March 4, 2019
Carving a Path Out of Hollywood’s History
Xavier Burgin MFA ‘15 on Social Media, Storytelling, and his latest ‘Shudder’ Documentary
By Ben Del Vecchio
From Ohio to Mississippi, Alabama to Los Angeles, social media personality to Sundance Fellow, Xavier Burgin’s filmmaking journey is full of twists and turns. “Growing up in the deep south,” he says, “you don’t really have anyone around you who knows or who will tell you writing and directing is a viable route in life.” For Burgin, it wasn’t until he was encouraged by professors while studying at the University of Alabama that he began to seriously pursue storytelling as a passion, as a lifestyle. It’s a route that he happily advocates for and discusses transparently both in person and online.
“Some people don’t want to only connect through films,” he says, about his social media endeavors, “they want to connect through creators.” Burgin’s commitment to some 70,000 Twitter followers reflects a similar strain in his films: community building and engagement, progressiveness and diverse storytelling. His stories aren’t bound to any one format –– his repertoire includes commercials, television, short films, and long-form twitter stories.
After directing short films Olde E, On Time, and Other, and directing episodes of the Emmy-nominated digital series Giants, Burgin recently helmed his first feature: a documentary that tackles the history of Hollywood horror and the racial rollercoaster within that history.
Horror Noire premiered on Shudder this past February to universal acclaim. Lauded for its deft navigation of film history, academic scholarship, and timely social analysis, Burgin’s first feature is an arrow in his ever-growing quiver of socially-aware, naturalistically presented films.
Horror Noire points toward Hollywood’s cyclical trajectory when it comes to representation ––a trend line of America’s social progressions and regressions when it comes to depictions of black people in the cinema. Burgin cites William Crain’s seminal black horror film, Blacula (1972) as an example of this tension. “With [Crain’s] story, you know, it’s another case of one step forward, two steps back,” says Burgin. One of Horror Noire’s many subplots belongs to Crain, who tells tales of showing up on the Blacula set and being the only person of color behind the camera. It was a groundbreaking moment to have a black director helming a black story during the Blaxploitation era, especially considering Crain’s age (23) and his status as a first-time director. Blacula was an exceptional film in the horror cannon. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s early 70’s racial dynamics resulted in an all-white crew, producers, and boardrooms stifling Crain’s vision. Even when afforded the opportunity to sit in the director’s chair, black directors historically have found executing their visions difficult.
“There’s a cyclical nature to these things because there aren’t diverse bodies in power,” says Burgin –– for every Blacula or Ganja & Hess, there’s a multitude of horror movies that are rife with black horror tropes: “the sacrificial negro”, black people dying first, or the “mystical voodoo priestess.” As Burgin says: one step forward, two back. Horror Noire, despite its explications of Hollywood’s numerous horror missteps, ends on a somewhat hopeful note: Jordan Peele’s revolutionary and genre-subverting phenomena, Get Out.
Burgin’s own story underscores the hope for the future of both the genre, and people of color working within it. “Shudder,” he says, referring to the streaming service that produced his film, “could have easily hired a white guy for this. In Hollywood, that’s par for the course. But they chose to uplift a black director.” Right now, given Hollywood’s structural omissions of people of color, this kind of uplift seems more necessary than ever. Burgin’s story, like Crain’s, promises change.
However, this strategy of “uplifting” previously repressed voices isn’t without its doubters. At a USC screening for Horror Noire, one woman raised the oft-asked question of whether or not quality is sacrificed in hiring and staffing film crews and casts with people of color. In conversations around diversity and inclusion, the quality question abounds. “That’s a question that shouldn’t be asked anymore,” says Burgin, “that’s a racist question.”On his crews, both at SCA and since, he’s surrounded himself with people of color, and his work has benefited, not diminished because of it. This facet has contributed to the accolades his projects have won. “You could argue it’s because I’m a great filmmaker –– that’s what made these movies succeed,” muses Burgin, “but everything I’ve done that’s received accolades or praised has been cast and crewed primarily by people of color.”
Burgin has continued to work with people he met at SCA, and is still building his relationships with these trusted collaborators. “When I was picking my crew, I went with people like Mario Rodriguez and Angelique Molina who I trust and have worked well with,” stressing that no one should ever question choosing black and brown filmmakers simply because they’re black or brown. Burgin believes adopting a mentality of diversity and inclusion upfront is the path towards better filmmaking – a belief he continues to champion in his work.
Listening to Burgin, his dedication, devotion, and gratefulness to the communities that have nurtured him, radiates. In discussing his decision to choose USC over other programs, he cites not only the opportunity to hone his craft, but also the community afforded to him by not only the school, but also his family. “I’m lucky I have family in LA that have allowed me to rent out space at a reasonable price. It’s given me the freedom to take gigs and projects that other people can’t due to overwhelming financial and housing inequality in our city.” Social structures and conditions are a very real impediment for aspiring filmmakers, but it doesn’t mean you should give up. This industry needs diverse voices who are pushing to get their stories made.
“Come out of that school with feature scripts and with films,” he advises current SCA students.
“You’ve got to hit the ground running. No one’s going to want it more than you.”
For Burgin, after delving into the history of horror and tracking its gradual rise (a rise that seemingly parallels that of Hollywood representation), he sees it as a genre that, perhaps, offers an entry into a difficult industry: “I’ll say this: I firmly believe that if you’re an SC student with a killer Horror script, and maybe a decent short…that’s the quickest way to kick start your career right now.”
Burgin is currently enjoying his work on Giants, the digital series he’s been helping craft, nabbing Emmy and ISA nominations as well as being picked up for television by TV One. He’s expanding his proof-of-concept short On Time (developed at SCA) –– about a mother who struggles to regain custody of her daughter after being arrested for leaving her in a car during a job interview –– into the feature film he intended it to be. He’s been working on the script for four years; 42 drafts and countless notes later, Burgin is hopeful he’s finally on course to getting it made. If his previous work is any metric, On Time is not to be missed.
Follow Xavier on Twitter at @XLNB
Horror Noire is available with subscription on https://www.shudder.com/
Watch On Time on 'Issa Rae Presents': https://youtu.be/
Giants streams online at https://giantstheseries.com/