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Jeneé Osterheldt | Commentary

In ‘Us,’ Jordan Peele delivers an American nightmare

Lupita Nyong'o in a scene from "Us," written, produced, and directed by Jordan Peele.
Lupita Nyong'o in a scene from "Us," written, produced, and directed by Jordan Peele. (Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures via AP)

The black people do not die first.

As is the horror film trope, the token black person is disposable, murdered fast and often first.

We’ve come to know it so well we try not to get attached. But Jordan Peele’s “Us” slashes some stereotypes. He turns others on their heads and amplifies a few with big neon lights.

Like the moment a white woman calls for the police and instead gets N.W.A.’s protest song against police brutality.

Just because “Get Out” was a horror film about racism, Peele is not obligated to make big societal statements.

By allowing Lupita Nyong’o to be both star (Adelaide) and costar (Red), he breaks a box. Her characters are both strong and anxious, beautiful and witty, terrifying and scared. There are no lines to be drawn around the red carpet stunner, once known as the breakout star from “12 Years a Slave” and a fighter for the people in “Black Panther.”

Winston Duke may have forever been typecast as M’Baku, the sexy pack leader he played in “Black Panther.” But in “Us,” he is a dad, not the tough-love dad, cool dad, overachiever dad, or deadbeat dad. Nah. As Gabe, he is a soft-bodied, sweet, corny-joke dad.

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Just by making films that offer nuanced reflections of black people, films like “Us,” a horror film with a loving, black family at the center, Peele makes a statement.

His ability to scare us into sociopolital awareness is part of what’s making “Us” a box office killer. Over the weekend, the film brought in about $70 million and is rating 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Get Out” was mortifying because of the real world racism it depicted. And just when we thought we most lose ourselves in the terror, he gave us laughter and a little philosophy.

Peele took what W.E.B. Du Bois called a second sight and made it into a scary movie.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” Du Bois wrote over 100 years ago, “of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

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“Us,” in many ways, finds characters again grappling with Du Bois double-consciousness.

“One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

That tearing, or something like it, is on display in “Us.” The film finds people at war with what is called their “Shadows” or “The Tethered.”

Early on in the movie, when the young son gets called out for cussing, he says to his dad something like, “When you point a finger at someone, you have three pointing back at you.”

This skin-crawling, hair-raising, fist-clenching film is very much about that inward look. We’re in an era of otherizing everyone, of canceling everything, of blaming everybody. And if they don’t look like us, we are fighting. But often, we are in the middle of spiritual warfare with ourselves.

When asked who “The Tethered” are, Red looks at the family and says, “We’re Americans.”

So no, this is not a black film or a film about racism.

“Us” is a film that in many ways metaphorically explores what America has become: Us vs. Them. Even when we’re one and the same.

We’re at a place where we need to examine how we see ourselves versus how we truly are, what it means when we have privilege and others don’t. Sometimes it’s the people who look just like us who are the have-nots while we have. Classism is like that.

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Other times it’s racism, xenophobia, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ+ that draws dividing lines when it comes to access, wealth, and the basic opportunity to thrive in this country.

And as we climb up and up and up, without lifting others, working so hard to keep certain people down, forgetting our own origin stories and that of our parents who made sacrifices for us — what does our reflection look like?

Throughout the film, the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 makes many appearances.

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.

Americans are not God, but as a nation we have a God complex, deciding who can and cannot enjoy basic freedoms. And when people ask for help, we’re selective with grace.

Who’s left in the dark corners and abandoned neighborhoods, the unfunded schools and on the other side of borders and walls, the losing side of unjust laws? Who are the people who get pushed out as we move in, those who are locked out as we close doors? How do we assign value and devalue people based on signifiers of success?

So no, the black people do not die first in “Us.” But the people we leave behind in the shadows, the pieces of ourselves we hide like little horrors to succeed, live in this American nightmare.

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And even without a mirror the real monsters are recognizable.

It’s us.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.