Cassar: When the Bough Breaks (2016)
As the thot horror cycle of the 2010s progressed, directors became clearer about the real subject matter of these black erotic thrillers – the precarity of the black female middle class. Time and again, thot horror focused on black women whose homes were almost stolen out from under their noses – usually by white women, or white thots. Over the course of most of these films, the fear of home invasion usually modulated to the fear of home expulsion, as the black female protagonist found herself reduced to an alien in her own house and family.
When the Bough Breaks is perhaps the pinnacle of this cycle, right down to its title, which reduces the well-known nursery rhyme to an image of poised precarity, evoking a crisis in black family, parenthood and middle-class continuity. At the same time, When the Bough Breaks is perhaps the most figurative and adventurous in its thot, who for most of the film is coded as black, rather than aligned with white women. When the Bough Breaks also starts with the wealthiest black couple and luxuriates in the most privileged middle-class sphere of any of the films in the thot horror cycle. For all those reasons, it feels like the last classic film in this vein, forcing the films that follow in its wake to take on the burden of late work, but also paving the way for the new mode of black horror Jordan Peele pioneered one year later.
The plot is perhaps more indebted to daytime television than most thot films, drawing on the trope of the conniving surrogate that animates so many Lifetime movies. Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall play John and Laura Taylor, a couple in their forties who have every bounty life can offer – except a child. John is a corporate lawyer, but they’ve both inherited property – an enormous mansion in New Orleans and (we later find out) a smaller holiday home on Lake Pontchartrain. They desperately want to fill that empty space with a baby, so they hire a surrogate, Anna Walsh, played by Jaz Sinclair. Anna comes from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where she lives with her boyfriend, Mike Mitchell, a petty criminal played by Theo Rossi. When Mike beats Anna, the Taylors offer their house for the duration of her surrogacy.
From the very beginning, then, When the Bough Breaks taps into the primal horror of the thot cycle – having another woman, especially a white or less black women, in your house. This figure is often framed as a babysitter, but Anna is a babysitter in a more literal way, offsetting Laura’s dominion over the house with her own dominion over Laura’s foetus. In an early scenes, John and Laura go out for the night, and leave instructions with Anna as they would with a babysitter, since they’re not quite sure how else to frame her. After they leave, Anna explores the house, and makes immediate inroads into Laura’s personal space – wearing her clothes, reclining upon her bed, and caressing a picture of her and John on the bedside table.
That said, these early parts of the film are quite tasteful, setting us into a relatively realistic world that makes the preposterous plot turns all the more flamboyant and fun to follow. That’s partly because When the Bough Breaks is heavily invested in the spectacle of black middle-class life, asking us to conspicuously consume the Taylor house at any and every opportunity. We’re given a guided tour of every space and fixture in this enormous edifice, while director Jon Cassar takes pains to suffuse each scene with glass, which becomes a surrogate for middle-class taste, not unlike the pruned hedges in Obsession. Later in the film, this glassy patina grows more absurd, as when John and Anna meet covertly at the New Orleans aquarium, in one of the observation tunnels that is entirely composed of curved glass.
The film lingers just as much on corporate space, which is driven by the same tasteful glassiness. To demonise the thot, thot horror typically has to idealise black men, and present them as professionally vulnerable in the same way that their wives are domestically vulnerable. Of course, black men experience significant precarity in the corporate workforce, but there’s a special hyperbole to the way these thot thriller frame black men as sensitive alphas – so unimpeachable that they’re only ever passive to seduction, and have to be assaulted to give in to white thots. In Obsessed, Ali Larter’s character – the white secretary – had to assault Idris Elba’s character – the diligent lawyer – to have her way with him. A similar thing happens here, as Anna targets John at work, sending him erotic videos and chats throughout the day. When his bosses find out, they’re disgusted, but they also take him off his biggest case, since it turns out that Anna is a patient of a clinic he’s trying to take to court.
Unlike most previous thot horror films, however, the thot here isn’t white. She’s still a figure of the same fear, though, since in this case it’s the black working-class, rather than the white middle-class, who are preventing middle-class black women from maintaining bourgeois security. You see this anxiety written on John’s face when he drives Anna home to her Lower Ninth neighbourhood for the first time, but also when she accuses him of assault later in the film. Kicking and screaming, she draws in the police, and causes a ruckus that’s quite out of place in his upper-class suburb. Granted, the police accept John’s story, but it’s still discomforting for Laura to see how quickly Anna can frame her husband as a black criminal.
At the same time, it’s noticeable that Anna is a lighter-skinner black woman than Laura, while Mike, her boyfriend, who is Hispanic, could (just) pass for white. When John drops Anna home for the first time, Mike’s dog barks at him, as if it has been trained by a white owner to attack black people. As the film proceeds, Cassar also shoots Anna to look whiter and whiter, or at least lighter and lighter – and this occurs proportionately to her invasion and expulsion of Laura’s personal space. After Anna spends her first night alone in the Taylor house, and caresses the photo of John and Laura, Cassar cuts to a shot where she looks almost white – flooded with sun, wrapped in a white rob, and suffused with the glassy sheen of the morning.
In a further twist, we learn that Anna was actually raised by white foster parents in Memphis. There, she killed her foster father after he assaulted her, meaning that she carries the traumatic traces of whiteness in her very being. This is perhaps the most high-concept take on the thot in the thot horror cycle – not a white woman, not even a dead white woman (as occurs in No Good Deed) and not a mixed race woman either, but a black women who has partly internalised white perceptions about what a woman should be. The final climax-thot is thus the black woman who has absorbed and accepted all that white women project on her.
This process turns Anna into both a slasher and stalker, roles that have traditionally been associated with white male agency and white female victimhood in American cinema. At the start of the second act, she stabs her boyfriend repeatedly, returns to the Taylor house, and immerses herself naked in the pool, thereby claiming full ownership of the home, while repeating self-realisation mantras to herself. From this point on, she starts to assume full maternity of the baby, manipulating Laura’s diary so that she misses the meeting with the obstetrician about the child’s gender, leaving just her and John to receive the news together.
Thot aside, there’s a genuine moral panic here about surrogacy, which reflects the film’s broader anxiety about middle-class black folk perceiving themselves as white surrogates. Anna may be a psycho, and a thot, but John and Laura have no interest or understanding of her right as a surrogate either. They completely instrumentalise her body in the later stages of the film, even though they have no legal right to the baby, who by the final period of gestation has probably received as much DNA from Anna as from Laura. When Anna won’t give the baby up, they abduct her, abduct the child, and then murder her when she resists. In the end, Anna is simply the violent collateral damage for their own virulent bourgeois goals.
This brings us to the central bind of the film – the same bind that animates gangsta rap, and other forms of overtly antisocial black expression. It’s the bind of middle-class finitude – the fear that black folk can’t fully occupy a bourgeois subject position, even or especially when they have inherited the enormous amount of property that John and Laura have here, since the middle-class has been defined by whiteness from its very inception. The closest black folk can come, the film suggests, and gangsta rap suggests, is to outdo the white bourgeoisie in terms of sheer antisociality – to inhabit the middle-class by deconstructing it as an exercise in antisociality. Something of that project occurs at the end of When the Bough Breaks, as John and Anna become bourgeois gangstas, throwing caution, morality and good taste to the wind as they do anything and everything they need to secure a child as the focus of their property.
In previous thot horror films, the collateral damage for that process was usually the white female body, but When the Bough Breaks is less confident in its ability to extricate white women from black women. Sometimes that plays as paranoia – a fear of black women turning white inside – but it also plays as prescience, as an awareness that black women nearly always lose out on even these deconstructively antisocial bids for bourgeois status. In thot horror, the misogyny of middle-class life is peculiarly pregnant and precarious for black women, even or especially when black men have secured it – and the thot is the emblem of this precarity.
When the Bough Breaks thus raises a puzzle it can’t solve in the language of melodramatic realism – how can black women secure middle-class status when middle-class realism is so aligned against them? This was precisely the question addressed by Get Out, which was released the following year – and the final scenes in When the Bough Breaks seem to strain towards Peele’s off-realism, his vision of suburbia as a cinematic trope that black folk can only inhabit atonally. Call this the last film in the classic thot cycle then – a film that doesn’t resolve the questions raised by the earlier films, but intensifies and magnifies them until they need a broader and bigger cinematic language, a language Peele would help establish a year later.
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