‘The Blackening’ Review: Race Against a Killer

There are two games at play in “The Blackening,” a comedic horror film with more jokes than jump scares. The first is the titular race-baiting board game with the grotesque Jim Crow-style figurine that Morgan (Yvonne Orji) and her boyfriend, Shawn (Jay Pharoah), discover as they explore the cabin they have rented for a reunion of college friends.

The rest of their crew will arrive soon for a celebratory Juneteenth weekend of recreational drugs, card playing and — once they learn where Shawn and Morgan have disappeared to — trying to survive the night, initially by answering trivia questions such as: Which Aunt Viv was better on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”?

The other game is the tartly amusing one the director, Tim Story, and the writers, Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins (on whose viral sketch comedy skit the film is based), invite viewers to play. It tests our familiarity with horror tropes while messing with the variegated verities of Black identity. The film’s marketing come-on, “We Can’t All Die First,” winks at the notion that when there is a Black person in a predominantly white horror film, he or she is sure to be the first lamb (Black sheep?) to the ensuing slaughter. What, then, if all the characters are Black?

Looking like a charred version of the Creature From the Black Lagoon and wielding the whitest weapon on earth — a crossbow — the movie’s masked killer has an answer for that. Beaming in from an antique TV monitor, he offers the friends a lose-lose, if philosophically fertile and futile, proposition: Sacrifice the Blackest among you and the rest go free.

The ensemble embodies the affection as well as the prickliness of friends who may not have seen each other in a while, but know each other well and may still harbor a resentment or two. Lisa (Antoinette Robertson) has not been honest about her ex, Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), with her gay best friend, Dewayne (Perkins, the co-writer), and he’s hot about it. In a film that features card playing — it could have been bid whist but it’s spades — Nnamdi throws down the race card most often, making King (Melvin Gregg), who’s married to a white woman, and Allison (Grace Byers), whose father is white, bristle ever so slightly.

And then there’s Clifton (Jermaine Fowler), a mildly passive-aggressive nerd whom no one quite recalls inviting. Shanika (X Mayo) runs into him at a convenience store while evading the clerk, who seems to be following her and looks like he didn’t quite make the cut for “Deliverance.”

The quandary of what “Blackest” means puts this movie squarely in the company of others that have used genre tropes to make sense of race in America. (Yes, “Get Out” gets a nod.) It is a deft gesture to have the question turned on its head as the characters leverage what they think of as their whitest credentials.

“The Blackening” comes with a horror movie’s requisite skittish and stalking camerawork, its creaks and breath-holding hushes, its gore and payback. But it is the friends’ flee, fight, freeze — or throw under the bus — banter that makes the film provocative fun.

The Blackening
Rated R for pervasive language, genre violence and drug use. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. In theaters.

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