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Malcolm Gregg, Grace Byers, Antoinette Robertson, Sinqua Walls, Jermaine Fowler, Dewayne Perkins, and X Mayo are forced to play a game in "The Blackening."

This Juneteenth weekend comes The Blackening, which happens to be pegged to our newest national holiday. It’s adapted from a 2018 short film by the same name, and it does feel like a comedy sketch writ large. That’s normally not a good thing, but this horror-comedy has enough material to work at feature length. It may not be as intellectually worked-out as Jordan Peele’s best stuff, but it is every bit as funny.

The film is set at a cabin in the woods, which is actually a pretty nice house. Seven college friends who haven’t hung out together since graduation a decade ago decide to rent the place and reconnect there over Juneteenth weekend: biracial Allison (Grace Byers), gay Dewayne (Dewayne Perkins), attitudinous Shanika (X Mayo), reformed gangsta King (Melvin Gregg), Steve Urkel manqué Clifton (Jermaine Fowler), bad choice-making Lisa (Antoinette Robinson), and Nnamdi (Sinqua Walls), the hot guy who tends to say the wrong thing. They’re horrified and fascinated when they open up a green door in the house and find a board game called The Blackening, whose board is dominated by an offensive Sambo mask. The mask talks to the guests and calls them by their names, threatening them with death if they don’t play his game. When they finally give a wrong answer to its questions about Black history, they’re hunted down by a masked creep with a crossbow.

The movie does some guying of slasher-movie tropes, as when our characters react knowingly to suggestions that they split up or someone promising he’ll be right back. The script by Perkins and Tracy Oliver does better when it aims for culturally specific humor. The Sambo mask asks the group about Black actors who appeared on Friends, and our heroes turn out to be vastly knowledgeable about Friends trivia even though they all swear they don’t watch the show. Eventually the mask demands that the group sacrifice the member whom they decide is the Blackest, and everyone races to prove their lack of bona fides. (“I’ve never seen Friday … I thought Black Twitter was a type of seasoning … I voted for Trump — twice.”)

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If the villain behind the killings made any sense at all, this might be a truly great comedy. No matter; the characters bicker pettily amongst themselves in the midst of mortal danger, and it comes off as true. Director Tim Story (who helmed Barbershop and Ride Along) never strikes the wrong tone, which a less experienced director might easily have done. He and his writers connect this genre spoof to weightier issues. As one woman beats the killer near the end, she says a line that resonates far beyond horror movies: “Why Black women gotta fucking save everyone all the goddamn time?”

The Blackening
Starring Grace Byers, Dewayne Perkins, and Sinqua Walls. Directed by Tim Story. Written by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins, based on their own short film. Rated R.

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