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If everyone in a horror movie is Black, who dies first? This was the premise of Chicago improv troupe 3Peat’s viral sketch short, The Blackening, which first aired on Comedy Central in 2018. Written by 3Peat member Dewayne Perkins, the digital short was a sharp but winking indictment of the way that Black characters have historically been represented in the genre, while also offering up a refreshingly self-referential and gleefully boisterous method of reshaping what an all-Black horror world might look like.

Now extended into a feature-length film helmed by Tim Story (Ride Along, Shaft), The Blackening is barbed without being self-serious, satirical without being pedantic. Ahead of the film’s premiere at TIFF’s Midnight Madness this weekend, The Globe and Mail sat down with the director as well as co-writers Tracy Oliver (Girls’ Trip) and Perkins (working double duty as co-star) to talk about rewriting genre expectations.

It seems daunting to expand something from four and a half minutes to feature-length.

Oliver: Someone sent me the short in 2018 and I was obsessed with it; it was just so unapologetically Black and very smart. I wanted to meet whoever was behind it, so I reached out to 3Peat and we were on a phone call together three days later. This is really Dewayne’s movie and his voice, so writing credits truly do go to him; I was just happy to help shepherd the idea into the movie space.

Perkins: It was a treat to be able to expand on what I loved in the short, which was creating interesting Black characters that felt complex, different, and unique while still being fun. I had actually watched Girls’ Trip with the rest of 3Peat just before Tracy called, so it was wild to then be working with her.

The movie is not solely a parody film, it’s a horror flick in and of itself. How did you come to harmonize the kind of satirical send-up you’re doing with making an actual horror movie?

Perkins: I enjoyed the ability to represent different points of view through genre – especially growing up and watching horror films that mostly represented a way of seeing that didn’t speak to my own experience. It was refreshing to write a film where I could make the type of choices I would make if I were in a horror movie. Likewise, it was important to me to be able to create something fresh – something that was pushing the genre forward – while still retaining a sense of nostalgia for it.

Oliver: Right up until the end of the movie we were trying hard to balance horror and comedy. It’s very hard to find a director that can do comedy that well; comedy directing, itself, is hard and we further complicated that by adding the horror element. Tim took the genre seriously and played a huge role in being able to keep the dance between both modes interesting.

Story: Black people are funny. In situations that are extremely stressful, we’re passionate in a specific way. The script was so smart, so the only thing I tried to do with that great blueprint was stay in the voice that they were telling the story in. Dewayne and Tracy gave me so much gold with the script, so translating it visually was just a matter of building on the stakes they had established. When you get material that speaks to all the layers of how funny we are as a people, it’s just an awesome playground to get to work in.

What I loved about the movie is the real, “If you know, you know” vibe it has to it. How do you navigate shaping that kind of meta-commentary for such a broad audience without having to over-explain things?

Perkins: I think a lot of the film’s strength comes from the fact that we’re not pandering. It’s organic; we’re allowing a space where Blackness can be full and not need to be explained.

Oliver: As someone who always writes movies for Black people, what was so special about this experience was the fact that the script wasn’t watered down. We kept waiting for that moment when someone would ask us to make the film more “palatable” – there were so many moments between Dewayne and me when we self-consciously would ask ourselves, “Is this too Black?” We were waiting for the moment when someone would try to “de-Blacken” this movie and that moment never came.

Story: I was originally just the producer of the film, but when I read the script and saw that it was so smart, I knew it had to be done exactly as it was. I ended up directing because, one, it was just so good, and two, I knew it had to be protected from exactly what Tracy is talking about. When you see material that gives you the type of layers that Tracy and Dewayne have shaped … honestly, I’d kill for it.

The Blackening screens Sept. 10, 11 and 16 at TIFF (tiff.net)

This interview has been condensed and edited

Special to The Globe and Mail

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