There were so many actors of color in the 2016 horror film The Watcher that I felt compelled to investigate it halfway through to see if its creative or production teams were black (answer: nope and definitely not). Despite being a horror movie junkie, The Watcher is not my normal smack. This is the kind of film I would have kept shuffling down my to-do list until I hit a 3 AM fiend wall on Netflix. So imagine my surprise to discover it starred a black X-Man, my dude Hank from Sirens, the always-looking-at-me Tracie Thoms, and a Miss Evers’ boy.
More surprising to me as the movie droned on was that the story didn’t reference the ethnicity of the black characters once that I can recall, which is saying a lot when 70% of your cast are people of color. Despite the first five minutes of the film when two Asian characters forego English, making me think I’d clicked on the wrong film, there isn’t any reference to anything but plain ol’ American suburban family living and horror tropes. It was the kind of polite, happens-to-be-mixed diversity a lot of people always claim to be looking for from art (most notably black actors looking to expand their opportunities to engage things like their craft and paychecks).
I was surprised because the lack of reference to their ethnicity made the whole exercise feel utterly false. I mean, in so much as a ripped-from-the-headlines Lifetime horror movie can be said to be expressing any reality, a non-referential predominantly black reality – based in Los Angeles, no less – seemed downright odd. Even if we weren’t living in the post-Get Out era it would still feel a little ridiculous to see a bunch of black actors work a gig that takes the stand that black people can be as dense as their white counterparts, “so take THAT, racism! Now please, kill me and my loved ones in the most ridiculous set-up imaginable.” The Watcher is the cinematic equivalent of the phrase “I Don’t See Color.” And the problem with that is, while it may very well portray how some black people live, it isn’t how a bunch of black people would live together under the circumstances. If three out of four people at a dinner party are black, they’re going to bring it up to the one who ain’t. Or if your neighbors are black and your black-owned house is being tagged and entered by a stalker over and over, their response is unlikely to be “Come on over and I’ll give you some self-defense tumbling lessons.”
There was no culture, or rather there was a complete scrubbing of culture, which made the whole affair sterile and unrealistic. It’s a liberal fantasy about a world in which we can all get along by never bringing up that we’re different, or worse, tries to prove that there isn’t anything wrong with our differences by making all characters the same. And what do you think the default setting on American suburban life looks like, what it talks about? Or what it doesn’t?
This is where I’m supposed to admit that this is a lot to put on a Lifetime horror film. And any other time I might concur. But there are so, so many people of color in this film that there had to be intention in their casting. Horror does not ask that of its creators. Horror is content to let them do whatever they want. It is the beauty and curse of the genre, and no matter how it’s applied, it rarely acknowledges black people even exist. So a lot of black people is beyond noteworthy; it’s a point. This just isn’t making the point I think the director was shooting for.
A little digging I did about the true story this ludicrous romp is based on suggests that some of the participants may have been black. If that were true, it doesn’t change anything about the job of the film’s casting. Almost everything about the film is a complete fabrication. The only thing relevant to the real world source material is that someone sent somebody some scary letters; the family in question never even moved into the house. 99% of this film is completely untrue. It shouldn’t even suggest it’s based on a true story at that point. So I’m not inclined to let the filmmakers off the hook on the basis of “based on true events.”
If it’s not clear, I am in no way advocating for the viewing of this film. The Watcher is not the worst thing I’ve seen this month, let alone ever, and it’s far from the best. Like 70% of its field, it’s a dumb ass horror film that demands one-dimensional characters make all the requisite bad decisions to start the engine. But this one, perhaps intentionally but probably not, suggests something more insidious than a stalker dressed in a bird outfit. It suggests a reality in which your blackness doesn’t mean anything. That’s way more horrifying than a couple of gross letters in the mail.