What’s a hilarious medley of Black friends to do when they’re cruelly placed in a slasher, a genre notorious for killing off Black characters before the real gore even begins? They can’t all die first! In Tim Story’s brazenly meta-horror comedy The Blackening, co-writers Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins amplify the latter’s 2018 Comedy Central sketch to a whole new level. A film just as devoted to its roaring one-liners and deadpan physical comedy as it is bold with a serious take on culture crisis, The Blackening proudly boasts its slasher-parody outline and makes the narrative transparently personal for its people.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘The Blackening’?
Well, they may not all die, but since when has a slasher cold-open been merciful to a couple staying in a cabin in the middle of nowhere? The only thing that stands out in the case of Morgan and Shawn is the game they’re led to play, The Blackening, and the voicebox that’s seemingly stuck inside a supremely offensive Blackface-esque commander on the board. Failing to answer the names of the Black characters that survive a slasher earns Shawn a fatal bolt through the throat and leads to the taking of a freaked-out Morgan. But as long as the friends they’d invited for a long-awaited Juneteenth reunion are on their somewhat merry way to the cabin, there shouldn’t be a lack of spilled blood, right?
The long drive to the Connors’ cabin is one of excitement and resentment for Lisa, her best friend, Dewayne, and Allison. The prospect of serial cheater Nnamdi accompanying their friend King and joining the reunion when Dewayne had to be the one picking up the pieces each time Lisa’s heart was left shattered just doesn’t sit right with him. Their friend Shanika, on the other hand, narrowly avoids the creepy gas station worker and rescues the nervous Clifton from an ill-timed dead android and faulty Hyundai. Of course, Ranger White just had to cross-check their papers and IDs before letting them into the cabin owned by the Connors, who, considering the proud Confederate flag hung in their basement, are quite the racist degenerates and only rent to white people. Barring the awkward niceties shared with the evidently party-crashing Clifton and the sneaky romance between Lisa and Nnamdi, the mollies, alcohol, and passive-aggressive games of Spades make for quite the fun Juneteenth. Until, of course, the power goes out, and the group is frightened into playing The Blackening, this time around with a Saw inspired crossbow-wielding host on TV waiting to murder the group if they fail to answer the questions about their culture.
Who Dies First?
The Blackening has a lot of fun playing around with the irony of the questions in a not-so-subtle way to fluster the group of Black friends who have their association with their own culture repeatedly questioned. And now that they know that one wrong answer would result in Morgan meeting her boyfriend in the afterlife, they have all the more motivation to tap into the parts of their cultural history that have been gathering dust in the unfrequented corners of their minds. While most of the questions are answered fairly correctly, the group is condemned for even having the first clue about Friends, the TV show that reluctantly included Black actors in the most insignificant roles just for the sake of plausible deniability.
The ensuing chase between the masked killer and the terrified friends ends with Shanika taking the reins of the panic-ridden situation and stabbing him in the foot, the unfortunate death of Morgan, two arrows shot through ex-gangster King, Allison stabbing herself in the process of helping him, and Shanika accidentally giving her an Adderall. Talk about chaos! If only that was the end of their torment, though. The looming question of their apparent “Blackness,” a question that will once again come back to haunt them later on, is assigned the role of being the deciding factor in choosing the most “Black” friend to sacrifice. With Shanika narrowly escaping death despite her generous usage of the N-word, King saving his neck thanks to him leaving his gangster days behind, Allison and Dewayne playing their respective biracial and gay cards just in time, and Lisa and Nnamdi being granted immunity because they’re oh-so-adorable together, all fingers pointed at the one who was the least liked, Clifton. And his most poorly-timed confession of voting for Trump twice was practically a death sentence.
How Do They Hunt Down The Killers?
While it does actively take part in cultural discourse and the nuances of being a young Black person in today’s day and age, Story’s film is mindful enough to critique the follies of its characters in the context of the bigger picture they represent. But that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t thoroughly aware of the mistakes a person of color would never make in a tense circumstance unless they absolutely had no other choice. Making up the most hilarious blend of impeccable situational humor and an on-point mockery of run-of-the-mill slashers, Allison suggests that they split up. But hold on a minute. The influence of Adderall aside, Allison does make a good point about making it hard for the killer to be in two places at once. It’s another thing that the corpse turns out to be that of another killer when Allison goes Black Panther on him and pulls his guts out; you’ve got to hand it to her for holding her ground against a giant man while being injured and drugged. Tremendous valor seems to run in the women of the group as, inside the cabin, Lisa knocks the living hell out of the other killer and makes him regret ever taking up the job of murdering a group of Black people for $1000. Not too reassuring to know that homicidal white folks are out to get you for such a measly sum. But considering the fact that the two killers are the racist Connor twins, one of whom Shanika had the misfortune of running into at the gas station, things do start to make a little sense. And the poor Ranger White losing his life over the justified suspicion regarding his involvement at least has the silver lining that maybe not all of them are bad (yes, I heard it).
How Does The Film End?
What makes Tim Story’s film one of a kind is its dedicated character building, something that practically no other slasher has to its name. Even amidst the pandemonium of terror and murder and in the short span of time that could be reserved for the job, The Blackening gives it its all to elevate the characters from the stereotypical shells of people being hunted for our entertainment to people we really do care about. Dewayne and Lisa’s adorable friendship has been made an effective plot device, guiding the events along. For a change, it truly is refreshing to see a lifelike representation of real friendship, where love and support may be unconditional but are not things to be taken for granted. It takes a big, burly gym bro like Nnamdi to naturally go through love’s metamorphosis and turn into a giggling puddle of a man for us and Dewayne to be convinced that maybe he’s not beyond hope. Dewayne and King’s conscious detachment from the patterns of being an unfaithful womanizer and a gun-wielding gangster for the sake of love are also meticulously placed as a hopeful reassurance that Black men can break free of the stereotypes they embrace because they don’t have a lot of faith in the concept of personal growth. The thoughtful treatment each dynamic receives evokes an air of authenticity. This brings us to Clifton, the only friend who never seemed to gel well with the rest. He wasn’t wanted and, most likely, wasn’t even invited. So what made him show up?
Killing the racist twins might’ve eliminated the immediate danger looming over them every step of the way, but they still need to figure out who paid the Connor twins to orchestrate such a labyrinthine game of death. And it’s Lisa’s inquisitive nature to the rescue. As it turns out, not only was Clifton alive all along, but he was also the mastermind behind the bloody Juneteenth massacre. But even his voluntary revelation of the heinous design leaves much of the details still in the dark. If you were wondering how Clifton even managed to turn out the lights and lock and unlock the doors at his whims, the answer lies in the belt pack. He’s been remotely manipulating the entire cabin using switches while being present with the rest of the group and playing the part of just another victim. The effervescent rage that must’ve been eating him up and has made him go absolutely haywire had its seed planted ten years ago, the last time the group had gotten together. Priding himself on his board game skills, Clifton used to consider it to be his x-factor, the skill that made him stand out. But at the same time, the circumstances of his upbringing and his subsequent adult life didn’t allow him to explore the nooks and crannies of the culture and community that he’s always wanted to be a part of. So he doesn’t know how to play Spades. Big deal, right?
Unfortunately for Clifton and, as a consequence, for the rest, his lack of Spades knowledge has time and again made him feel unwelcome and left out, much like the early sequence in the film where the group prioritized their own fun over showing him the ropes. But that’s not all. Ten years ago, Clifton’s insurmountable rage filled the void left behind by the suspension of his “Black card,” courtesy of the very same people he’s determined to kill now. Miserable and rejected by the people he wished to find a sense of belonging with, Clifton drank for the first time on that fateful night, ran over and killed a woman, and served four years in prison for the same. While the ridiculousness of the circumstances does make it a bit of a challenge to fish out the underlying message communicated by the turn of events, it isn’t necessarily subtle either. What Tim Story’s deceitfully lighthearted film contemplates through the climax is the plight that is created when people of color are excluded from the very community that is supposed to protect them, guide them, and even help them get accustomed to the sides of the culture they haven’t had the privilege of being familiar with. Of course, none of Clifton’s subsequent acts of revenge can be justified, but at the same time, he isn’t entirely wrong in holding his supposed friends accountable for behaving like simple-minded bullies. And then comes the question that’s been haunting him every waking moment. If he isn’t Black enough for them, who is the Blackest of them all?
Employing the farcical yet strangely symbolic telepathic ability, Lisa, Dewayne, and Nnamdi do try to outsmart the sociopathic party-crasher, but as irony likes nothing better than to strike at the worst possible times, Clifton himself seems to be connected to the web of silent, cerebral communication the group has going on. It only goes to show that despite his bothersome quirks, Clifton is, in fact, one of them. But the ship of including him has sailed, and he’s too far gone at this point. Luckily, Allison has gotten her hands on the switches Clifton’s been using, and she turns out the lights just in the nick of time for Shanika to put a stop to Clifton’s murderous endeavors. We do hear a thud when Clifton is pushed down the deep well where he’s been dumping the bodies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if The Blackening decides to play the age-old slasher trick and bring the psychotic killer back to life for a sequel. Now here’s something I’m sure a lot of us have wondered every time a slasher has ended with the survivors walking away all relieved: What about the legal trouble? How do they explain the piles of mutilated corpses?
Combining the ending and the mid-credit scene, The Blackening brings the much-anticipated predicament of Black survivors to life. Albeit comically, the ending does broach the conversation around police brutality against the Black community. Allison, Dewayne, King, Nnamdi, Lisa, and Shanika have endured a nightmarish night, but who’s to say that the evidently racist state wouldn’t throw them in the clink for killing two white people and pin the rest of the murders on them? That is if they even get away without being brutally detained or shot. If the firemen they’d called couldn’t think better than to hose them down for no reason whatsoever, there’s a lot of trouble waiting ahead for the group of Black survivors.