Monday, June 19, 2023

The Blackening: A Review (Review #1720)



Now with Juneteenth an official federal holiday, one should not be surprised that a Juneteenth-related film is released. The Blackening, however, struggles to decide whether it is comedy or horror, ending up as neither. 

A group of college friends reunite to celebrate Juneteenth by going to a cabin in the woods for a night of drinking and playing Spades. Shawn (Jay Pharoah) and Morgan (Yvonne Orji) arrive early to set things up, and they come upon "The Blackening", a board game which asks them questions involving black history. A wrong answer will get them killed. Shawn couldn't name a black character who lived in a horror film, leading to his death and Morgan's capture.

Now the other guests arrive. There's Lisa (Antoinette Robinson), her biracial BFF Allison (Grace Byers) and the requisite gay friend Dewayne (cowriter Dewayne Perkins). Lisa's on/off lover Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls) is also a guest, joined later by sassy Shanika (X Mayo) and King (Melvin Gregg). The odd man of the bunch, metaphorically and literally, is Clifton (Jermaine Fowler), whom no one remembers inviting but whom they know. 

As they begin to bicker about past issues, they too stumble upon The Blackening board game. Now, the serial killer forces them to play this game or be killed. Clifton is sacrificed first, ostensibly for being "the blackest" but really for admitting to voting for Donald Trump...twice. Now the rest of them must unite and separate to stop the killer from slaughtering them. Who could the killer be? Why are they targeted? Will they survive this bloody Juneteenth?

The Blackening has an identity problem. It cannot decide if it is a horror spoof, a straight up horror film, or a social commentary. It appears to opt for all three, which makes the tones wildly uneven. 

In the "horror spoof" part, we get very odd sections where the characters appear to communicate telepathically and attempt to prove their lack of blackness through increasingly odd ways (one uses her biracial status, another uses being gay). 

In the straight-up horror section, we get crazed killers trapping them and forcing them to play games in the Saw tradition. For the social commentary, we have mentions of how Alison is afraid of her white father and Ranger White (Diedrich Bader) will not allow them into the cabin because the owners usually rent to certain types. One immediately pipes in "WHITE!" only for Ranger White to say "families".

As a side note, since when did park rangers have the right to allow or not allow people into private homes?

It is curious that The Blackening has this group of friends getting together given that based on their interactions they hardly seem like friends. They seem rather to hate and resent each other, the constant bickering and sniping suggesting less lifelong friendships and more barely tolerant of each other. They don't come across as "frenemies" because they seem to constantly go after each other. 

Inter-group antagonism isn't the only predominant situation in The Blackening. Each character has a MASSIVE chip on their shoulders. Most of their grievances revolve around race: how many seasons "dark-skinned Aunt Viv" vs. "light-skinned Aunt Viv" was on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the presumption that every white character was against them. Other times, they seemed to carry grievances over their connections: how for example Dewayne was irritated that Nnamdi and Lisa had gotten back together. 

The Blackening again could not decide whether to spoof horror conventions or go straight towards them. If director Tim Story or Perkins and his cowriter Tracy Oliver had opted to go fully-in one way or the other, the film would have done better. A horror spoof would have been fun, allowing the actors to play around with stereotypes and conventions of the horror genre. Some poking fun at films like Us, Get Out or The Cabin in the Woods would be amusing. A straightforward horror film would still have allowed a chance to tackle subjects like how African Americans are still thought of as "collateral damage" versus leads.

Instead, The Blackening shifted from one to the other, unwilling to go all-in to the film's detriment. How can one take the situation seriously when they sing the O'Reilly Auto Parts theme song? That element was introduced when Lisa remarks that on Twitter she was threatened by saying that jingle is more relevant than the National Anthem. Why exactly that was part of The Blackening only the filmmakers can answer. 

One aspect that I found odd was how while we were asked to believe the characters were good, they were all one-note and veering close to stereotypes. Of particular note is Mayo's Shanika, a loud, obnoxious woman whose defining characteristic is the liberal use of a racial epitaph. When, for example, Lisa is killing an attacker with a candlestick and starts shouting how it is always black women who saves everyone, I wondered why she would be saying anything at all, let alone while crushing someone's head.

Perhaps if she had said that after she killed the attacker it would have been funny. If she had said nothing, it would have been horror. Instead, it was emblematic of how it tried to be both and couldn't.  

There were no real performances because there were no characters. They never came across as individuals or complex. They were just there. Curiously, the only one that did stand out was Fowler in his Urkel Meets Norbit performance. I am nowhere saying it was a good performance, merely that out of all the ones in The Blackening, it was the only one that was different. So many felt forced and unnatural. When Perkins as Dewayne tells Ranger White he's "never happier to see a white savior", not only is the line a bit cringe but also delivered in a surprisingly bored way. 

As a side note, if you cannot figure out who the mastermind of The Blackening game is, you are a fool. It was so obvious that I was waiting for "the big reveal" that was anything but. 

To be fair, there were a few moments where I did chuckle. Calling the Blackening board game "Jim Crow Monopoly" was funny. The scene where Morgan loses her wig was amusing, as was when Lisa is chastised for selecting a candlestick for protection. "What, are you in Clue?" she's asked, later to be called "Colonel Mustard". Again, if they had gone for a straightforward spoof, we could have had something.

Instead, The Blackening is like so many of the characters: a film with a big chip on its shoulder and not funny or scary enough to care over. 

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