It’s a holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, Morgan and Shawn preparing their rented cabin in the woods for the arrival of their friends, a Juneteenth reunion weekend of drink, drugs, games, conversation and catching up derailed when the couple are lured into a previously unnoticed games room where they are challenged to play The Blackening, an obscenely racist game where Shawn’s forfeit when he fails the first round his summary execution by crossbow.
The others arriving to find the cabin waiting but their hosts missing, Allison, Shanika, Lisa, King, Nnamdi, and Deawayne the invited guests with Clifton the awkward hanger on Shankia bumped into at the convenience store, settling in they are also drawn to the games room and challenged to play, but working together are able to respond correctly, taking the game to further stages where they choose to make their own rules and fight back.
The fact that all the leads are black only fuelling their conviction that they might all be expendable, The Blackening is sharply directed by Fantastic Four’s Tim Story from a witty script by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins who also plays his namesake, with Grace Byers, X Mayo, Antoinette Robertson, Melvin Gregg, Sinqua Walls and Jermaine Flower refusing to stay within the lines of their consciously stereotypical characters.
The horror genre too often relying on the characters acting not only like they are not aware that they are participating in a horror film but that they have never seen one, The Blackening plays it differently with the ensemble fully conscious not only of how a horror film unfolds but the life expectancy of any black supporting character, a curtailed and marginalised existence confirmed when none of them can name a black character who survives a horror movie.
A group of old friends who know each other’s flaws and failures desperately seeking any advantage, the gamemaster seems to know them better, setting them against each other and exploiting their triggers, and unusually for a horror all the characters seem genuinely afraid, struggling through to survive with their frazzled wits and what weapons can be found in the cabin or wrestled from their masked assailant, their isolation magnified by the awareness that the authorities have a history of assigning guilt based on the skin colour.
The Blackening working as well as it does because unlike the scattershot approach of Scary Movie with its wide-ranging targets and blunt-instrument approach it could have been played straight and still worked effectively, though not nearly as enjoyably, the comedy is as black as the cast and as vicious as the killings even as it scores hits with the points it makes about being black – or any minority – in modern America in real life and in media representation.
The Blackening is on general release from Wednesday 23rd August