Alongside pumpkin-spiced lattes and plastic skeletons, vampire movies are to be expected this time of year. With stakes stabbed through hearts and sunlight setting bodies aflame, “Black As Night,” streaming Oct. 1 on Amazon Prime, fills this expectation, pulling from the familiar stock of vampire tropes. However, the first vampires to appear on screen are Black and homeless, making it clear that this is no ordinary vampire flick.
Shawna (Asjha Cooper), the film’s teenage protagonist, must now spend her summer fighting the vampires that are taking over New Orleans. The gossamerlike moss hanging from oak trees and the above-ground tombs signature to the Big Easy don’t simply serve as a spooky backdrop for battling vampires — New Orleans’s history is embedded into the film. The institutional horrors connected to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina fuel the vampire’s desires to give justice to those that have been repeatedly wronged since the times of slavery.
As a Black female character, Shawna challenges the normalized role of teenage vampire-fighting heroine. She isn’t disposable, and she’s dealing with complex problems. From being compared to light-skinned Creole girls to eyeing skin lightening cream, her insecurity over her dark skin is repeatedly highlighted throughout the film. She also struggles with her mother’s drug addiction.
It isn’t until Shawna’s mother gets turned into a vampire and is brutally burned to death that Shawna’s father takes her to what is left of their family’s pre-Katrina house. A “Black Lives Matter” sign rests on the empty lot as her father stresses, “history matters.” His words echo as an underlying theme throughout the film, highlighting the deep-rooted and systematic problems of drug addiction and homelessness in relation to race.
Despite the heaviness in topic, “Black As Night” is predominantly made up of cheesy moments, humor and a few light jump scares, drawing on the campier side of vampire films. At times, light humor works in the film’s favor, making weightier topics more accessible.
With the help of her queer best friend and her newly befriended crush, Shawna uses silver jewelry to bind a homeless vampire, demanding to know who turned her mom. As she threatens him with a clove of garlic, she asks what it feels like. The vampire responds, “You been tear-gassed by the police?” A quick moment, but it hits its mark.
In other moments, the film’s target is out of sight. It’s hard not to wonder what motivated the choice to use hairsticks and a dress resembling a stripped-down Chinese cheongsam when Shawna is in need of a prostitute disguise. Maybe it’s a comment on Asian festishization and desire, but its symbolism is unclear and treads risky ground.
Shawna’s dark skin does, however, get redefined as a beautiful power towards the end. The modernized vampires that don’t suck human blood reveal that “only vampires with an ample supply (of melanin) can endure light. It’s like a superpower.”
As “Black As Night” nears its end, a final battle between a newly confident Shawna and vampire leader Babineaux unravels. In it, a blood-dripping Keith David takes a pause from the action to list specific years of Black oppression and explain his vampire army, but his speech feels like a rushed explanation of the film’s incorporation of the Black experience. It sadly becomes a dull contrast to the vampire action — an attempt to encapsulate complex realities in a few minutes.
An 87-minute block is simply too short an amount of time to give full voice to the many issues that “Black As Night” touches upon while also maintaining its overriding narrative. However, that shouldn’t discredit the fact that it does bring institutional horrors to light. It’s no horror movie of the year, but it should be commended for giving the stage to buried racial topics in a genre that usually centers around white bodies.
“Black As Night” has bitten. It may not have fully transformed its viewers, but one thing’s for sure: Racially inclusive vampire tropes and teenagers burning homeless bloodsuckers with garlic shakers certainly makes for a refreshing welcome into this Halloween season.