader)…who is white (one of the film’s more on-the-nose jokes), then explore the house, which has no shortage of locked and/or hidden rooms.
It takes a while before the group realizes that they’re down a few friends: the ones who organized the weekend, Morgan and Shawn (Yvonne Orji and Jay Pharaoh), have been MIA all afternoon (they’re dead, of course, having died in the cold open).
The plot kicks into gear when the group discovers a large game room whose centerpiece is a table featuring ‘The Blackening,’ a board game with a talking centerpiece in Jim Crow-inspired blackface. When they get locked in and Saw-esque instructions are provided by the diabolical character via the television, the game begins and their knowledge of Black culture – from the two Aunt Vivs on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to five Black actors who guested on Friends – is tested. Mess up a question and the results are fatal.
While the kills in The Blackening are decent and the killer’s choice of weapon (a crossbow) is novel, it’s the comedy and camaraderie between the friends that make the film stand out. Not only do these characters fight and support each other as real friends do, but Perkins and Oliver’s script is also filled to the brim with smart, savvy jokes. The film is legitimately hilarious, tackling everything from obvious stereotypes to ingrained cultural prejudice within the group. This includes Allison’s frustration when her friends selectively reference her biracial status, King’s (never seen) wife is frequently described as “white” (she’s Armenian), and Nnamdi is deemed the most Black because his father is from Africa (he, meanwhile, was born in Oakland).
There are no weak links in the cast, but as the loudest characters with the biggest personalities, Mayo and Perkins stand out in a crowded field. Watching Shanika clap back against the stereotype that she can’t swim, or inadvertently feed Allison Aderall instead of a pain killer (and then apologize for the rest of the film) is extremely funny. Ditto Perkins who manages to execute Dwayne’s emotional friendship arc as easily as he drops trou to dance for his friends when the Molly hits.
There are likely many other jokes that hit differently for Black audiences, but the reality is that The Blackening is an all-around crowd-pleaser that will work for everyone. The humour is successful, the violence is fun and frequently cheeky, and the characters are loveable. In a slasher film, that’s saying a lot!
The Blackening premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.