Photo: Glen Wilson/Lionsgate
The Blackening was a sketch before it was a movie — a viral video from the Chicago-based comedy troupe 3Peat that was perfect in the way that only something four minutes long can be. The feature version, written by Tracy Oliver and 3Peat member Dewayne Perkins (who also stars as a character who shares his first name), is inevitably a looser and more fitfully entertaining affair, though it runs with the same excellent premise: If, per the old stereotype, it’s the Black character who’s always first to die in a horror movie, what happens when all of the characters are Black? Does that mean they need to decide who is the most Black, and by what ridiculous measures would that be determined? In the sketch, the killer’s would-be victims immediately start listing their anti–bona fides. “I’m so white I let my dog kiss me on the mouth,” one protests, while others cite Gilmore Girls fandom, a preference for light-skinned Aunt Viv over dark-skinned Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and qualifying for the Winter Olympics as reasons they can’t be picked. It’s cutting and quick and riotously funny — but a movie can’t skip straight to the jokes. It also needs characters and a plot, and The Blackening gets a little slack when it’s tending to all that setup.
It’s telling that the flattest aspects of the movie have to do with the filmmaking, not the writing. The Blackening starts off with Morgan (Yvonne Orji) alone in a house at night, and while she’s soon joined by her boyfriend, Shawn (Jay Pharoah), the sequence still feels like a nod to the opening of Scream — or it would if director Tim Story staged their targeting by a masked killer with any suspense. Despite mentions of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Get Out, The Blackening skews more toward Scary Movie than it does Wes Craven’s self-referential slasher, and aside from a few jump scares, it doesn’t set out to scare in any substantial way. But Story’s direction also defangs the film’s punch lines in some unforgivable ways. A lot of scenes are shot in darkness so murky it’s impossible to tell what’s going on, while other sequences demand a madcap pacing but are edited together so idly that it feels like the performers are just vamping to bridge the space between gags. There’s a whole bit involving Adderall that’s exasperating precisely because it’s so easy to imagine the way it should have escalated onscreen, when it climaxes instead in a flubbed version of what should have been a hilarious payoff.
After that introduction, the movie picks up with friends Lisa (Antoinette Robertson), Allison (Grace Byers), and Dewayne (Perkins) driving out to the woods to join Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), Shanika (X Mayo), King (Melvin Gregg), and Clifton (Jermaine Fowler), an awkward outcast none of them actually remember all that well. The cabin, where they’re meeting for a college reunion and Juneteenth celebration, turns out, of course, to be the one Morgan and Shawn were in — the group got texts from the couple that they were heading out for a few hours but would be back soon. There are some uneven attempts to give the characters their own story lines, with Lisa, Dewayne, and Nnamdi getting an unexpectedly involved girl/girl’s gay best friend/girl’s cheating no-longer-ex-boyfriend drama, while Shanika, Allison, and King are left with one-note development. (Clifton obviously has something going on, as transmitted by Fowler giving a performance out of an ’80s sitcom.) The main menacing device in the movie is a board game with a racist caricature of a mascot at the center and trivia the characters are forced to answer to prove their legitimacy, with questions ranging from Black history to ones about the Black actors who appeared on Friends, and the threat of death hanging over them if they’re wrong.
The Friends bit, in which the characters reveal themselves to know an awful lot about a show they all insist they never watched, is one of the many moments where you wish the movie had been put in the care of someone with a better sense for comedy, both physical and verbal — because it’s funny, and if it had been cut together with slightly sharper timing, it would have been even funnier. There are many moments like that, from an ongoing gag about the psychic capabilities of close girlfriends to a throwaway scene in which Dewayne, confronted with a creepily creaked open door, carefully reaches out and closes it instead of going outside to explore. It’s hard to adapt a sketch, to take what works in the short form and expand it to a whole different format with different requirements. The Blackening gets halfway there, and has the benefit of some gifted performers and some very good ideas. It just never really figures out how to be a movie.