Actress Samara Weaving, covered in blood in "Azrael."

‘Azrael’ and the cinematic specter of anti-Blackness

A wordless horror movie stumbles into unfortunate images that recall ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Samara Weaving stars in "Azrael."

Courtesy of SXSW

Austin’s SXSW Film Festival played host to Azrael, E.L. Katz’s dialogue-free, post-apocalyptic horror drama about a young woman (Samara Weaving) escaping a mute cult in a forest setting. While it features gore a-plenty, the movie struggles to stay a dramatic course, owing to its unwieldy use of imagery and lack of explanatory dialogue. Its visual storytelling seldom clarifies the story’s underlying specifics, so its casting and volatile symbolism end up inviting readings that harken back to violent anti-Blackness in decades past. This, in turn, makes Azrael a vital conversation piece when it comes to the racial coding of Hollywood cinema—intentional or otherwise—given how it recalls not only a hateful cinematic landmark from over a century ago, but the more recent films of Jordan Peele, which have sought to subvert Hollywood’s racial status quo.

In Azrael, Weaving’s character is on the run alongside her romantic partner (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) from a group of Christian zealots, but the reasons for their escape are left unclear. Little in Katz’s visual storytelling elaborates on anyone’s underlying motives, so the audience is often left to intuit what might be going on—which is where the movie’s casting comes into play. Weaving is a white woman, while Stewart-Jarrett is Black, and for most of the movie, he plays the only Black character on screen. The cultists initially seen on their tail are played by white actors, so whether or not the film’s ensemble results from race-blind casting, these dynamics might prompt audiences to infer an anti-miscegenation bent on behalf of the movie’s villains. Their church is also adorned with paintings of premonitions, one of which features a white woman with blue eyes and blonde hair—a rudimentary drawing that resembles Weaving, and keeps the specter of Aryan whiteness in the movie’s margins.

That’s an interesting place for a horror movie to begin: an armed cult of mostly white religious extremists, who chase down an interracial couple, as implications of white nationalism hover in the background. In the absence of any other information, it’s hard not to read the villains as white supremacists of some kind—or at the very least, anti-Black racists. Only one of the cult members initially seen appears to be non-white (played by Phong Giang, an East Asian actor from Germany), and while this may have poked a hole in such racial readings in years past, Azrael arrives at a time when the films of Jordan Peele—particularly, his iconic 2017 horror-satire Get Out—remain at the forefront of Hollywood’s consciousness. They’ve since led to waves of imitations, homages, and attempted racial subversions (Antebellum, Them, Cracka, Karen, They Cloned Tyrone, and so on), as well as a general elevation of socially conscious Black horror.

Get Out was praised for its innovative premise, wherein white liberals sought to control Black bodies in the most literal sense: by transferring their consciousness into them by way of ritualistic surgery. But among the sea of white faces in Peele’s debut was also an East Asian businessman who, though he had only a minor part, functioned as a minor statement about the ways in which non-Black minorities benefit from anti-Blackness and white supremacy. This has proven true in highly visible ways since Get Out’s release; just last year, numerous anti-Affirmative Action movements were led by Asian American groups, or people using Asian Americans as pawns. Views on the subject are mixed, but the ruling has also contributed to an ongoing reckoning with anti-Blackness within many AA+PI communities.

To cast a lone Asian actor alongside white religious extremists, in a film where this group is seen chasing down a Black man romantically involved with a white woman, isn’t a politically neutral choice, even if the intent is “race-blindness.” Even as nominal diversification, it speaks to an evolving understanding of the place Asian-ness occupies in an anti-Black world. As Azrael goes on, its use of racially charged imagery becomes increasingly unwieldy, and starts to seem accidental. The film also involves zombie-type figures who occasionally emerge from the forest and consume human flesh, and though they have charred black skin, there’s no overt racial coding to them—that is, until a key moment where history is summoned in unavoidable ways. One of these zombie monsters is hanged from a tree by a white character, and though the scene lasts mere seconds, the image of a blackened body swinging from a noose recalls the horrors of Jim Crow-era lynchings against Black Americans.

Actors Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams sit together on a yellow couch in "Get Out."

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in "Get Out."

Still frame from "Get Out"

This sort of historical symbolism continues to cascade, between Stewart-Jarett being held in chains by the cultists, and Weaving discovering he’d been handcuffed to a tree stump, recalling the auction blocks of America’s slavery south. Eventually, the movie inadvertently reveals that these implications of white supremacy may have been accidental—or at the very least, poorly thought out—when a Black extra appears as part of the cult an hour into the runtime, throwing the film’s existing imagery into disarray. Assuming—in good faith—that the filmmakers missed these implications, or simply decided not to assemble them into a coherent thesis statement on racial violence, Azrael still unavoidably inserts itself into a long history of such images, the conversations on which have been ongoing at a heated temperature, as recently as last week.

If you don’t spend much time on X—the website formerly known as Twitter—you may have missed some recent chatter about D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and whether or not the movie can still be watched and enjoyed, given its unsavory implications. The 1915 silent epic is often hailed as a pioneering work, but one whose deeply racist imagery helped revive the KKK. Stances on the movie vary, from claims that it engineered numerous cinematic techniques, to opposing views that it merely appropriated them from older Italian films like Cabiria—followed by further retorts that regardless of their origins, these aesthetics of staging and editing became part of Hollywood’s action lexicon thanks to Griffith’s work.

The Birth of a Nation casts a long shadow over modern American cinema, especially in the horror genre. It helped establish the visual language of fear in Hollywood movies, owing to its central tale of a caricatured Black man (played by a white actor in Blackface) lusting after a white woman, before being heroically thwarted by enrobed Klansmen. The influence of this imagery, of dark figures threatening to sully white feminine purity, takes hold in many subsequent Hollywood classics, from the jungle savagery of King Kong to the large-lipped Creature from the Black Lagoon—a point thoroughly expanded upon in the fantastic Shudder documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror—and Azrael doesn’t exist outside this lineage.

A white actor in Blackface is surrounded by people in white sheets.

Despite pioneering a number of cinematic techniques, "The Birth of a Nation" also contains deeply racist imagery.

Still frame from "The Birth of a Nation"

Horror Noire also makes a point of discussing counter-examples which have subverted or highlighted anti-Blackness throughout Hollywood history. One of these was George Romero’s early zombie classic The Night of the Living Dead from 1968, which presented a Black man, Ben (Duane Jones), as not only a hero, but a victim of tragic racist violence despite his heroism. Between this, and the Haitian origins of the “zombie” in fiction—born from fears of colonial control over Black bodies—the zombie sub-genre isn’t free from the specter of racism either. So, no matter how much Azrael attempts to obscure the features and origins of its mindless, dark-skinned cannibals, these cinematic echoes remain.

Coupled with its numerous awkward instances of charged imagery—those which recall systemic hate crimes of years past, and those which draw from more recent and subtle critiques of American racism—Azrael occupies a strange place in modern horror. Perhaps it’s a film destined to be forgotten (it doesn’t yet have a release date), but it’s a key example of the ways in which cinematic landmarks, from The Birth of a Nation to Get Out, worm their way into our understanding of moving images, and remain vital to study and explore.

Published on March 27, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter