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Jumanji Meets Saw: Dewayne Perkins on The Blackening

Within the first 20 minutes of “The Blackening,” Dewayne Perkins, its star and co-writer, offers a different vision of a Black horror comedy. For one, his character DeWayne is an openly gay Black man who’s come to a cabin in the woods to spend Juneteenth with his old college friends. As a Black man, in most prototypical horror films, he’d be the first to die. As a queer person he simply wouldn’t exist. But he thankfully does exist, in vivid, hilarious and bewitching ways in “The Blackening.”

The stand up comedian and improv artist first penned the film as a four-minute sketch for his comedy troupe 3Peat. The short, produced through Comedy Central, is a blistering concept that sees a group of Black folks being chased by a white slasher. For safety, they barricade themselves in a house; he’ll let them live if they can pick out the Blackest among them to be sacrificed. In its inchoate form the sketch critiques the stereotypes of race while savvily expanding the multifaceted truths of identity. 

It’s easy to see why Perkins’ sharp short soon caught the eye of Tracy Oliver (“Girls Trip”), and landed on the desk of director Tim Story (“Barbershop”). Its cinematic expansion, partly penned by Perkins, features a stacked ensemble that includes actors like Jermaine Fowler, Sinqua Walls, Mayo X, Antoinette Robertson, and more—who much like the short are forced to choose who among them is the Blackest. 

Compared to Perkins’ sketch, there are some new wrinkles: the game Spades serves as a villain origin story, a board game featuring a “Sambo” character tests the characters as well, and a romance bubbles to the surface. But the constant throughout the additions is Perkins. With his every broad movement, his every measured inflection and his seemingly boundless ebullient energy redefines what a Black horror film can be and who it can be about. 

Perkins spoke with RogerEbert.com about queerness in genre movies, the dangers of playing Spades, and his most vivid horror movie memory. 

Did you always want to expand the short into a feature film?

Nope. I very consciously tried to just live in the moment. So I wrote it as a sketch cuz I was in a sketch show that needed an opening sketch. And then when it became a short, 3Peat, my improv group, we had a web series deal with Comedy Central and they said they needed sketches and I was like: “Oh, I have a sketch that I think would be great to film cause I've only done it on stage and having the production aspect would really add to the horror.” So that was one of the sketches that we picked. And Comedy Central picked it and filmed it and put it up. It went viral and then Tracy saw it, and then she called and said, “This should be a movie.” I agreed. But up until that point I didn't think, Ohthis is going to be a movie. Or I didn't think of expanding it cuz I wrote a sketch like I was doing sketch comedy and that's what I was doing. Until she saw the potential for it to be a movie, that's when it became kind of real.

Have you always been a horror fan?

I love horror. I like films that create emotional responses and horror does that very well. So I've always loved horror ever since I was a kid.

What’s your most vivid memory of watching a horror movie?

I remember some of the more impactful ones from when I was younger. Like “Candyman” was a pivotal one cuz my cousins and my godmother lived in Cabrini Green. So it just felt very close. I remember the first time watching “Candyman” my family rented it from a video store. While watching it, the lights went out and the power went out. My father was a very tall Black man, he was standing in the hallway and I just saw his silhouette and I was like, “Oh, this is the end for us.” [laughs] “You die.”

And so that movie terrified me as a kid. I got in trouble once 'cause I peed on myself 'cause I wouldn't go to the bathroom. 'Cause we were in Cabrini Green and I said there's a mirror in there. That man's going to kill me. My parents had to be like, this is not real. It was simply filmed in this neighborhood. And I was like, “No, no, no.” [laughs] “He's here. This is terrifying.” 

When you were expanding the short into a feature, did you know you wanted to star?

Absolutely. That's why the character’s name is Dewayne. [laughs] Don’t get it twisted. I'm very much manifesting. This is exactly what it is. No one else could play this part but me. And I'm glad they recognized that. [laughs]

It’s a plus that you’re also a writer!

Right now, at this time, I would challenge anyone to name Black queer leads in movies. It's gonna be difficult because that is not a thing that people are doing. So I recognized very early on that if I was going to do things that I wanted to do, I had to create the opportunities. Cause no one was out here doing it. So it was imperative that I wrote this for myself 'cause I know myself the most. I've been put in so many boxes as an actor and I wanted those boxes to go away. And who creates those boxes? The writer. I know there won't be a box because I wrote it. So it was maybe just like a power and leverage thing to be able to really showcase myself in a way that really showed the range of what I was able to do without the limitations of people stereotyping me. 

You’re, of course, correct. At the moment, I can’t think of many Black queer characters in mainstream horror movies. 

And if they are, they're not living to the end. They're usually used in a very tokenized way. So it felt very revolutionary for me, someone who exists in this body daily to put myself in a genre that is often not one where people like me exist in a way that's full or authentic. So it felt very intentional to juxtapose this particular genre with my identity.

This ensemble is stacked with so much comedic talent. Did you have a hand in casting or were there any parts that you wrote with specific actors in mind?

It was Tracy and Tim. They were very intentional with their casting. And then Leah [Daniels] Butler is the casting director. I thought it was very clear in writing the movie that there was the intention of me being in it and kind of knowing what is needed from each of these characters was always very clear. So I think I felt good in surrendering that to Tracy and Tim because they knew what the film needed. They did a great job. That's why we had the ensemble that we had, and to have those partners I think really allowed me the freedom to kind of move out of the way so I didn't feel like I had to have a hand in every single pot. But they were also very empowering and allowed me to feel that I did have my hand in everything.

Where did the inspiration for the board game come from?

I think, visually, board games are fun. Also, very Black. I feel like a lot of families be playing games and adding the board game also speaks to references for certain movies like “Saw.” It added another layer of the commentary that we wanted to have around the genre. 

When it first starts, it feels like it’s going to be like a horror “Jumanji.” 

That is what people on the internet are saying: Black “Jumanji” meets “Saw.” Cool, love “Jumanji”!

But, of course, it’s nothing like “Jumanji.”

It's been very cool to see how people receive the trailer and me knowing what the movie is. Some people are saying like: Oh, I'm hoping they didn't put all the funny parts in the trailer. And they have no clue how many jokes are in this movie.

Especially Spades as a villain origin story. 

Yes. Often in these press things people ask who knows how to play Spades? And it's very divided. We played the first time we met on set. People started playing Spades immediately and it was very clear who f**ked with Spades or who did not. Cuz they were like, who's playing? It was a very clear “me” and and a very clear, “not me.” Me and X [Mayo] in particular were like: “No. We've seen marriages ruined over Spades.” We don't have the passion to play this game the way other people play it. Spades is like an institution. Me and Tracy always thought it was so funny. We thought: Is this too dumb to make a horror story? And we were like, it's just dumb enough. We're going there. 

I’m rarely the first hand to go up for Spades. I just don’t live that life.

And there's a skill where people know what cards you have based on what card has been played. Like they keep that mental math and I just don't have that for this card game. I just don't have it. The last time I played Spades I was at a comedy festival in Ohio and I was playing with older comics and I told them, if at any point y'all start to get loud and aggressive, I'm going to quit. They were like, okay. And the moment they did, I said: “That's enough for me. Thank you so much.”

I think most Black horror films, when it's specifically comedic, they’re attempting to critique Black lack. The joke is about how we don't exist in this space and what it would be like if we did. Whereas I think this film feels like it's not in conversation with what doesn't exist, but the rich Black cinema that does exist. Could you talk about writing toward the latter rather than the former?

I think that was something that was very intentional, that we did not want to make a spoof. We wanted to make a horror movie that happens to have Black women and using the authenticity of the lived experience and how does that affect what happens in this movie? I'm sorry, in real life I'm not gonna go in a dark basement, so why would I do it in a movie? Creating a movie for the people that watch movies and don't do that. Giving a voice to that person in the movie who's there for the entertainment value. I think that's why when you watch it in a theater with people, it's such an experience. We wanted to create something for the people that yell at the screen. There's a moment in the film that's very subtle, but when we're watching Yvonne's character on a television, that is a moment where we the actors are the observer. We the characters are the audience and we’re screaming at the tv doing exactly what the real audience is doing to us. That's the meta aspect that we really wanted to imbue in it, similar to “Scream.” We've been very self-aware. But just in a Black way.

And it very much exists on its own. 

Yeah. We've seen what “Scream” did. And that was cool. We saw what “Get Out” did. We just saw all of these fantastic films. Now this is our version. After we have observed the art, this is what the art has created. It's just a new version of what's there. 

What do you hope people take from “The Blackening” once it's finished?

That it’s very fun. I think that has been my response to most people who've seen it. It's very fun. It's entertaining. That's really what I hope people take from it, that they leave the movie and they say I feel better about life. I wanna watch this again with my friends cuz that's really what it is. Our goal was to create a movie that we would want to watch again and again. And I've seen this movie so many times now and each time I'm like, this is good; this is fun. So that's really all that I hope people take and if they take something deeper, great. If not, great. There is a lot of intentionality behind the choices that we've made. But at the end of the day, it is a fun, silly movie about friendship and not dying.

“The Blackening” is now playing in theaters. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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