The cannon of Black horror films is limited. The cannon of horror films featuring Black queer characters, even more so. It's a sobering reality that Black fans of the genre have endured for decades until the mainstream explosion of Academy-Award-winning writer/director Jordan Peele's cinematic success. In the spirit of Peele, Atlanta-based actor, writer, and filmmaker Isaiah Rice is on a mission to change the face of horror again.
An openly gay man and lifelong horror fan, Rice is turning the 1980s-inspired grindhouse horror aesthetic on its head in his latest short film, "He's Watching You." The film follows Sidney(Rice) and Ryan(Schyler Tillett), a young millennial 20-something Black queer couple visiting a cabin in the woods for a romantic getaway to rekindle their broken relationship. Sidney is a recovering drug addict fighting to stay clean after rehab. Ryan is a recent law school graduate with hopes that the cabin trip will bring them closer together now that Sidney has reached a level of sobriety. While their backgrounds differ, one key thing remains true– their love for one another. However, as romance unfurls at the beginning of the night, it ends in horror with a fight for survival.
"While the core leads are two Black queer men in a relationship, the focus of the story is not centered around their sexuality," Rice says. "This is an issue that most films focus on when it comes to having queer characters. The general queer storylines seem to focus on the trauma of coming out of the closet, hiding your sexuality from society, or at times being oversexualized. "He's Watching You" is a grindhouse horror film, but it has nothing to do with the character's sexualities. They happen to be a queer couple in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says.
A dance and political science alum of Bates College, Rice tells The Reckoning the seed for "He's Watching You" was first planted after expressing his frustration to a film professor about the lack of representation of Black queer couples in horror.
"Anytime you see a Black queer man on film in a relationship, his partner is always white," Rice says. "And I remember voicing this to him, and he was like, 'Okay, so clearly this bothers you. What are you doing to change it?'"
Rice also recalls reading author James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room" around the same time and having a similar reaction that pushed him further toward creating the kind of representation he wanted to see.
"James Baldwin, a Black queer man, is writing a queer piece of literature about two white men being in love. And I was like, what would this look like if they were Black? You don't get to see a lot of images of two Black queer men in love," he says. "I wanted to show Black queerness at the forefront."
Before diving into his latest project, Rice released "Kevin's Curiosity" (2020) and "Vengeance" (2021) with limited resources. Both are short films centering on queer Black characters. Rice says he's intentional in pre-production and on set about the type of film he's making and has zero tolerance for anti-Blackness or homophobia.
"If anything around Blackness, queerness or two Black men being in a relationship bothers you, this is not the project for you. I'm very adamant that this is what it is," Rice says before acknowledging how homophobia reared its head with potential Black collaborators.
"I did go to other Black filmmakers, but this wasn't a project they wanted to work on," he says. "And I think that's another conversation regarding Blackness, queerness, and homophobia. At the end of the day, I'm still going to push forward a Black queer agenda."
Continue reading here.