[ABSOLUTELY NO SPOILERS AHEAD… PROMISE]
The best part of Jordan Peele’s Us is how the filmmaker continues to subvert audience expectations by simply being himself and showing the world as he sees it.
In this case it is watching a family of color as our principal protagonists, nee heroes, as they fight the inevitable monster and carnage that threatens to engulf them.
More importantly, it is the relegation of the white couple to the traditional role of the best friends who you know will appear and reappear at will when some comic relief or convenient plot device is needed.
In this way Us is a totally original mainstream reinvention of the horror genre that is very much in the tradition of Peele’s groundbreaking Get Out. Our view of the upscale suburban nuclear family to which very bad things will happen is no longer beige but color-corrected.
The fact that this is about all that has changed from the usual is both the film’s strong point and its weakness. Many contemporary horror films already have a patina of social commentary and Us is no different.
It spoils nothing about Us to say that in initially taking us back to 1986’s Hands Across America campaign, where a multicultural human chain was created in cities across the United States to raise money for charities that helped people in poverty, we are being set up for the inevitable “but has the world really changed” question by the end of the film.
The attempt to make this well-to-do Black family just as human as any white family in any horror film – that is to say a bit too two-dimensional and self-satisfied – succeeds as well as it ever has. The characters are just as clueless, oblivious and bereft of individuality as any white family in a similar social class or big screen genre entertainment.
It’s sort of the way I initially felt watching gay culture become mainstreamed in the eighties and nineties and beyond with the advent of Will & Grace, Ellen, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and Marriage Equality.
Well, I guess we really have arrived, I recalled thinking. Now we can be just as average as everyone else. Hallelujah!
Never mind I was also simultaneously seeing myself like Dustin Hoffman/Katharine Ross at the end of 1967’s The Graduate – two people who get EXACTLY what they wish only to be left wondering, Well, uh, okay. You mean now this is my…reality?
Of course there ARE many more benefits to being able to finally get married or serve openly in the military than there are to being front and center in a horror film (Note: And as soon as I can think of one I’ll let you know….Oh, KIDDING!!!). But if movies are indeed one of the most enduring and mainstream social chronicles of who we really are, it’s hard not to hope for just a little bit more.
After all, George Romero’s seminal Night of Living Dead gave us a Black hero as far back as 1968 and became the social commentary scale against which all horror films got measured. I can recall finally seeing it as a teen some years later on television and being blown away at its message (Note: Don’t hate me, it was the seventies) and audacity. So is it too much to ask for a little more than that of the genre some fifty plus years later?
In fairness, Romero has stated publicly that the reason that his lead actor in Night was Black mostly had to do with the fact that the actor, Duane Jones, was simply the person who gave the best audition. Nevertheless, with a budget of $114,000 and an international gross upwards of $30 million it’s hard to imagine the director-writer didn’t know he was on to something.
This is what happens sometimes in moviemaking, happy accidents of instinct where the choices one makes pay off creatively and financially far better than anyone could imagine. One could argue the same is possible and true today, but not as likely as when your budget is $20 million plus a helluva lot more than that in marketing. Not to mention all of the release dates you have to meet (which includes both film festival and distributor/exhibitor bookings) AND the sophomore jinx trifecta of a best screenplay Oscar win, critical plaudits and box-office breaking success in an auteur driven film, your first, in the horror genre.
Sure there are countless worse problems in the real world than the success of Get Out but few if any of them are effectively addressed in the onscreen story of Us. Instead what we get is a lot of talk about the Freudian concept of our shadow selves and the consequences of such when these darkest impulses are either indulged or ignored.
It’s an interesting discussion for an abnormal psychology class but not quite the stuff that drives a good or even great horror flick.
What does give Us its engine is a bravura performance by Lupita Nyong’o, one part troubled but relentless Mother Hen and the other part vacuum cleaner-voiced scissor sister with an internal moral compass known only to herself.
It kind of reminds you of a 2019 version of Rosemary’s Baby where Mia Farrow is given the chance to portray both herself AND the Devil. (Note: And, um, NO, Lupita does NOT play the Devil in Us. There are NO SPOILERS HERE for the umpteenth time!).
Much as I adored Rosemary’s Baby I was sort of hoping for more in Mr. Peele’s second time out. But perhaps this is being unfair to him. After all, Rosemary’s Baby was based on a best-selling book of cutting social satire by novelist Ira Levin that was expertly plotted and insanely insightful. A story that dealt with another upwardly mobile couple/mother Hen in a foreboding time period in America that similarly used the horror genre to address dark privilege, the righteous anger of those who have been discounted by it and the chains that will forever tether the two together.
Hmmm, sounds awfully timely to me. And perhaps this time the film and novel from which it springs could literally be political? Though maybe that’s way too obvious.