Dir. Tim Story (2022)
A group of friends gather in a remote cabin to celebrate Juneteenth, where a mysterious killer threatens them in a series of racially-charged attacks.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Socially-aware horror movies are becoming more and more commonplace, rising from relative obscurity on the back of Jordan Peele and some of the best social horror films ever made. With a few exceptions, these films tend to stray away from more comedic takes on the genre, perhaps afraid that their tongue-in-cheek commentaries will instead come off as disingenuous at best and skewering at worst. If it's done right, it can be incredibly effective: The Menu, which took aim at millennials and the uber-wealthy, was brilliant and hilarious while also being incredibly disturbing. If done poorly... well, that's how you end up pissing a lot of people off. Thankfully, The Blackening toes the line of offensive humor while being entirely self-aware, showing that yes, sometimes it's ok to poke a little fun.
Friends Allison (Grace Byers), King (Melvin Gregg), Shanika (X Mayo), Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins), Lisa (Antoinette Robertson), and Nnamdi (Sinqua Wells) have gathered together to celebrate Juneteenth, a reunion of college friends with plans to play Spades and party down with an assortment of drugs and a competitive spirit. Joining them is outcast Clifton (Jermaine Fowler), a "friend" that no one remembers inviting and who appears decidedly "less black" than the other attendees. After the group discovers a racist board game in the basement that threatens them with death if they are unable to establish their blackness through a series of pop culture questions, they are attacked by masked men with crossbows and discover their weekend isn't going to go nearly as planned.
The killers at the heart of the film lack a readily-apparent motivation throughout most of the film. Can we assume that they're racists out to kill the first black folks they've seen in a while? Are they just killers irrespective of skin color? Or do they perhaps have different motivations, ones that fall in line more with a standard slasher film and not a retread of Birth of a Nation? Thankfully, The Blackening is smarter than that while still being wholly ridiculous, introducing a last-act complication that lampoons its own points. By refusing to "make it racial," writers Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins sidestep the biggest potential pitfall in the film by making it a commentary and a caricature rather than an indictment.
It's a clever film, though the humor doesn't always hit. I hesitate to comment too much on that part, as I'm a white dude who very well could've missed some of the humor simply due to not being a part of that culture. When it hit for me, though, it was laugh-out-loud funny and over-the-top ridiculous all at the same time. The gore is actually surprisingly decent, with some shocking moments of violence that fit well within the story. The social commentary is on-point as well, with one character's blackness being questioned because he voted for Trump... twice.
I was intrigued by the premise of a horror movie taking place on Juneteenth. After all, we have plenty of holiday-themed horror films, and tons of good ones at that. While I wouldn't say this would be a definitive Juneteenth horror film, as that honor most decidedly would go to Get Out out of the current choices for the day, it's an interesting and well-fleshed out take on the social horror comedy genre that never gets as much love as it deserves. This isn't a film that you need to watch over and over again, but it's definitely worth a watch once.
Who this movie is for: Social horror fans, Horror comedy lovers, Fresh Prince superfans
Bottom line: From the moment in the trailer where the Sambo-based board game is revealed, you know that you're in for an irreverent horror comedy with something to say. The Blackening seeks to be a less-silly Scary Movie with a few legitimate scares along the way, and it accomplishes its tasks fairly well. It's got some decent gore, better-than-average acting, and it refrains from the mistakes that these types of movies often make by seeking to incriminate any who don't belong to the chosen group. It's funny, even with its predictable twist, and it's well worth a watch for horror comedy fans.