His House: The eternal return to the middle passage
Relevant and brutally honest, Remi Weekes' cinematic debut is an important piece of Black Horror. One that tells an unprecedented supernatural story that is terrifying thanks to both its spirits and its racial critique.
The 'Black Horror' movement, which seeks to establish an afro gaze in horror movies, is a tendency that has become increasingly stronger over the last few years. Naturally, the first name we think of is that of Jordan Peele, who in 2017 gave birth to the revolutionary work of cinema that is Get Out: a racist portrayal of American society that questioned the ways in which the black body has been traditionally depicted in the horror genre. Following his footsteps, a new wave of horror directors from African descent has risen to make films that deconstruct the archetypical forms of representation that have pinned down black characters to certain stereotypes in the history of horror. The loyal servant, the "magical negro", or even in slashers "the first one to die", are all archetypes that are being turned around to make way for black protagonists. But the issue is not only about giving black actors the main role. It is also about creating and depicting black characters who are woke: aware of the structural racism in which they are immersed. Aware of the fact that racism is the greatest fear they can face.
In His House, one of the main characters, Rial, makes a brief reference to this. In a heated argument with her husband Bol, discussing what they are experiencing in their new "home" -if it can even be called a home-, she states: "You think I can be afraid of ghosts?". This single line of dialogue is as powerful as the rest of the film will be. Remi Weekes' first feature film follows a couple from South Sudan, who arrive to England as refugees and are assigned to live in a house where they will soon begin to experience paranormal events. But the main question that pierces through the entire movie is: What is it that torments them in that house? Is it really a malignant presence? Or is it a reflection of their internal demons and the trauma they have experienced in the past -one that includes the loss of a child-? His House is scarier due to its rawness than to its monsters. The real torment for this couple is not a run-of-the-mill haunted house, rather the experience of having to living in a house that is not their own and a world that is completely alien to them. That is, essentially, the trauma of exile, which is depicted here as a ghost that never leaves their sides.
"I survived by belonging nowhere", says Rial while explaining to a British woman how she got the marks in her body. Marks that identify her as a simultaneous member of two tribes that have long been at war with each other. That is the experience of the exile, of the diaspora: The trauma of not belonging, of being in a perpetual non-place, of forever being an Other in a world that is hostile in the face of difference. Rial and Bol embody two radically different, though equally valid, ways of facing this experience; a duality in the ways of dealing with uprooting and the consequent life in an alien world. Rial holds on to the past, while Bol is intent in leaving it behind. She tells him: "We're not like them", to which he replies: "We can be", while proceeding to burn all of their old objects and force her to eat with cutlery and speak in English the whole time, instead of their native tongue. While he opts for assimilation and buys the clothes worn by British models in billboards, she uses a blanket to wear something that resembles the traditional dresses from her hometown. And thus continues a struggle between opposites, looked through and centered around a couple's relationship.
Moreover, His House uses a powerful iconography to accompany an equally potent political message. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the sea holds such a predominant visual place in the movie as a symbolic element to which the main characters return time and time again, mostly in flashbacks and dream sequences. For instance, for anyone who has seen pictures of slave boats from the 18th century, it is almost inevitable to think about them when seeing the shot from above that Weekes uses to show the precarious rowboat that would take Rial and Bol to England. And even getting past the visuals, the sea plays an important role within the storyline itself. In a crucial scene, Rial explains to Bol that what has followed them to that new house is an Apeth: a witch-like figure from Dinka culture that chases those who have stolen something from her. It is very interesting and notable that Weekes decided to add something of the Dinka culture to the story -even if its execution isn't visually the best due to an excess of CGI, but we are going to look over that-. But even beyond that significant gesture, what is really interesting here is that Rial mentions the Apeth as something that has risen from the Ocean, from that voyage that they had to endure in order to get where they are... It is the sea as the place of origin of their trauma, which ultimately represents the trauma of the entire African diaspora. A wound that dates back to the middle passage: That maritime space where most of the transatlantic slave trade took place, that all slaves were forced to cross, only to arrive to an alien world where their suffering would never end. A "new world" where they would never belong. A house that would always be someone else's.
The ghosts in the house that Rial and Bol inhabit are all those people who they left behind in their voyage through the Ocean. But what lies beneath it al, what truly terrorizes them, is the ghost -that is, in fact, far from a supernatural entity- of racism. The eternal sojourn in a place of not belonging. The limbo between a place that used to be their own but no longer is, and a new place that they can't seem to reclaim for themselves. It is the eternal return to the original trauma, to the middle passage, and to the demons from their past, which, as Bol notes, will always live with them.