By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Grace Byers, Jermaine Fowler and Melvin Gregg
Directed by Tim Story
Written by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins
There’s a quick, almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit of physical comedy midway through THE BLACKENING that so perfectly tweaks a long-running cinematic cliché, it had me both laughing out loud and applauding. (I have declined to follow RUE MORGUE’s usual practice of placing a trailer at the bottom of this review, since both of Lionsgate’s previews give away the gag.) It’s one of the many ways the film has pointed fun with Black pop-cultural tropes and socioracial issues, pitched at just the right balance between horror and humor and put across by a very enthusiastic cast.
Both the film’s and its characters’ awareness of fright-flick standards recall SCREAM, as does a prologue that introduces two of THE BLACKENING’s more recognizable faces (Jay Pharoah and INSECURE’s Yvonne Orji), only to violently remove them from the ensemble. This movie has its own satirical point of view, though, and also belongs to that subset of scare cinema involving elaborate board games in which the stakes literally become life and death. “The Blackening” is the name of just such a game discovered by a group of old friends who reunite at an Airbnb in the middle of the woods to celebrate Juneteenth weekend. When they open it up, they are confronted by a racist signifier–a little plastic Sambo head–and then a horrible quandary: They must play the game, or their pals (the ones played by Pharoah and Orji) will suffer horrible fates.
Rather than the usual gambit of revealing and exploiting their deepest fears, this game forces the group to answer questions about all manner of Black media and cultural history. It’s a canny move by scripters Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins (who also wrote the 3PEAT/Comedy Central short upon which the feature is based, and co-stars here as well) that encourages the audience to play along, and thus become even more invested with the characters. The emphasis does eventually switch in a manner that forces each of the gang to reveal things about themselves, but is still tied to the basic premise: Whoever they decide is the “Blackest” among them must die.
The increasingly threatening circumstances tease out the relationship and other personal conflicts among the principals. Most prominent for a while is the dynamic between Lisa (Antoinette Robinson) and her longtime gay best friend Dewayne (Perkins), who can’t believe that she seems to be on the verge of hooking back up with her cheating ex-boyfriend Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls). But as the movie goes on, everyone gets the chance to demonstrate engaging details and quirks of personality, and there’s even an odd, unexplained bit of paranormal activity thrown in between Lisa and Allison (Grace Byers), who are so close that they’ve developed the ability to communicate telepathically. Providing some of the most emphatically funny moments are Jermaine Fowler as Clifton, a nerd who seems very intentionally and amusingly played as Urkel grown up, and Diedrich Bader as the token white cop who turns up midway through the action and may or (more likely) may not be their savior.
As funny as the friends’ interactions often are, THE BLACKENING doesn’t go full-bore into spoof, and everyone from director Tim Story on down treats the danger as real when the game’s masked mastermind transitions from a face on a TV screen to an in-person attacker. The specifics of the villain’s plot combine SAW with another modern shocker that will also not be given away here, and there’s also just the right, off-handed shout-out to Jordan Peele. It’s a hint that representation in horror has improved in recent years, even as THE BLACKENING acknowledges that the old formulas die hard. “We can’t all die first” is the movie’s much-touted tagline, and it’s to its creators’ credit that skewering that particular convention is just the tip of the movie’s comedic iceberg.