The erotic thriller received a second life in the 2010s, when the proliferation of streaming services partially recreated the enormous straight-to-video mileu that sustained the genre in its heady heyday during the mid-1990s. This time around, however, there was a more distinctively African-American subgenre of erotic thrillers, most of which focused on upwardly mobile black couples who were torn asunder by the temptations of a white woman. Screenwriter David Loughery penned the foundational film in this subgenre, 2009’s Obsessed, which reimagined Fatal Attraction through the lens of African American identity. Eleven years later, he provided a bookend to this flourishing of black thrillers with Fatale, a film that takes stock of the subgenre’s legacy in the wake of Black Lives Matter, and escalating white terror.
Of course, as a capstone of the latter-day erotic thriller, Fatale makes these sobering points by intensifying everything absurd, lurid and psychotic about the genre. As usual, we’re presented with a wealthy black couple – Derrick Tyler, a sports manager, played by Michael Ealy, and Tracie Tyler, a real estate saleswoman, played by Damaris Lewis. Derrick and Tracie live in an enormous mansion whose infinity pool commands panoramic vistas of Los Angeles. They seem to personify the good life, against a near-constant rnb backdrop that makes the first act feel like a sustained music video. However, for all their wealth, the couple hasn’t quite made it to the uppermost echelon of luxury, while Derrick, in particular, isn’t entirely comfortable in the economic bracket that they do occupy. As the film begins, he’s on the cusp of landing a major deal that will shoot his stock prices into the stratosphere, but it’s no sure thing, and his anxiety is compounded by his uncertainty about where Tracie goes at night. She says that she’s showing customers luxury properties, but Derrick remains somewhat sceptical.
To a certain extent, the black erotic thriller suggests that these anxieties can never be fully satiated. No matter how wealthy black folk become, or how much status they accrue, the subgenre suggests that they can never crack the final glass ceiling of the good life, since in the last instance the good life is defined as a figure and function of whiteness. It’s a similar dilemma that we find in Kanye West’s middle period, and between the releases of Yeezus and The Life of Pablo in particular. During this time, Kanye entered the 1% with a new visibility but that just seemed to make him intuit more urgently a 0.01% from which he would forever be excluded, producing the same mixture of wealth and anxiety that we see in the black erotic thriller. In a nod to Indecent Proposal, Derrick takes a trip to Las Vegas to deal with his stress, where he finds himself having a one-night stand with Val Quinlan, a woman he meets in a bar, played by Hilary Swank. When he leaves for Los Angeles again the next morning, he vows to never see her again, but white women can never be discarded in this particular subgenre.
For no sooner does Derrick arrive home than his house is robbed by a masked intruder, who almost kills him before escaping. In an older kind of exotic thriller, such as Jagged Edge or Basic Instinct, audiences would immediately wonder whether this intruder was Val herself, but an even better twist emerges – Val turns up as the police officer in charge of investigating the case, and seems just as surprised to see Derrick as Derrick is to see her, since he told her that he lived in Seattle. In this way, Loughery and director Deon Taylor update the subgenre’s phobia of black women for the Black Lives Matter era, when the sanctity of white women has become the raison d’etre of police brutality more than ever, just as unprecedented social media has also reminded black Americans how often white women are likely to report them. A double home invasion ensues, first by the criminal, and then by Val, who quickly collapses the detective and femme fatale into a single antagonistic institution. These two figures might have been diametrically opposed in noir, but together they worked to define an urban optic that excluded black folk by rote. In Loughery’s vision, black people are the darkness of noir, the unseen presence that feeds Val’s occult power as both femme fatale and police officer.
Again, this intensifies one of the pervasive tropes of the black erotic thriller – namely, our tendency to feel the thot’s presence from the start, in the ambience and sightlines of the spaces that prefigure her. As both fatale and detective, Val commands these scopic vantage points unusually directly, even or especially since Derrick’s house initially appears to command the most panoramic vistas in the entire film. Nevertheless, he always finds himself looking up at Val whenever she comes to visit – from the floor, from lower levels in his house, and finally from the bottom of the enormous sweeping driveway. Not only does Val dominate these sightlines, but she starts to set up alternative sightlines for Derrick, such as taking him to the beach, and casting his gaze across a massive field of sand to the picture windows of an oceanside property where his wife and best friend Rafe Grimes, played by Mike Colter, are making love. Over time, Val conditions Derrick’s sightlines to such an extent that he becomes an asset in her revenge on her own ex, councilman Carter Heywood, played by Danny Pino.
In the process, Val’s lurid backstory speaks to the way in which concerns over the sanctity of white motherhood fuels racism against black people. In a sense, Val and Derrick have the same enemy in Carter. On the one hand, Carter has been accused of siphoning funds from an urban renewal project expressly directed at Los Angeles’ African-American population. But he has also spatially excluded Val to the radius of a hundred yard restraining order, a gesture that is equally enabled by his political corruption, as we see when he assures her that his connections in the judicial system means that she will never receive custody of her daughter. As far as Carter is concerned, Val is no longer a mother – he tells her this to her face – but instead of seeing herself as allied with Derrick against this political monster, she instead uses Derrick to reclaim motherhood as her right and privilege. Over the course of the film, Val kills everyone in Derrick’s life, and frames him for it, using the home invasion as her own point of invasion into his deepest fantasies. At first, it seems like her end game is to expand the ambit of his case until solving it brings her sufficient accolades to win back her daughter, but with Carter so involved in the legal system she pivots to forcing Derrick to murder her ex-husband.
In doing so, she forces Derrick into downward mobility, bringing back his somewhat repressed hustler upbringing in the form of his cousin Tyrin Abernathy, played by Tyrin Turner, who, we learn, took the rap for him at a critical moment in their early lives together. Now, Derrick has to both confront the way he betrayed his fellow black man and draw upon his cousin’s street resources to defy Val, embracing his disavowed gangsta self in order to thwart her plan. Yet Tyrin simply turns into more collateral damage, becoming the last member of Derrick’s circle to die at the hands of Val, whose final transgression lies in suggesting to Derrick that they both frame Tyrin for the crimes that she has committed. This all builds to a showdown in which Val morphs into slasher mode, and Tyrin defeats her, but only just. His final retort is teling her, in the moments before she dies, that “your daughter deserves much better than you,” but this rejection of white supremacist motherhood is as fleeting as it is volatile, and leaves open an entire franchise of Val surrogates or slashers waiting to continue her mission.