In the film Black as Night, screenwriter Sherman Payne pens a haunting and alluring tale of vampires and their victims through a lens not much often looked through. Crafting a story that centers Shawna, a 15-year-old African American woman, as she battles vampires in a modern day New Orleans against a backdrop of not only the history of Hurricane Katrina but also the generational and systemic trauma of being Black in America.
“When I was writing Black as Night, I was really reacting to a lot of the vampire media that was popular over the past 10 to 15 years,” Payne said. “ I really wanted to write something that was totally outside the box of young, white woman, passive protagonists who just become a damsel in distress. Not to shade those thing — but I really wanted to do something that I felt had some cultural specificity and give them to the black women I have in my life who would handle those situations very differently.”
However, it wasn’t just a shift to a different style of protagonists that made Black as Night so unique. Other horror films have approached Blackness in similar ways such as Vampire in Brooklyn or Candyman. What made Black as Night unique was the setting of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“As we were working on the rewriting and tightening the script, I thought it was important that we did something specifically for New Orleans,” said Payne. “Something that really spoke to the culture and history of that city. Talking about the legacy of slavery, the most recent issues in the wake of the storm was really important to me. The city was a real character for that.”
History, trauma, and systemic oppression isn’t something that isn’t new through vampire media. The 1992 Bram Stroker’s Dracula is one of the most prevalent pieces of modern vampire myth that follows Dracula as an aristocrat preying on the subjects he rules over. In Black as Night, Sherman elevates his vampiric antagonist to reflect our current social realities just as Dracula did over a century ago.
“The prettiest and most handsome people end up being vampires. They’re rich, come from aristocracy and they’re just beautiful white people on screen,” Payne added. “But vampires are predators and I think predators feast on the most vulnerable targets right? So I thought the vampires would definitely feed on the bottom rung of our society, the people who have been the most forgotten, the most disenfranchised, the people who have been pushed totally to the margins of our communities and cultures. I did not want to go from like a top down arrow, you know, aristocratic, wealthy approach. I wanted to really pay attention to how I thought predators, like vampires will actually function if they were given the chance to exist in reality.”
Reality was something that kept seeping into my mind as I watched the film. Moments of the films more grounded examples of income inequality, the drug epidemic, and losing one’s home, all felt like it came from front page news. Payne let me know I wasn’t far off the mark since the news was something that helped him in writing the movie.
“I was already just a lover of news and current events and what’s going on with black people, that I already was very interested in how Hurricane Katrina was,” said Payne. “There was effort to use the wake of Hurricane Katrina as a way to rebuild the city, and rebuild the city without the participation of black people in a lot of ways. So that was a huge subject I was already interested in. I knew that I wanted to incorporate that real life societal issue into the movie somehow.”
With all of this history and care brought to the script and how it leapt off the page and on to the screen in a way that hasn’t left me since I watched the movie, I had to ask if this was what he wanted audiences to come away with. His answer was something that shined through the film the brightest.
“I’m a storyteller. So the thing I want people to take away from most, is that they’ve seen a great story and they’ve been entertained and hopefully they’ve been surprised and moved and they get some laughs and some real thrills along the way,” he said. “That to me is 99.9% of the job of screenwriting, any other screenwriter who tells you otherwise is wack. The other 0.1% of it is I hope that people consider a lot of how we treat the most vulnerable of our society. I hope that people check some of their own preconceived notions about skin tone and color in the black community. I hope that young women and young men and anybody on the on the gender spectrum feel empowered by Shana’s story.”
I truly felt empowered by her story and I hope you do you when you get a chance to watch Black as Night, streaming on Amazon Prime now.