'It Comes at Night' and the Perils of the Mixed Race Horror Film
Photo Credit: S & A
Film

'It Comes at Night' and the Perils of the Mixed Race Horror Film

"It Comes At Night" (2017) Eric McNatt/A24 "It Comes At Night" (2017) Eric McNatt/A24

For many people the film studio, A24, has become synonymous with high quality, innovative, and risk taking entertainment- aspects that have been left truly wanting in a cinema filled with tent-pole comic book film spectacles and costly computer animated family film franchises. Challenging films like SPRING BREAKERS (Harmony Korine, 2013), UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer, 2014), EA MACHINA (Alex Garland, 2015) and the Academy Award winning Best Picture, MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins, 2016) have elevated the reputation and the expectation for any film being produced and released by A24; a studio founded in 2012 that has an expressed mandate of making films,”…with a distinct point of view.”(1) Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults’ new film IT COMES AT NIGHT produced and released by A24 studios is no exception to the elevated expectations of quality from this studio as it has been advertised and marketed as a horror film wedged precariously in competition with larger, bolder, and yet generic Summer tent-pole fare like, Tom Cruise’s THE MUMMY reboot and the runaway success of WONDER WOMAN.

Yet IT COMES AT NIGHT relies less on the standard tropes of contemporary horror films: sudden loud sounds, the drag-back, gruesome but knowingly digital special effects, and more upon an audience’s expectation of thrills, chills, and spills while simultaneously frustrating a complete grasp of what the tale itself is telling. What you do know about the film after you’ve seen it is just about as much as you knew about the film before you saw it. Two families are barricaded in a large house deep in the woods while a killer virus infects the rest of the world. The only way to prevent infection is to wear protective clothing if you think someone has been infected and to kill, burn, and bury the bodies of those who are noticeably infected. Everything else and the answers to any questions about the dire circumstances facing the characters in the film is either implied by its absence or simply not discussed within the film.

IT COMES AT NIGHT is nothing if not a triumph in story reticence. The film obstinately refuses to give any sort of direct explanation for the post-apocalyptic circumstances its characters are trapped within (not even stooping to the cliché of TV or radio broadcasts that we’ve seen in many other zombie, alien invasion and end of the world films). And while this story reticence will no doubt enrage many die hard purist horror film fans who will swallow the most implausible and elaborate plot explanations like those they have accepted from the SAW film franchise, it is the racial metaphor at work within this film that is the subject of this piece and that is of greater frustration than the artful non-explaining of the story that the film manages to sustain.

As I intend to discuss this film in detail there will be spoilers ahead.

The racial metaphor within IT COMES AT NIGHT is predicated upon its central characters: A White man, Paul (Joel Edgerton), his Black wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and his Black teenage stepson, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who are living alone in this barricaded home in the middle of nowhere to protect themselves from a deadly virus that has apparently wreaked havoc upon civil society beyond the woods. When this family is joined by another mixed race family a White female named Kim (Riley Keough), Will (Christopher Abbott, who is of Portuguese and Italian descent) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) nightmares, fear and paranoia rip the tenuous bonds of cooperation and civility causing both families to fall into a violent and murderous primordial conflict which leaves none of them unscathed. Shults, the writer/director, has said that the film is both a metaphor and mediation on,”…how fear tears us apart.” (2) But race is the most prominent metaphor that strikes the eye in a film the opens with a White man killing a sick and elderly Black man (this White character’s father in law) and ends with the gruesome death of a teenage Black male (this White character’s stepson).

Ostensibly, IT COMES AT NIGHT is really a post-apocalyptic re-imagining of Gary Ross’ FREE STATE OF JONES (2016) which was ironically released very near the same date in June last year. I reviewed this film and you can access here. Recall that in FREE STATE OF JONES, confederate soldier, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) had deserted the confederacy at the height of the Civil War conflict to forge a free state made up of poor White deserters and free and escaped Black slaves in the back woods of Jones County, Mississippi as an alibi for having his Black mistress and a White wife and child living together with him under the same roof. And just like FREE STATE OF JONES, IT COMES AT NIGHT suffers terribly from the White male savior trope that has Blacks, ethnic minorities, and women subordinate to the rules, attitudes, and suspicions of a White male patriarch that whether in a civil war historical drama or a post-apocalyptic survivalist tale cannot be overcome no matter how hard the filmmakers might try to deny it. To be sure, there are differences between FSOJ and ICAN, but the similarities are striking. Both White men in each film have moved their Black wives and children into the woods away from a chaotic and disruptive society. Both White men in each film establish rules, a code of equity, and command through the threat of violence the environments in which they have allowed Blacks and ethnic minorities to inhabit with them in relative safety. And finally both White men in each film pretend to save Blacks and others from the perils of a declining society, but in the end come to destroy more of the very people they intended to save with little to no overall positive effect on the structures and systems of racial or social oppression they attempted to escape.

This is the essential paradox of the White Savior trope within film and in real life: A few are saved, but at the cost of many and without any affect on overall racial systemic and structural oppression.

What makes the racial metaphor and White Savior trope so offensive in IT COMES AT NIGHT is that the film itself opens with the sacrifice of the Black male body for the greater good of White male patriarchal control, authority, and health with the deliberate complicity of a Black woman. The film opens with very little dramatic context to explain the circumstances of a sickly, defenseless, elderly Black man being carted out in a wheel barrel to a shallow grave, shot in the head by a White man, and the corpse burned with gasoline by same the White man. Although there is some direct indication that the elderly Black man was the father of the Black woman and the grandfather of the Black male teenager, we the audience, are forced to accept the unceremonious murder of this elderly Black man as a necessary sacrifice to get the story started.

Ultimately, what makes IT COMES AT NIGHT a rare and disappointing misstep in the otherwise illustrious run of films produced and distributed by A24 is that writer/director Trey Edward Shults has followed the golden rule of “less is more” to a catastrophic fault. That is to say that in providing so little context and back-story for the story within the film, the opening sacrifice of one elderly Black man leaves open too many unanswered questions about the closing sacrifice of the younger teenage Black male at the end of the film with the tacit complicity of the Black woman who is related to both victims by blood. It is as if the callous indifference and lack of empathy of the White male patriarch has infected all those he comes in contact with and therefore not even a Black Mother’s love for her only child or a Black daughter’s love for her father can trump a White man’s informal law. Such a description of this film would seem to give it the appearance of being a critical race metaphor that is attacking the moral sovereignty of the White male- but to accept this interpretation is to also accept the sacrifice of Black male bodies as the price of such social criticism that exposes the White Savior as being useless and detrimental to the Black female and the Black community in general. This is certainly a useful interpretation for Black critics and spectators who are confronted with such films on a regular basis from the American Entertainment Complex known as Hollywood.

However, there is another way of interpreting the White Savior in film that might be more instructive for the White people who can’t seem to help themselves from making these kinds of films. I believe that just like the White producers of FREE STATE OF JONES, the White producers of IT COMES AT NIGHT sincerely believed that they were making a forward thinking, racially inclusive film that just happened to have had an interracial cast because it was necessary to the circumstances they were trying to represent. We might for the sake of brevity call such well meaning Whites, honest liberals. And like those honest White liberals who might have the audacity to refer to themselves as “house niggers” in jest like Bill Maher did recently, such honest White liberals are often not aware that the inclusion of Black characters who are killed, sacrificed, or rendered unconscious and/or ineffectual by the end of a film is not really inclusion at all, so much as it is a virulent and obnoxious form of tokenism at best or a thinly veiled form of White supremacy at worst.

This isn’t a catch-22 situation where if you have Black characters in a film and kill them off you are to be charged with tokenism and/or if you don’t cast Black characters in a film you are to be charged with racial exclusion- instead what is being said here is that honest White liberal writers, directors, producers and White controlled film studios are not really being honest with themselves in how they are misunderstanding the nature and the depth of White supremacy and how such racial supremacy plays itself out in commercial cinematic representation. If these people can only see the choice as cast “Black character and kill a Black character” or “Don’t cast a Black at all” then they have not understood fully the racial politics at stake in the cinematic art form and they are still enemies of racial inclusion; traitors against equality; and supporters of the White dominant status quo. Casting is only one half of the politics of race in cinematic representation, the other half is dramatic agency: the ability and degree of agency that the Black character has to influence, modify, and survive the circumstances of the story. Here honest White liberals would do well to contemplate the assertion of professor Anna Everett as cited by Nicole Rafter that even when watching films with Black and White co-lead characters and/or integrated casts,”…people of color may be more conscious than Whites of the racial hierarchy in which members of their group seldom qualify as the hero. (Again, even if Whites are conscious of the hierarchy it will have different implications for them.)… One subtextual message in many movies is that Whites are “privileged or ideal spectators.” (3)

And now in this brief space that I have left, I’d like to address some push back thoughts on what has been said here about IT COMES AT NIGHT.

For those White and Black spectators who claim to not see race when they watch movies and who may ask,” Why does this discussion of IT COMES AT NIGHT seem to force race to the forefront of the interpretation of the film,” it must be said that this so-called “color blind” appreciation of film in general is really a consequential effect of how White privilege (inclusive of those people of color who aspire to Whiteness) is used as a normalizing lens of cinematic reception. The privilege of being White as a lead character in a film is a presumed normalized starting point in all cinematic representation: all other races are exceptions that are allowed to be seen as supporting the effort of the White lead or co-lead character, but only through the screen of White privilege and only as White filmmakers (and co-opted Black filmmakers), producers, and White controlled movie studios allow us to see them. It is in this way that as long as the Black and ethnic characters in IT COMES AT NIGHT obey the White male patriarch in the film there is no conflict, but the moment they do not obey the White character’s rules, they are seen as “others” infecting and disrupting the dramatic peace and who must be killed, sacrificed, or rendered ineffectual to restore White power, control and Black female complicity.

Other push back thoughts are,” Why must anyone, especially Black people, always be “woke” when they are watching a film? Why can’t we just accept a film as simply entertainment – be entertained- and then go on with our lives?” In today’s interconnected world so many disingenuous people take pleasure finding out what is popular and then delivering a “woke” message that makes it seem like an average person is not a conscious individual for liking something that is popular simply because it is popular. The problem here is that such push back thoughts obscure the fact that entertainment is the very delivery system of the dominant ideology. Entertainment is the oppressor’s mouthpiece. The most effective means of sustaining oppression is when those who are being oppressed don’t notice their condition as being one of oppression and indeed this obliviousness is best sustained by giving people something that distracts them from their oppressed condition which itself sustains it. This is the function of entertainment. To want to be entertained and to want to see a film without having to be “conscious” or “woke” as they say, with regards to the racial hierarchy and non-inclusive aspects of cinematic representation is to literally buy into the normalizing screen of White privilege; that is to buy into Whiteness (read: White supremacy) and all of its conceits, prejudices, and anti-Black subterfuges.

You may say to yourself that surely one film cannot have such a totalizing racial affect and you would be certainly wise to make such an observation. But it is not just one film it is hundreds released and screened per year; it is network television shows; cable shows; streaming shows; and most powerful of all, the thousands of 30 second and minute long advertisements whose cumulative effect is to deliver, reinforce, and sustain the normalizing lens of Whiteness through which all other races are perceived. Not one image, but millions, not one screen, but multiple screens of different sizes and mobility all delivering entertaining messages of racial hierarchy in different contexts across different mediums- occasionally contradicting Whiteness with a powerful Black image, show or film here or there- but supporting, reinforcing and sustaining it in its preponderance and its reliable ubiquity. And because one cannot stay “woke” 24/7, you are bound to “fall asleep” and to want to “fall asleep” and just be entertained, without thinking, without resistance, without guilt or recrimination. Oppression, it doesn’t just come at night. All you have to do to enjoy it is to want to see it and like the prisoners in Plato’s cave you don’t even notice the chains you placed on yourself.

The purpose of such criticism as this about IT COMES AT NIGHT and why it is necessary is so that we might be ever vigilant against the seduction of Whiteness in cinematic representation by waking up those who might have “fallen asleep” and to continue to be on guard in the struggle for racial inclusiveness and parity in dramatic agency on the cinematic screen no matter what the context or mode of transmission.

Andre Seewood is a PhD. student in The Media School at Indiana University-Bloomington and he is the author of (Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told to The Black Filmmaker. Pick up a copy here.

Notes

1 -- Doster, Adam (11 January 2016). "Upstart Distributor A24 Is Making Indie Films Exciting Again". Fast Company - Retrieved 11 June 2017

2 -- Robinson, Tasha (8 June 2017) “Why the director of It Comes At Night hopes audiences “don’t catch on” to his technological tricks.” The Verge -  Retrieved 11 June 2017

3 -- Pgs. 122-123, in "Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society" by Nicole Rafter citing Anna Everett’s “The Other Pleasures: The Narrative Function of Race in the Cinema." Film Criticism 1/2 (Fall Winter 1995-96) 26-38.