This essay includes spoilers.
After seeing Jordan Peele’s new horror film, Us, I wondered if the director had created it as a warning to himself to resist the siren comforts of wealth, fame and his own id after the smashing reception he received for last year’s Get Out. Forget the voiceless and pay the price, Us seems to be croaking at its audience.
Allow me to explain: Us is about a middle-class black family, the Wilsons, who go on vacation to California only to find themselves at the center of a revenge plot 30 years in the making. The father, Gabe (Winston Duke), is a big, corny teddy bear of a man who is overcome by an almost pathological need to keep up with the family frenemies, the Tylers. The Tylers, who are white, have a nicer car, a bigger boat and a more modern, better-equipped vacation house. Gabe, much to the chagrin of his wife, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), wants to go to the beach to hang out with Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and compare boat notes. Adelaide wants to stay home and read instead of making small talk while Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) sips her mommy juice. It turns out Adelaide’s nervousness is about way more than hanging out with a bickering white couple and their bratty twin daughters.
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The Wilsons are soon visited by a family that is a twisted mirror of their own: a husband, a wife and two children, all clad in red jumpsuits and tan leather driving gloves on their right hands. Each of them is equipped with sharp brass shears that are useful for stabbing people and cutting the heads off of rabbits.
It turns out everyone, including the Tylers, have these red-clad doppelgängers, who refer to themselves as “shadows.” The shadows live underground, tethered to the whims of their sun-basking counterparts. They are a permaclass of the unseen, unheard and unacknowledged, and none of them has the ability to speak — except Red, who communicates with a creaking, disturbed hollowness, as if an animal had chewed halfway through her vocal cords. When Adelaide enjoys a Christmas of gifts, merriment and a hearty dinner, her shadow is forced to dine on raw rabbit. When Adelaide gets married, has sex and gives birth to two children, so too does Red. The shadows are crude copies of humans who experience pain, torture, madness and imprisonment from all the things that give their doubles pleasure.
Sick of their fate, the shadows emerge to conduct a massive, blood-soaked untethering. There are harbingers of disaster everywhere in the film that all point to the same Bible verse, Jeremiah 11:11: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”
Us is a jagged allegory for the pitfalls of capitalism and the resentment that mounts when we pretend those whose labor we exploit for our happiness do not exist. As social commentary, it’s not as razor-sharp as Get Out. But it still feels like an exceptional accomplishment, mainly because Peele created a role that is a worthy showcase of Nyong’o’s talent. In Us, Nyong’o is the unforgettable two-faced queen come to warn us of what will happen when we keep our own brethren out of sight and out of mind. She makes Red’s movements just as studied, precise and creepy as her voice. It is a virtuosic performance and wickedly fun. You get the sense that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?-era Bette Davis would hate Nyong’o if she were her awards season competition, before perhaps warming to her with grudging respect.
Peele has been explicit that Us is not a film about race, and yet it pulls off something that feels transcendent, both because of the unstudied blackness of its cast and because of Peele’s commitment to smartening up a genre typically defined by gore, monsters, cheap scares, or all of the above. In the history of the Oscars, only six horror films (The Exorcist, Jaws, Black Swan, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense and Get Out) have been nominated for best picture.
In both Get Out and Us, Peele builds on a tradition of black horror as social commentary and pushback against white stereotypes of blackness that extends as far back as Duane Jones’ turn as Ben in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Ben, who is actually the hero of the film, ends up getting shot and tossed on a funeral pyre when white rescuers assume he’s an enemy. This, after he’s spent the movie saving a bunch of white people from marauding ghouls looking to eat live flesh.
Peele delights in playing with tropes and subverting them. In Get Out, the black protagonist actually gets to live. In Us, the white family is deemed inessential to the plot and gets offed by the second act. In Us, the clue to Adelaide’s status as a misfit lay in her inability to snap on beat to a rapper’s ode to the communal consumption of a dimebag. Later in the movie, that same song gets reinvented with heavy, spooky, sonorous strings, courtesy of composer Michael Abels, who also scored Get Out. He simultaneously celebrates the genre and critiques it. Peele offers something for everyone: winks and Easter eggs for fanboys who consume movies as though they’re video games to be figured out, highbrow allegory for those who need more than an imaginary monster to keep them up at night, and now a fantastically twisted antihero played by an Academy Award-winning queen.
Furthermore, he broadens appreciation for the genre. Peele managed to get Oprah Winfrey (who is on record as someone who avoids scary movies) and plenty of others who are horror-averse to not only sit through Get Out but marvel at it and then see it again. He’ll likely accomplish something similar with Us. Both are too zeitgeisty to miss.
In the context of horror history, in which films such as King Kong, The Spider and The Creature from the Black Lagoon used monsters as stand-ins for black people, Peele’s success feels like a multilayered triumph. It wasn’t that long ago that a thoughtful horror film by a black director was pooh-poohed by studio executives for being too ambitious. When Bill Gunn released Ganja & Hess in 1973, in which the need for blood functioned as a metaphor for drug addiction, it was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival. But American film executives were so turned off that it was recut and released as the hackneyed Blood Couple. If you wanted to see Ganja & Hess, it was nearly impossible. The Museum of Modern Art possesses the print.
Almost 50 years later, Peele is getting the recognition that bypassed directors such as Gunn, and he is slashing his own path through Hollywood with remakes of The Twilight Zone and Candyman. He’s said repeatedly that Us is about how we are our own worst enemies. Maybe Peele is also thinking about how to avoid becoming his.