When is the Horror of Oppression not a Horror? Never.
There is an interesting thing happening in film lately. It is interesting if you are interested in film, and it is interesting if you are interested in how the US looks at talks about itself…even if you are not interested in film. That thing that I refer to is the use of the horror genre as serious social commentary.
Horror has always been my least favored genre in film. I don’t even care much to describe it now, except for how it has grown up in its more recent incarnation. Horror has always blended well with comedy, and action, but rarely has it ever blended well with credible drama, or serious socio-political themes. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” changed things for me in 2017. Many of you have probably seen the film, directed by and written by Peele, and some of you still may not. If you haven’t, and if you have any interest in the times that we are living in now, in 2020, “Get Out” would be a good place to start.
“Get Out” uses horror as commentary on the status of racial oppression in modern society. It is clever, and thought provoking, but it is only a appetizer in what is becoming a feast of artistic expression in screen plays written and directed by Black artists. And while I think the fact that these films that I am about to mention are directed by Black artists, it is not essential. There have been films like, “Do the Right Thing”, directed and written by Spike Lee, which contributed a chapter to the conversation of race which will last forever, but did not use horror as its genre. And others, like, “The Good Lord Bird”, may not use a Black director, but do use the horror genre to make a certain editorial point.
For the purpose of this discussion, this new direction in horror involves, “The Good Lord Bird”, and “Lovecraft Country.” Technically, they are not films, per se. They are mini-series. That may be just one of the ways that film is changing. Everything from the economics of streaming to the pandemic, and the viability of the studios, and cinema companies is bringing change to the actual substance of films and film making that we grew accustomed to in the middle and late 20th centuries. At the very least, streaming has changed all of that. Add to that the Coronavirus pandemic that we are currently experiencing, and the change is all the more significant.
As mini-series, these works of art have considerably more time to address themes than a two hour film, consumed all in one setting, and that may have something to o do with the differences in how themes are addressed. Whatever the causes, the result is that aspects of the perspective of minority culture is coming to light. It is being displayed, witness, and hopefully beginning to be understood.
So much of what ethnic minorities experience in the US today is overlooked. There is a certain invisible aspect of being outside of dominant culture to the extent that minorities are. In 2020 America, we stand stride both in multiple ways, but we tend to be only seen an understood in the ways that reflect dominant culture in “colorblind” ways, and misunderstood or not at all understood in ways that are culture specific.
Have you ever ridden a roller coaster? Most of us have. For a minute or two, it is amusing, possibly even thrilling. One might wait in a long line to ride one, and then get back in line to do it a second time. But, if that ride lasted ten minutes, it would probably become uncomfortable, if not actually dangerous. The slow rise of the ascent, and the sudden drops become predictable, and injury and whiplash could start to set in. Ridden for hours, or even days could be even worse. Year after year, decade after decade, the centuries roll…still on that same roller coaster…just a bunch of smelly corpses. By then, it is an awful picture. Horror.
That is what the unseen experience is like in the US, and why it is so clever to have commentary with a horror theme. It fits for the unseen and the unheard. In “Get Out”, the viewer has the experience that, yes, it is like horror. You watch the Black characters experience the horror, and the white perpetrators seemingly unaware of the injury that they are causing, or just unconcerned. The ones who do seem aware of the injury that they are causing make one wonder if they are sadists. Welcome to everyday America. Are they sadists? I began to wonder that just a few years ago. It has come to that. “The heart of darkness.” “The horror.”
With “The Good Lord Bird”, and “Lovecraft Country”, this use of horror has taken a fascinating turn. This is especially so for the American film viewer. This use of horror brilliantly combines a development of drama. At any particular moment, the viewer is caught in the process of a drama rather than horror. It proceeds like a drama, and we become invested in the characters like a drama, rather than animated bags of meat that populate the typical horror film. Horror works in these horror/dramas like a metered march toward a certain conclusion. In the context of historical events, the outcome for the minority participant has no hope of deus ex machina. There will be no special surprise to save the protagonist, no matter how brave. The social environment that they are in does not offer hope. The plot proceeds toward humiliation and destruction. Check that. The only refuge from humiliation is to go bravely toward one’s destruction with one’s principles intact. The destruction is still certain.
After watching one of the episodes of either of these two recent mini-series, I begin to ponder anew how brilliantly the steady march of horror makes its point. It is a subtle change, like sea salt on a chocolate chip cookie…but it makes all the difference. There is an oh, I get it moment. As subtle as some oppression may seem from the outside, it can be absolutely horrific. In the most recent episode of “The Good Lord Bird”, an enslaved woman is put on trial because she is suspected of being part of a plot to escape slavery, and destroy the small town where she is enslaved. She is turned in by another Black woman, and she is condemned to hanging, and then hanged. She is put up on a gallows with 7 other enslaved Black people, and when they place the noose around her neck, and tighten it, she doesn’t wait for the trapdoor to drop. She just walked off the edge of the platform and died. (Oops, spoiler alert). The point they drive home is that there is no escaping the horror. They build it. They talk about it. They put you in it. Then they execute it. (Hello George Floyd and 2020 Minneapolis.)
There are no shades of meaning, or qualifying messages in the sadists utterances. It is pure, unadulterated, purposeful hate . (Hello George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin). It is more than a relief to not see the hate message explained, or justified. It is liberating to not see the actions sanitized. I generally dislike the horror genre, and, rather dislike depictions of gore, but as it represents the unremitting, consistent murder of the physical and philosophical existence of minority culture in America, it is a hallelujah moment.
Now, one last thought regarding horror film. It occurred to me yesterday that I have seen horror used as social commentary before. And it is fascinating for its similarities and its differences. That previous experience was with the “Planet of the Apes” 1968 version. In that film, of which you are probably all familiar, a great deal of the theme involves the subject of race. In that film, the world is upside down because Apes dominate and humans are oppressed. The end (spoiler alert) has a now famous twist where the main character played by Charleston Heston is riding on the beach, on a horse, with a woman that he met during the story. The symbols of virility and success, moving along, now free from their oppression, and then they suddenly discover the partially destroyed Statue of Liberty. It dawns on Heston’s character that he has not been on another planet all along, but back on Earth…after a nuclear holocaust. The horror is realized because humanity and the culture has been annihilated. As he realizes the horror, the character speaks. He says, “oh, my God. I’m back. I’m home. All the time. You finally really did it. You murderers! You blew it up!”
Now, what does he mean by “it” when he says, “you blew it up”? Is he talking about the statue that he is looking at? Probably not. That’s not how I take it. Is he talking about Liberty Island, on which the statue sits? I don’t think so. Maybe he means New York City. Plausible, but probably not. From the perspective of culture, history, and social commentary, he doesn’t mean just the city. The way I take it is that they “blew up” enough that it destroyed civilization on the planet. They blew up the world. The horror! Although, he does not actually say that. It must be understood, inferred from the context of horror. This
In “Lovecraft Country” and “The Good Lord Bird”, it is fascinating how the genre has advanced from just another way to tell a story about White people, to social commentary from a truly horrific perspective. I recommend them both. I also recommend that when Lindsey Graham says, Black people…you can do…whatever, that you see it from the horror perspective of the people who he is addressing than from one that communicates the least possible malice. Racism in this country has been, and remains a horror experience. A very significant aspect of the horror is the inability of some to see it.
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