The Sixth Sense scared the hell out of Bomani J. Story. "I don't know why I asked my aunt and uncle to take me to see it in theaters as a child, but I did," he recalls of first seeing M. Night Shyamalan's breakthrough 1999 horror movie. "I was paralyzed with fear watching that movie. They kept turning to me and were like, 'Do you want us to leave? Do you want us to take you out there?' and I was like, 'No. I gotta watch it.' But I was just horrified."
The same was true for Leprechaun and Child's Play, A Nightmare on Elm Street and the original 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. ("That one screwed me up pretty bad.") Growing up in the Inland Empire of California, these were the movies that kept Story up at night, but also kept him inspired. As a Black fan of horror, he also remembers the movie that made him feel included in the genre: 1995's Tales from the Hood, the socially-conscious horror anthology directed by Rusty Cundieff and executive produced by Spike Lee.
"My hot take is that Tales From the Hood is the godfather of Black Horror," Story says. "That was very monumental. I look at Tales From the Hood and Scary Movie" — Keenen Ivory Wayans's slasher parody from 2000 — "the same way people look at superhero movies, with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan's Batman as the two strongest veins that influence superhero movies today. That's how I look at Black Horror."
The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, Story's feature directorial debut, is the latest addition to that canon. A modern reimagining of Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein, the movie's "mad scientist" is Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes), a brilliant teenager who lost her mother and older brother (Edem Atsu-Swanzy) to senseless gun violence. Believing that death is a disease that can be cured, Vicaria sets out to bring her brother back to life. She becomes the angry — righteously so — Black girl, and he, her monstrous manifestation of grief. The title, Story says, "Just came to me."
A.frame: This film shares DNA with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Do you call it an adaptation? A reinterpretation? How do you like to classify it?
I classify it as inspiration. Because it's not hugely faithful, but you definitely know that it's drawing from the literature. There's no mistake about that, because that's what I was looking at while I was doing this: What happens in the book and how can I be inspired to translate that to the big screen? So, it's not an extreme, faithful adaptation of the novel, but if you read the book, you'll pick up on all the Easter eggs that are happening. As well as, if you know a little bit about Mary Shelley, I think you'll pick up on some things there too.
What were the elements that were most important for you to take from her text? And what were some of the first kernels of ideas that you wanted to add or bring to it that eventually became this?
For one, just the fact that Mary Shelley wrote this book as a f*****g joke — like, as a late-night bet — and at such a young age. I was like, 'Well, our lead has to be a woman.' The fact that she was the godmother of sci-fi horror, that's crazy! [Laughs] So, there was that. And a lot of the themes from the book, I felt, were extremely relevant. She's just so ahead of her time. A lot of it spoke to me, especially the themes of prejudice and things of that nature. So, I wanted to recontextualize those.
There were certain themes and human emotions that I feel like are being left on the floor. In the story of Frankenstein, people get caught up with man against God, which is a thread. But there's also this very potent theme of family, and how Victor's family keeps getting destroyed. I really wanted to bring that to the forefront. The importance of family. The importance of education, and what that means to someone. Not only does Victor become really smart, but so does the monster. The monster becomes very intelligent through reading books and things of that nature. I really wanted to bring in what education means to someone and how it can humanize someone.
How early on did you have the title? It's such a good title.
Honestly, the title came kind of late for me. Titles usually come later. I write the story and, once I get the story to a place that I feel is emotionally connected, then it becomes a thing of, 'Well, how does this all get encapsulated into one line? How is this making me feel? What title gives the feeling to this story? What feels appropriate?' And then, that just came to me. It just happened.
Was it the first title that came to you? Or were there other ideas?
There were other things flying around. I remember there was this other title that I had, and I came downstairs and I was talking to my friends. I was like, 'I have these two titles. Which ones do you guys feel like is better? There's one I'm leaning toward...' And I said the title [The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster] and they're like, 'That one.' I took it to my sisters and my mom and I was like, 'What do you think about this?' And they're like, 'That one.' I was like, 'Okay, I think I got something here.' So, I went with it.
It's not just catchy as hell in that it grabs you and makes you go, 'I need to know what this is,' but it is a direct confrontation of stereotypes we've seen in film and media. Why was it important to you to take that on from the jump, starting from the title?
I wish I could intellectualize the title itself. It was more of an emotion, man. It was one of those things where it was just like, 'This feels right.' I feel like there's strength in this. And I don't want to say I did it to be provocative because that wasn't it, but I do feel a lot of titles don't give a reaction to them. It might give you a little bit of mystery, but what titles make you feel a certain way? We operate on emotions, so this one felt right. And when I gave it to Laya, when she read and when she started challenging me on the title, and talking about it and started to own it, I was like, 'Oh, we definitely got something here.' And just feeling people's reactions to it. People starting to take ownership over it, and that really let me know that this title has life, so I know it's right.
What have you made of this sort of rebirth of Black horror we've seen over the past few years, shepherded in by Jordan Peele and continuing with Nia DaCosta and Nikyatu Jusu and now yourself?
I think people are finally starting to see how expansive horror can be. I think sometimes with horror, we get caught in a mode, and people think that's all it is. I remember in the 2000s, people thought horror was just torture porn, which it isn't. I like those movies too, but to say that it's only this one mode does the whole genre a disservice. I think now, you got your Hereditary, you got your The Witch, but you also have your Get Outs, and your Candymans, and your Skinamarinks. You have this incredible scope that's happening with horror that's very, very exciting. And I'm glad that horror is getting this spotlight, because for so long, it's been a genre that people kind of disregard. Oh, and don't let me forget about Pearl. I f*****g love Pearl. Shout out to Ti West and Mia Goth, goddamn!
Was the first time you saw this movie with audiences at South By, or had you had a chance to screen it before then?
No, it was at South By.
What was that experience like for you, sitting in that theater and seeing people reacting to this film that you made?
Crazy. The theater experience has been just wild. South by Southwest in particular, people were very active, to say the least. That was very gratifying to feel, and seeing how people were reacting to the story, and understanding that this might find a home. This might find an audience. That it's connecting. That was beautiful.
Have you had a favorite reaction so far? I know you've taken it to other festivals, so you've had the chance to see it with audiences a few times.
They've all had their special moments. Atlanta's audience reaction was pretty remarkable. They were real vocal about certain things. Also, when I was in Milwaukee, these students rallied around this movie to get it programmed, and hearing their thoughts about it and how they feel about the movie, and it inspiring them to want to make horror movies and stuff like that, that was f*****g awesome. And then in Minneapolis, I played in the same theater that Prince performed at, which was crazy. In Jim Thorpe, we played in this opera house, so that was really awesome. So, there's been a lot of great reactions. Even in Canada, I was in Calgary and they were acting up in the theater too. They all have had their shining moments.