Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known…
Writer-director Bomani J. Story (Rock Steady Row) makes his feature directorial debut at SXSW with The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, a tale of life, death, family, and science inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The film opens with a soft voice whispering, “Death is a disease.” That’s the first line we hear from Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes), the intelligent, science-obsessed teenage Black Girl Nerd at the story’s center. Through a slow-motion sequence, we see how much death has impacted Vicaria’s life, most recently her brother Chris (Edem Atsu-Swanzy), who was shot and killed during a gang-related altercation. Police brutality, gang violence, and substance abuse have infected her community, resulting in the countless deaths/murders of young Black men. Tired of watching all the destruction, she sets out to find a cure for death.
Vicaria is smarter than everyone around her, including her teachers. And while she does come off as a bit of a know-it-all at times, it’s not her responsibility to hide her brilliant mind to make people more comfortable. She earns the nickname “The Mad Scientist” from her little neighbor Jada (Amani Summer Boyles), who doesn’t know just how accurate the moniker is. Using Chris’s corpse and some spare parts, Vicaria plans to resurrect her brother. With her ambition and desperation, as well as genius, her experiment is successful. However, her creation comes alive as a revenge-fueled monster.
What makes Vicaria such an intriguing character are the complex emotions she experiences, usually all at once. As the title states, she’s angry. But she’s also heartbroken, curious, determined, and somehow still optimistic despite a lifetime of loss. Sure, her fascination with death is morbid and concerning to some. However, given that she’s surrounded by so much pain and violence, it’s really not all that surprising. She’s a bit twisted, and honestly, it’s great.
With the exception of a scene or two, the film takes place in a sprawling apartment complex. Vicaria lives there with her father, Donald (Chad Coleman), who is overwhelmed with grief, working two jobs, and suffering from addiction, all of which keep him from being as present in his daughter’s life as he would like. Aside from her interactions with people like her friend/Chris’s girlfriend Aisha (Reilly Brooke Stith), Vicaria deals with antagonists like local drug dealer Kango (Denzel Whitaker) and the machete-wielding Jamaal (Keith Sean Holliday).
In the scenes where Vicaria is hidden away in her makeshift laboratory, she gets to be an actual mad scientist. Assembling and repairing decayed flesh to reanimate a corpse is messy work. Director of Photography Daphne Qin Wu (Sound of Violence) captures these visceral moments up close but doesn’t linger too long on the slimy process. The sound design in these scenes is effective, and the classical music by Nima Fakhrara (Lou) adds a sense of sophistication to Vicaria’s movements. She may be bringing the dead back to life, but she does it with precision.
One word Crypt TV’s Darren Brandl used to describe The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster was “noisy,” which is the exact descriptor that comes to mind, though not always in a bad way. The jump scares were a little much after the first four. I definitely jumped a few times, the intended reaction I assume, but the blaring sounds were more annoying than anything.
The most chilling sounds throughout the film are the simplest sounds, like heartbeats, especially as they slowly come to a stop. One particular scene has many overlapping sounds that are true to the reality of the situation — yelling voices, gasps for air, audible medical equipment operations, and the beating of a heart dying out. The lumbering footsteps of Franken-Chris have a similar effect, creating a buildup of dread.
In contrast to the various startling and eerie sounds, Hayes’s voice is sweet and soothing. Whether it’s narrating the opening sequence, talking to Jada about science, or whispering assurances to her creation, her tone is always hypnotic. (Casting my vote for her to read the next Frankenstein audiobook.)
Part of what I love about The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster is that it features two young Black girls casually geeking out over science and a Frankenstein creature with dreads wearing a hoodie. Discussing the film, Story said, “Growing up, I loved watching monster movies with my older sister. We rarely, if ever, saw ones that tackled issues that were important to us, with people who looked like us.” So many horror and sci-fi fans can relate to this, and it’s artists like Story who are making waves in the world of genre film.
Bomani J. Story’s The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying. The scariness doesn’t come so much from the jump scares as it does from the tragic subject matter. Some may find the film’s thematic death and destruction of Black bodies triggering. But like Vicaria, Story and his team handle them all with care.
The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster has its world premiere at the 2023 South by Southwest Film Festival.
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Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known for film, television, and pop culture analysis which has appeared on Black Girl Nerds, WatchMojo, Mental Floss, and The Take. She loves naps, Paul Rudd, and binge-watching the latest series with her two gorgeous pups – Harry and DeVito.