The Blackening, 2023.
Directed by Tim Story.
Starring Antoinette Robertson, Sinqua Walls, Dewayne Perkins, X Mayo, Melvin Gregg, Grace Byers, Jermaine Fowler, Diedrich Bader, Yvonne Orji, and Jay Pharoah.
Seven black friends go away for the weekend only to find themselves trapped in a cabin with a killer who has a vendetta. Will their street smarts and knowledge of horror movies help them stay alive? Probably not.
The slasher subgenre of horror is ripe for Black social commentary and parody. It always has been and probably always will be. That’s why The Blackening (directed by Ride Along‘s Tim Story and screenwriters Tracy Oliver and co-star Dewayne Perkins) is so disappointing; it has a refreshing, clever concept in that a group of Black friends meeting up and celebrating Juneteenth in the standard cabin in the woods comes across an eerie game room with the titular board game set up, testing their Black history knowledge and Blackness (in terms of personality, interests, and behavior) with life or death stakes.
But as the tagline riffing on the age-old trope says, “We can’t all die first.” The Blackening has set itself up for success and to do something subversive. The film certainly believes it’s subversive but doesn’t know what to do with its premise, quickly devolving into an embrace of genre clichés with tacked-on lazy comedy. Look no further than one of only two scenes that see characters interacting with the board game, edited together with flashforwards, suggesting that even the filmmakers don’t know how to make this cinematically entertaining or give it some substance. Why not just give the characters five questions to answer instead of ten if the script is that short on ideas or afraid to trust the premise? At least then, the scene can play out without jarring editing.
The kicker is that the above is also the best scene in the movie, as even if it’s failing, it’s at least trying to take advantage of the central concept (there’s a surprise question about every basic white girl’s favorite TV show, Friends, that yields a couple of amusing and smart answers, with a devilish punchline). This is also where the friend group is turned against one another, forced to send whoever they deem the most Black to their death, which generates lively and funny conversation about Black culture and traditions.
Everything else about The Blackening is uninspired and derivative, featuring a killer roaming around wearing a Blackface mask (how this is not scary is a mystery in itself) and shooting the game’s losers with a crossbow. There isn’t much violence and death here, as the entire point of the film is turning the “Black characters dying first” trope upside down (something else the script can’t commit to for even 10 minutes, and that’s all that will be said), but when it does happen, it’s unoriginal and forgettable.
As for the friend group, they are mostly an annoying and grating bunch who are done no favors by a script that seems to believe people will care about their relationship woes and personal lives for roughly 30 minutes before the attempts at suspense start. Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls) is getting back together with his ex-girlfriend Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) as part of a repeating cycle where he insists he has changed after time apart from cheating on her. Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins) is the gay best friend who supports Lisa every time this happens. The other circle members are given even less characterization, with the extent of direction toward Jermaine Fowler seemingly being “put on a nerdy voice and make goofy faces.”
The worst part is that, at a certain point, The Blackening feels like it’s doing the opposite of its intentions, admitting defeat and embracing stereotypes and clichés that one would presume the screenwriters had intended to tweak and twist. This is a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart. The core idea is solid and there, only to be abandoned and ignored for genericness, with staggering wasted potential. It’s like watching a far less outrageous version of Jumanji if the filmmakers gave up doing anything with the board game 20 minutes in.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com