Nikyatu Jusu’s new film, Suicide By Sunlight, manages to pull off a refreshing, masterful, and evocative twist upon the legacy of vampires in cinema while exercising our expectations in this blood-loving territory of the horror genre. The praised Sundance selection also pays homage to revolutionary works in black film and horror to come before it, such as Ganja & Hess. But Jusu’s piece brings a bold new life to a narrative built upon the curiosity around the undead – motivated by tethering the supernatural realm of vampire lore to something tangible and scientific like melanin.
“In terms of melanin, it’s grounded in science,” says Jusu in an interview for the Shadow and Act blog. “Black people are more protected from the sun. Grounding that in the genre, so many people miss the opportunity to explore that, from True Blood to Interview with A Vampire, because they’re only thinking about whiteness.”. With that sentiment in mind, Jusu also presents a classism divide between the night-stalking vamps we have grown a custom to in pop-culture and day walkers who are trying to hang onto the remains of normality. Valentina (Natalie Paul), the protagonist of the film, is one such day-walker who is struggling to curb her insatiable bloodlust so that she might regain custody of her daughters.
However, what is most intriguing about Jusu’s short is the fear and otherness imposed upon Valentina and those like her by the world at large. This encompasses so many levels across the black experience, which is where its primary focus resides, but also hits hard for other groups of marginalized people like LGBTs, and people living with HIV. It is all of these haunting themes of otherness that drives our protagonist to deadly acts for the sake of protecting her children, who might also have some vampirism lurking deep within.
It’s certainly an ambitious film to tackle, but one that Jusu has done with great integrity and seemingly with ease.