The black erotic thrillers of the late 00s and mid 10s were typically studies in black female middle-class anxiety – and none more so than No Good Deed. Set mainly over one stormy night, it’s effectively a black version of When A Stranger Calls, cementing Idris Elba as one of the lynchpins of the thot thriller. His menacing politeness has never been better, as he broods his way through every scene, conjuring up a web of deceit and malice that eventually displaces him in favour of the suburban white woman as the real antagonist of thot horror.
The film unfolds as an abbreviated first act, a sustained second act, which plays out in real time, and then an even more abbreviated third act. The first act takes place in Knoxville, Tennessee, and draws on an older blaxploitation outlook. Elba plays Colin Evans, a prison who has been sentenced to fifteen years for manslaughter. After his parole hearing is denied by a racist cop and a racist parole officer, Colin escapes from his prison van by killing the two correctional officers who are transporting him. One of them is an older black man, a quasi-Uncle Tom figure, who has taken Colin under his wing, making his murder especially heinous.
We then shift, in the second act, to an unspecified suburban location, on a rainy night, as Colin’s willingness to murder an older black men segues into a black marriage on the rocks. Terri Granger, played by Taraji B. Henson, is facing a night alone after her husband Jeffrey, played by Henry Simmons, announces that he has to visit his own father. We’re not sure whether Jeffrey is telling the truth here (neither is Terri) or whether his father is simply an excuse for something else, unsettling his relation to his family and his fatherly responsibility.
With Jeffrey out of the house, the main narrative kicks in, as Terri answers the doorbell to find Colin, who claims that his car has broken down, and asks if he can use her phone. This is the good deed of the title – helping a black man in need – and turns Colin into a home invader, as he cruises Terri’s body and house while her husband is away. He’s not overtly threatening at first, making himself at home so gradually that he’s turned into a perverse father figure and man of the house before you know it. Even though Terri is a prosecutor who specialises in violence against women at the local DA’s office, she doesn’t see the signs until it’s too late. By that time, Colin has revealed himself as an embodiment of criminalised blackness, and gangsta culture – the blaxploitation South compromising black middle-class suburban status.
For a brief moment, before this crisis, it looks like Colin might seduce Terri, but this possibility is quickly siphoned off into the driving terror of the black erotic thriller – white women coveting black men, and sidelining white women by commandeering white men. In effect, the black erotic thriller is afraid that black women, specifically, will never achieve middle-class status, or a properly bourgeois identity. Not only will white women stop them at every step, but they will incorporate black men into white suburbia, leaving black women out in the cold.
No Good Deed is so paranoid about this prospect that it has to kill off white women before they can properly see, perceive or process black men, resulting in a swathe of rapid head and face violence. Between escaping the prison van and arriving at Terri’s house, Colin murders his ex-fiancee, Alexis, a white woman, played by Kate del Castillo, with a series of rapid blows to the head. Similarly, Terri’s best friend Meg, also white, played by Leslie Bibb, arrives just as Colin is making himself comfortable at Terri’s house. Like Ali Larter’s character in Obsessed, Meg performs a kind of whiteface here, embodying the black female fear of white women, as she comes onto Colin – until he also kills her with a series of blows to the head from a spade.
On the face of it, this violence is all directed from Colin to white women. Yet the blows metaphorically come from Terri, who sets herself against white women via toxic black men, even if she (and the audience) don’t initially see it this way. For one thing, Terri aims a series of heavy head blows at Colin – hitting him with a metal candle, spraying him with a fire extinguisher – that then reverberate into the white women that he strikes in turn. Yet she also punches her own husband square in the face, and then leaves him, after the main twist emerges – that her husband has been having a long-term affair with Alexis, Colin’s ex-fiancee.
Even though she’s been brutally murdered, Alexis, and the figure of the white woman, is still the symbolic antagonist here, as the film’s negotiations between middle-class and criminal blackness resolve into a cautionary tale about chasing white women. Within the film’s logic, white women turn black middle-class men into gangstas, since it’s white women who excluded black folk from suburban life in the first place – a situation that the recent horror series Them imagines in terms of the first wave of suburban migration to California in the mid-twentieth century. Thot horror has the same thesis about suburbia, but approaches it by reworking genre rather than history, usually devoting its third act to reimagining the white woman as a slasher, rather than the traditional victim of slashers. That occurred at the end of Obsessed, and it occurs here, since Colin’s romance with white women leads to him dying in the same way as Michael Myers in Halloween – falling backwards out of a high attic window.
Of course, Michael Myers never dies, which means that the power of white women to command and cannibalise black men can never die either. The very least that No Good Deed, and the black erotic thriller can do, is to figuratively keep that possibility at bay, which occurs here by way of a sudden shift in location for a very abbreviated third act. We learn, in retrospect, that the suburban street of the second act was set in Atlanta, since Terri now moves to Buckhead, the city’s most affluent and upwardly mobile black neighbourhood. The film thus charts a passage from Knoxville, to a hypothetically framed black suburbia, to an actual affluent black neighbourhood, treating white women as an obstacle to be overcome if black women are going to traverse the blaxploitation South and achieve middle class stature.
That’s not to say that white women are absent from this finale. Rather, they return in two muted ways. First, we have a white servant motif, in the form of Terri’s new maid, who takes the place of her now-divorced husband. Second, we hear the voice of singer Dido, but swathed in a bevy of tasteful hip-hop beats. On the one hand, this final glimpse of hip-hop (otherwise absent from the soundscape) reiterates that, by expelling both Colin and her husband, Terri has domesticated inner-city gangsta culture, much as Buckhead functions as a riposte to an older kind of ghettoised black neighborhood. On the other hand, the white female voice is now firmly contained by blackness, meaning that Terri has domesticated white women as well. And this is, finally, what the black erotic thriller aims at – a utopian vision of the black bourgeois woman pursuing a trajectory that isn’t hampered by white women or by black men, but driven entirely by her own longing for mobility, autonomy and self-realisation.