“Death is a disease,” begins writer/director Bomani J. Story’s The Angry Black Girls and Her Monster. “And if death is a disease, there’s a cure.” And that’s exactly what 17-year-old Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes), her family and community indelibly marred by this blight, sets out to accomplish in this pressing, powerful modern interpretation of the Frankenstein story. Within the framework of this familiar narrative, Story spins a tale that, though we’ve seen before in many regards, is fresh and urgent and proves there’s still plenty of life in the corpse of Mary Shelley’s saga of the Modern Prometheus.
Plot wise, there’s nothing particularly surprising to find. Obsessed with conquering death, Vicaria, brilliant and driven, pieces together the body of her brother, killed in a gang shootout, and attempts to reanimate him. Along the way, Story infuses the well-trod horror territory with social commentary about race in America, repeating cycles of violence, addiction, and much more. Though we know the story, nothing about Angry Black Girl ever feels stale or staid, and the film plays like a monstrous scream into the darkness.
Despite the fantastic premise, much of the movie plays out with unsettling realness. Think security guards called on young Black kids who dare be anything other than subdued and submissive, white women weaponizing their own skin color and treating Black teens as a threat simply for existing, and heavy-handed militarized police wreaking havoc across communities of color. Much of this could be lifted directly from the local news or the latest viral video making the rounds on social media. Again, Story takes this classic structure and places it in a thoroughly current context with weighty results.
Hayes carries the load and gives a remarkable performance, angry, heartbroken, and single-minded as she rages against the various constraints in her life. She’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, most notably Chad L. Coleman as Vicaria’s father, broken and battered, trying to cope with his own damage and facing down his own demons, while being as supportive and loving as he can. Denzel Whitaker plays a local gang leader, dealing with all these forces and factors, though responding in a wholly different way. There’s also, of course, a creepy young child, Vicaria’s sort of niece-in-law Jada (Amani Summer).
Working on a budget, the filmmakers use inventive lighting, editing, and framing to keep things visually interesting. There are a number of gnarly gore effects, especially regarding the monster and his handiwork. A cool, resourceful production design runs throughout, and Vicaria’s makeshift lab in a condemned building in a housing project is full of improvised tools and equipment, all constructed from things accessible to her. This gives even the more science fiction elements a level of groundedness.
The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster is a hell of a debut from Story. It works as a clever update on a classic that makes the familiar fresh and new, as sharp social critique, and as engaging lo-fi indie horror. Full of gore and thrills, it also digs into heavy themes of life and death, systemic inequities, and personal traumas. [Grade: A]