On December 6, the 2023 IndieWire Honors ceremony will celebrate 11 filmmakers, creators, and actors for their achievement in creative independence. Comedian and filmmaker Dewayne Perkins will host the event. We’re showcasing their work with new interviews leading up to the Los Angeles event.
Long before “The Blackening” became the freshest horror comedy of 2023, it was a twinkle in the eye of Dewayne Perkins. The comic, who will take the stage to host the IndieWire Honors this week, spent years making sketches about the way horror films treat Black characters. This ongoing work with the concept resulted in “The Blackening,” which follows a group of friends whose Juneteenth cabin retreat quickly turns deadly when they discover a racist board game determined to kill them.
The film, which Perkins adapted from his own sketch alongside Tracy Oliver, opened to rave reviews this summer after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival and being acquired by Lionsgate in 2022. The film turned Perkins into one of the year’s biggest comedic breakout stars — and even he can’t wrap his mind around the success. How does it feel to step onto the set of your own passion project? If you ask Perkins, he’ll tell you it’s surreal.
“There was a moment on set where Jermaine Fowler looked at me and said ‘Do you realize what’s happening?’ And I was like ‘No!’” Perkins said with a laugh during a recent conversation with IndieWire. “I was just living moment-to-moment because I was so happy this was happening at all. I remember that this was an idea that I had laying on a couch when I was high.”
Perkins’ shock was understandable, as “The Blackening” was the kind of only-in-Hollywood long shot success story that every comedy writer covets but few ever get. The idea dates back to his early days as an improv comic, beginning as a sketch performed in Chicago and Washington D.C. that evolved into a Comedy Central digital short before Oliver pitched him on adapting it into a feature film. By the time the film hit theaters on June 16, 2023, Perkins had been thinking about “The Blackening” for over seven years.
“In 2016 I was in Chicago and I needed to write an opening sketch for an all-Black sketch show I was doing at the time,” Perkins said. “And I was like, okay, it’s a sketch with all Black people, what can I do that would utilize the whole cast? And my idea was, it’s a horror movie with all Black people — who dies first?”
That succinctly satirical concept resonated strongly enough for Perkins to continue developing it for nearly a decade, picking up new collaborators like director Tim Story along the way. But even as he began expanding the world of his sketch as to develop the film, Perkins didn’t want to lose the original spark of comedic magic. He decided to keep the original sketch — which revolved around Black friends trying to decide who is the Blackest to determine who must die first in a horror movie — intact as a key scene in the film.
“Something that was very important was I really wanted to keep the original sketch within the film,” he said. “So the scene where they’re judging who’s the Blackest is a recreation of the exact sketch, because I wanted people to see the expansion from the sketch, to see that world that we built around the original idea.”
Perkins’ insistence on maintaining the spirit of his original idea while adapting to the demands of a large film is illustrative of the creative ethos powering his transition to movie stardom. “The Blackening” was the biggest mainstream opportunity of his career, but he approached the project with the same collaborative spirit that powered his early improv and sketch work. The comic was eager to see his co-stars put their own spin on his dialogue — to the point where people were shocked by his abnormally calm demeanor on set.
“The cast, I think they assumed I would be a different kind of way, in terms of being the writer. But they didn’t know that I really love collaboration,” he said. “I come from improv, sketch, ensemble, that’s where I trained the most. So I knew that in order for this film to be what it is, they have to embody this in a way where they feel like they’re bringing themselves to the roles. And they were like ‘You are so chill about the whole process!’”
A sequel to “The Blackening” is already in development at Lionsgate, but Perkins isn’t ready to pigeonhole himself in the horror comedy niche. The hyphenate was delighted that his first screenplay zagged when the world expected it to zig, and he hopes to bring his subversive style to a variety of projects in the future.
“The thing I’m looking forward to is continuing to expand the ways people see comedy,” he said. “Even with ‘The Blackening,’ before it came out there was a lot of people asking ‘Is it gonna be like ‘Get Out’ or is it gonna be like ‘Scary Movie?’ And then it came out and people saw ‘Oh, it’s neither, it’s a new thing.’ And what I want to keep doing is create new litmuses for people to consume art, and expand the ways we think about how we have to make art.”
For all of its freshness, “The Blackening” was able to get off the ground because of Perkins’ understanding of one of cinema’s stalest tropes: the Black friend always being the first to die in a horror movie. A lifelong film and TV junkie, Perkins believes that his media obsession could pave the way for him to lampoon the tired flaws of other beloved genres in similar ways.
“I’m interested in all the genres,” he said. “I’m currently working on a rom-com, but there’s so many genres that I want to explore, to put the Dewayne Perkins stamp on. I want to show people ‘Yes, I know how to make the thing that you know. But because it’s made by me, this is why it’s different. This is why it’s refreshing. This is why it’s something you’ve never seen, while still retaining the nostalgia of what you expect it to be.’”
When I mention that I can’t wait to see next projects that get the fabled “Dewayne Perkins Stamp,” the comedian didn’t hesitate for a moment.
“Me either,” he said with a mischievous smile.