Us (2019): An Urgently Clever Emotional Sledgehammer

A family's summer vacation is interrupted one night when they're forced to confront a menacing group of people outside their home. Who look exactly like each of them.

Written & Directed by Jordan Peele

Spoilers Ahead!

Nightmares surrounding abandonment, separation, and confinement have followed my subconscious for a lifetime. They've given me not only sleepless nights, but unbearable thoughts about the darkness that looms in reality and my vulnerability to it. Being little, everything was so large and oftentimes frightening. Maybe the relative safety of home and the TV (knowing Thriller wasn't "real" yet, OMG zombie Michael Jackson is gonna get me!) were ways to ease my inner tension and face my fears. In Jordan Peele's latest, a little girl with symmetrical plaits and an oversized Thriller t-shirt leaves the safety of her parents to venture into a very dark boardwalk attraction at night. It is the tone of her voice, her sweet solemn face, her attraction to a macabre piece of pop cultural art and ominous circumstance that completely destroys me. Us, its cold opening and the eerie tale that follows became a test of my own emotional state that I was not prepared in any way to face. And that's just one of the ways that makes this heavily symbolic film so brilliant.

The feelings of loss and disconnect that can be irreversibly devastating will force a lot of negative energy out. In the fashion of its genre, Us makes manifest this force. Monsters or misunderstood mirrors, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) carries the burden of knowledge of the abandoned and confined. While she and her family face themselves in their living room, confused and petrified, Adelaide's emotional state is in tune and aware of the uncanny that seek to settle a score. Us, in a sense points to destroying the thing that will destory you. But its not some outside other, it is you, the accumulation of any emotional conflict that cripples your peace and seeks to devour your soul. At this moment, those thoughts and fears are particularly raw and I can imagine, Us will conjure this in others who may have been carrying their own weight for even longer. Us is a massive undertaking in personal and political ethos. I couldn't help but note how unsettling real it felt for me while making some bold jabs at us collectively, and the dark histories we embody.

The film makes affirming political statements about privilege, entitlement, materialism, gender dynamics, covert programs, programming, everything you can likely imagine that has led to making us, us. Further, it demonstrates the blossoming sub-genre of Black Horror. Author Tananarive Due has made accessible its tenets in her class. Some of them I found within the frames of Us:

Enslavement and Subjugation - The people below are confined and were initially controlled by an unseen people/institution/force.

Visibility - The Wilson's are a typical family living their lives. They have very common and relatable quirks and traits while being a dark-skinned Black family on the big screen.

Power of Family - Note the sequence when the Wilson's have to kill the evil-Tyler's in a sequence that hints at the unity they must adhere to in order to survive.

Intergenerational Racial Trauma - From the very beginning and throughout the film, the Black families (young Adelaide and her parents; her family as an adult) are forced (or compelled) to be separate from each other which was a distinct practice during slavery and a very relevant mode of control today.

While not a film focusing directly on race matters, the implications remain because of its current, unique position as a horror film doing something the genre has never done before which is simply making a Black family the drivers of the film's messages. Peele home run's his aesthetic choices to relay these points by forsaking capacity in both plot clues, music, and horror film references.

Why is Adelaide only eating very ripe red strawberries while her family lunches on Long John Silver-esque fast food? Even in some melodic score choices, I hear a little of Brian May's composition from Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). A long shot of young Adelaide was in the flavor of a Kubrick set-up in The Shining (1980). And I can't help but get the hint that hearing The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" when the Tyler's are eradicated by their doubles has a Manson murders vibe because of who Charlie kicked it with before things really went spiraling. These are just some of choices that ramp up the terror and humor Peele brings to his auteur affair.

I imagined, after picking at the trailer a bit last Christmas that this would be a film I could easily weave into much of the work on Black horror others and myself were doing. I thought this was going to be a clever psychological work on the dark, manifestations of our inner selves. I dreamed we would herald another one of the very few Black female heroes in the genre in Nyong'o who is! Us is all of these things and so much more.

For more insight:

White Fright; Or, Why Are There No Black People in Haunted House Movies?

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