Despite the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations for 2019 movies, the year may be remembered in hindsight as a watershed moment for black women in a genre long snubbed by the Academy Awards: horror. 2019 witnessed black actresses play lead or featured roles in more than a dozen high-profile fright flicks, including Us, Ma, Doctor Sleep, The Intruder, The Perfection, Little Monsters, Thriller, Sweetheart, Rattlesnake, Critters Attack, Head Count, Corporate Animals, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged and perhaps most unexpectedly, Escape Room.
I say “unexpectedly” because Escape Room was marketed largely as an ensemble piece along the lines of the Saw films, in which the games/traps themselves were the stars. And while the traps are indeed the driving force in the movie’s mass appeal, it turns out the “final girl,” Zoey, is played by Lost in Space’s Taylor Russell.
Not only is Zoey black, but she’s a painfully shy and mild-mannered quantum physics blerd — certainly not a type that black women are asked to play very often in Hollywood, particularly in horror, where characters are often painted with the broadest, most conventional strokes. In the film, Zoey promises her professor that she’ll try something that scares her during Thanksgiving break, and lo and behold, she receives an invite to Minos Escape Rooms, where the lure of winning $10,000 for being the first to escape proves too much to resist.
Five other players help her solve the series of puzzles (really, the movie should be called Escape Rooms, or Xscape Roomz if this were a circa-2000 “urban” horror movie), all the while eyeing the prize for themselves: schlubby grocery store worker Ben (Logan Miller), scarred vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), geeky escape room guru Nik (Danny Khan) and yet another black character playing against type: Jason (Jay Ellis), a stock trader and alpha, American Psycho-esque corporate executive asshole.
This being a horror movie, needless to say, the puzzles get out of hand, and it quickly becomes evident that they are life-and-death affairs in which there’s more at stake than $10,000. It’s little more than a less dreary reincarnation of the Saw formula, but Escape Room does it with enough skill and production value that it makes for a fun, quick-paced diversion, allowing us to overlook the improbable puzzle solutions and the disproportionately small number of security personnel employed by a billion-dollar enterprise whose existence is so reliant on secrecy.
While Zoey isn’t the sole survivor, she’s undoubtedly the heroine, using her big brain to not only solve individual rooms, but also to outmaneuver the overall game itself and become the rarest of the rare: a black character who makes it through an entire horror movie and INTO THE SEQUEL. I guess Wesley Snipes was right: always bet on black. And always hire a reputable tax attorney.