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Film Review: “The Blackening” Tackles Big Truths, to Funny, If Mixed, Results

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 16th, 2023

Film poster: “The Blackening”

The Blackening (Tim Story, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.

I wish I liked The Blackening more. But though it takes a while to get going, it does eventually hit some kind of cinematic stride. At a mere 96 minutes, however, the film still has a lot of dead weight.

Directed by Tim Story (Shaft), the film takes place over the Juneteenth holiday. By design, that is the same weekend of its release (or at least the Monday after). A group of college friends gather in a reunion of sorts, only to find their celebratory plans interrupted by a serial killer. Expect jokes and blood.

A still from THE BLACKENING ©Lionsgate

That combination is nothing new. But here, the entire enterprise centers on Black history and trauma, played for laughs (which, when the comedy works, are genuine). There’s a board game within the story that bears the same name as the film, and our characters must play to win, lest they all die. And even though they are all African American, that doesn’t mean they get all the answers right. Where would the fun be in that?

The cast is game, and includes Grace Byers (Bent), Jermaine Fowler (The Drop), Melvin Gregg (The Way Back), Xochitl Mayo (The Farewell), Dewayne Perkins, Antoinette Robertson (Block Party), and Sinqua Walls (Nanny), among others. As things get dicey, they play up the mania, amplifying all the best aspects of the narrative. By the end, their enthusiasm has proved infectious.

l-r: Melvin Gregg, Grace Byers, Antoinette Robertson, Sinqua Walls, Jermaine Fowler, Dewayne Perkins, and Xochitl Mayo in THE BLACKENING. Photo Credit: Glen Wilson

The entire exercise is both a riff on the notion that Black characters rarely, if ever, survive in horror films, and the idea that no one, irrespective of race, traditionally makes good decisions in said movies. As such, expect people to separate at just the wrong moment, to argue as time ticks away, and generally to be their own worst enemy. Here, however, since they are all Black, they won’t all die.

Or will they? That’s the question, indeed. There are also white characters, but they are the villains, although there is a clever twist on who the ultimate enemy turns out to be that proves genuinely surprising.

A still from THE BLACKENING ©Lionsgate

Ultimately, the plot revolves around serious issues of Blackness that deserve full audience consideration, even if the vehicle in which Story presents them is sometimes awkward. Still, obvious exposition doesn’t make larger truths any less vital. Fortunately, it’s not all on-the-nose dialogue.

And even if the scares are almost nonexistent, the humor improves enough throughout that we can count on having more good times than bad. Still, one cannot help but wish that the whole thing were sharper. These Black characters deserve more.

Antoinette Robertson in THE BLACKENING ©Lionsgate

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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