Jordan Peele’s recent horror blockbuster “Us” follows his 2017 directorial debut with the Oscar-winning horror film “Get Out.” Critics and audiences have hailed the African American filmmaker as a pioneer of black horror films as metaphors for social, economic and racial injustice.
“Us” explores the monster lurking within ourselves in the form of the evil doppelganger.
Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o describes her dual characters of Adelaide Wilson, a middle-class mother and wife, and Red, her disturbing double.
“Adelaide is riddled with this trauma from her childhood that she cannot explain or shake off. And she is convinced, as they are on their way to their summer home in Santa Cruz, that something bad is going to happen. And she is proven right when at the end of the day, these four shadowy figures show up at the top of their driveway, and their worst nightmare ensues.”
Peele explores the idea of the shadow self, “which comes up in many cultures, many mythologies. And it tends to be this sense that there is a darker self that we suppress, and we suppress it because we are afraid of what it means. It holds our guilt, and our evil, really.”
Peele said he uses horror to address race relations and the growing socioeconomic divide in America. His previous horror film “Get Out” was about wealthy elderly white people extending their lives by having their brains transplanted into young black people.
“Us” is about the reckoning of privileged Americans by their disadvantaged selves.
“It’s more about what we’ve become as a country and a retribution of how we are treating each other, all centered around how a family deals with being attacked by themselves,” said producer Sean McKittrick.
“Oftentimes, we feel that the monster is from outside of ourselves, outside our borders, outside our homes. In this story, the monster is really within our very selves, and it’s about embracing that or at least recognizing it,” Nyong’o said.
Minorities in lead roles
Horror film expert Andrew Scahill said Peele epitomizes the era of black horror movies.
“I think we are at an incredibly exciting time for horror right now. Minorities taking the reins of this genre, which to be honest, it has been really exclusionary, if not antagonistic, toward them in the past.”
Scahill said in past horror movies, such as George Romero’s iconic 1968 horror flick “Night of Living Dead,” black actors were either killed off within the first 10 minutes or used as tropes to save white leading characters before getting killed off.
Now, he said, Peele establishes them as the main characters who are here to stay.
“Jordan Peele does not plan on casting a white actor in a lead role because that movie has been done,” Scahill said.
Anxiety of millennials
Scahill said the concept of the monster within is as old as Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein. The same applies to using horror as a platform for social commentary.
“It goes back even further,” he said. “When I show ‘Nosferatu,’ I show the image of that vampire against caricatures of Jewish people during the period. ‘King Kong’ is a metaphor for the slave trade. ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ depending on who you talk to, is about communism or McCarthyism or consumerism, or all of those things. And that is one exciting thing about horror — the instability of the characters. Representing our different anxieties.”
Scahill said in millennial horror films, the killing force cannot be as easily identified and, consequently, controlled. He said such themes as those explored in “Us” reflect the anxiety of millennials losing control of their socioeconomic and environmental well-being, and their inability to change the system.
“Bodies being puppeted against their will seems to be a strain of contemporary horror. And if you think about the anxieties of young people today entering the workforce and their crippling debt, it’s an endless war. It makes sense that that’s horror today.”