Picture a vampire. What comes to mind? More than likely, some tall, brooding and mysterious man with sheet white skin. That image isn’t hard to guess when these pallid portrayals of vampires from Bela Lugosi’s renowned Dracula (Dracula, 1931) to Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen (The Twilight Saga, 2008-2012) have dominated the screens for decades.
Black representation in the horror genre goes back to the blaxploitation films of Blacula (1972), Tales from the Hood (1995), and Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). But with the Black community being forced to the center stage of social discourse in the fight for equality and life, the big screen, or “streaming screen” is bringing us films like Vampires vs. the Bronx (Netflix, 2020) and the new Amazon Prime film Black As Night (2021).
Black as Night follows a young Black girl in New Orleans named Shawna (Asjha Cooper) has her whole life changed one summer when she is attacked by vampires who ultimately cause her mother’s death. The movie follows her meditated quest for revenge, assisted by her best friend Pedro (Fabrizio Guido), her love interest Chris (Mason Beauchamp) and her newfound vampire expert friend Granya (Abbie Gayle).
The movie is an Amazon Prime Original and a part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse anthology, created by Blumhouse Television. It is the sixth installment of an eight part series, the first four movies addressing "family and love as redemptive or destructive forces" and the last four addressing "institutional horrors and personal phobias."
Black as Night features a majority Black cast and makes biting social commentary on issues surrounding Black life in the United States, such as colorism, institutional racism and drug addiction. The movie has a strong sense of awareness of the time it's in, addressing both the Black Lives Matter protests that took place over the last year, as well as the socio-economic issues that still linger in Katrina-haunted New Orleans.
Colorism is the most upfront issue the movie grapples with, from Shawna shying away from the dance team because it’s “90% Creole girls” to her brother Jamal (Frankie Smith) making jokes about how she will never end up with Chris because he is surrounded by light-skinned girls and Shawna “looks like Wesley Snipes with braids.”
The movie addresses this issue with grace midway through the climax. After meeting a coven of good vampires of Nigerian descent, the vampire hunting gang learns that it is “an ample supply” of melanin that keeps some vampires from burning in the sun. Tunde (Sammy Njuguna), the leader of this coven, tells a story of a princess from his village with skin “as dark as the nighttime ocean” and how her beauty was widely sought after.
It is a triumphant moment for Shawna, and an endearing one as the whole group, Chris included, affirms her beauty.
Institutional racism and drug addiction are just as intimately tied together in the movie as they are in reality. Shawna’s mother, Denise (Kenneisha Thompson) struggles with drug addiction as a result of trauma following Hurricane Katrina. She lives in the Ombreaux, a housing project populated with others like her that is slated to be torn down.
The opening scene implies that residents of the Ombreaux are the primary targets for the vampires in New Orleans, and it is confirmed later in the movie when it is revealed that the vampire leader Babineaux (Keith David) builds his army from the poor and downtrodden, knowing they won’t be missed, much like serial killers prey on marginalized people for the same reasons.
Babineaux’s own motives are influenced by the United States’ racist history, having once been a slave who later killed his master after being turned into a vampire himself. His backstory resembles Prince Mamuwalde’s in the Blacula movies (1972-1973), but as mentioned earlier, they are considered blaxploitation films and were received with mixed reviews.
While Black As Night does a lot in favor of Black issues, it fails in a few other areas. Pedro is the unoriginal “gay best friend,” evident even in the trailer. He has the generic, campy queer attitude that almost spells out he’s doomed to (brutally) die, as many LGBTQ+ people, and ironically, Black people as well, do in horror movies.
Additionally, when Shawna and Granya had to dress as "prostitutes" to enter the vampires’ lair, Shawna is very blatantly dressed in Asian inspired clothing, including hair sticks and a kimono-looking dress. Within months after eight Asian women were murdered for being sexualized by their killer, this outfit choice and its association was considerably distasteful.
In terms of the actual production, the movie does pretty well in spite of its less than blockbuster budget. The movie’s CGI is just enough quality to work in the brief scenes it appears. The only odd thing is that the entire movie needs to be watched at max screen brightness, as otherwise it looks underexposed.
Overall, Black As Night is solid in production and execution, and perfect for the teenage audience it's geared towards, addressing real life issues in a palatable way, hand in hand with supernatural imagery. But like every piece of media, it too has its flaws.