They say not to judge a book by its cover, but when I saw the hand-painted movie poster for The Devil to Pay, I was all in. The Devil to Pay was written and directed by Lane Skye and Ruckus Skye. It stars Danielle Deadwyler as the main character Lemon, an actress who has recurring roles on The Haves and the Have Nots, Paradise Lost, and P-Valley, and who has a presence on-screen that makes me want to watch everything she’s in.
The movie is set in the Appalachian mountains, and we are treated to a stunning panoramic view. When some people think of the Appalachia’s they think of backwoods white folk, but Appalachia has quite a history with Black folks. That history is alluded to during the opening scene where we’re told, “In the 18th century, those escaping duty, justice, and oppression sought refuge on a mist-covered peak in the Appalachians. Only the hardiest survived, their lives becoming fuel for local legends and folklore.”
In the Essay, African Americans in Appalachia, by Dr. Althea Webb she writes about the heritage of those in Appalachia and the interconnectivity of the lives of the different races that live there. “Many Appalachian people trace their heritage to the Scots-Irish, immigrants who lived in the border regions of northern Ireland before coming to America early in the 18th century. As whites moved into the mountains so did free and enslaved Africans.
In the early years of settlement, whites, Indians, and African Americans lived in close proximity to each other, and later generations included multiracial and multiethnic people; the Melungeons, a group thought to have European, Native American, and African ancestry, were identified in Central Appalachia early in the 19th century. Additionally, the lives of African American and white Appalachians were intertwined socially and culturally. The most obvious representation of this syncretism is the banjo, a central instrument in traditional mountain music that originated in Africa.”
I was really excited to see a Black family in a modern rural setting. We are rarely characters in media set in rural locales, which is unfortunate and leads to a general feeling that Black people don’t belong in those areas even when we’ve been there for generations. We are first introduced to Lemon and Coy, a young Black mother and her son, as they go through their bedtime routine. While she is putting her son to sleep he asks for his father and she tells him that his dad is out “gallivanting”, but that he’ll come back because he always comes back and that “Ain’t nothing gonna keep him away from us”.
The next morning Lemon calls for her son to start their morning routine and she hears a noise amid the morning quiet. At this point, I thought the movie might have a supernatural element, especially due to the poster that features a crow with a dangling eyeball in its mouth and knowing about the different forms of folk magic that is practiced in the Appalachias, but I was wrong. The crow is used symbolically several times in the movie, starting first with a fable that the main character Lemon tells her son after he says he’s too tired to finish his chores.
Later that day Lemon receives a knock on a door from a white man who is an intermediary for her debt owed to the Runion family. He tells her that the Runion matriarch needs to see her and that he and another man with him will watch her son while she goes. When she meets with the matriarch, she tells her she sent her husband on an errand and since he hasn’t come through, she must take on his debt or she’ll bury her and her son. The rest of the movie entails Lemon going on a deadly errand and the trials she endures to save her family. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I will say that I enjoyed Lemon’s journey and the cast of characters she meets along the way.
If someone were to ask, is this a “Black” thriller, I would say yes because if the main character were white it wouldn’t have the same gravitas. This is especially evident in one of Lemon’s last lines in the movie, “It’s an ugly world and don’t nobody owe you anything. You do the work, you reap the reward. [Although] That’s only true if the game ain’t rigged against you.” It’s a refrain that many Black parents tell their children in different ways, most often heard as having to be “two times as better”.
Also, Lemon’s family members are used as pawns in a war that has nothing to do with them. They’re used as tools to incite violence and exact revenge, and no thought is given to them as human beings with their own hopes, dreams, and lives. The Runion matriarch even questions the validity of Lemon being able to “call a query” to bring justice for the crimes committed against her family because of the need to have been on the mountain for at least three generations. Lemon tells her that her family has been there for four generations. This othering of Lemon’s family as outsiders echoes the way Blacks in America have continually had to fight for our rights as Americans when many of our families have been here longer than some of those questioning our legitimacy. I also enjoyed that Lemon wasn’t the only Black character in the movie, so it didn’t feel like a copy and paste of a Black character into a white movie with no connection to other Black people, which is a trope that is tired and mostly unrealistic.
If you’re looking for a good thriller with intriguing characters, a unique setting, and the main character you’re rooting for through the whole movie, then go see The Devil to Pay now playing in Drive-In movie theaters, and on Video on Demand beginning October 6, 2020.
 Dr. Althea Webb, “Featured Essay – African Americans in Appalachia,” Oxford African American Studies Center, accessed October 2, 2020, https://oxfordaasc.com/page/featured-essay-african-americans-in-appalachia.
Kenesha Williams is an independent author, screenwriter, speaker, and Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Black Girl Magic Lit Mag.
She took to heart the advice, “If you don’t see a clear path for what you want, sometimes you have to make it yourself,” and created a Speculative Fiction Literary Magazine featuring characters that were representative of herself and other women she identified with. She has happily parlayed her love for the weird and the macabre into Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine, finding the best in undiscovered talent in Speculative Fiction.