In 2017, I remember sitting in the theaters for Get Out not knowing what to expect. Then I remember uncoding every little detail of that film for the next year with everyone who saw it. I remember insisting every black person go see it. I came to the theaters this weekend expecting my movie world to be transformed again. Again, I was audibly rooting for badass leads and squirming at the uncanny nightmares only Peele can manifest. Us, however, is its own beast--one I didn’t see coming, and we need to talk about it. Let’s get into it, shall we?
The film takes place in Santa Cruz during the summers of 1986 and present day. Back in 86’, young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders onto the beach and finds a funhouse with the tag Find Yourself in the entrance. Although what occurs in the funhouse is unclear at first, the event leaves her traumatized years later. Present day Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) heads to her summer home with husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The family takes a day trip to the beach, and the funhouse is near, looming behind them. While back at the summer home, a family appears outside of their homes, ominous in prison-style red jumpsuits. That’s when things start getting gaggy.
Jordan Peele shows us what we already should know: that black women are enduring, the stronghold of their family, tough, even with one hand tied behind their backs (or handcuffed together). Lupita Nyong’o’s dual roles will make her the feature of both my nightmares and even more dreams. With the depth these women brought to their characters, both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Madison Curry are young actors I’m definitely keeping my eyes on.
The opening credit sequence establishes the standard of brilliant visuals we experience throughout the movie. Peele gives us clever and visually powerful shots one right after the other. What the score does with I Got 5 on It is easily one of the most haunting movie moments I’ve seen in recent years. The cinematic artistry and strong aesthetic drive the movie, but the metaphors that can be teased out of any given frame truly sets Us apart. This is what I love the most about Peele’s work, the ability to dig into his work on any given level and find something to appreciate.
The film explores themes that would be considered ambitious in the horror genre. It raises questions about different types of privilege and how it plays out in our national landscape. Through an extended Hands Across America motif, it challenges how the ones in power seek to ‘help’ the oppressed. The film plays with how the soulless can be raised to find one and how the ones with soul can be trained to lose it.
Where Hitchcock’s films use metaphor to mainly create meaning through foreshadowing or giving insight into character’s psyche in a given scene, Peele takes his metaphors even further into social consciousness, where an image or line not only informs the viewer within the context of the film but speaks to the state of our country or the human condition. While more subtle and soft-handed than Get Out, the layers of subtext are much vaster in scope, the subjects of his lens more varied and complicated. I’m looking forward to getting the meaning behind a loaded line of dialogue or visual trick while discussing the movie with literally anyone who’s got time for it.
Speaking of conversation, hate it or love it (and the movie does seem to be more polarizing than Get Out), Jordan Peele’s work does what all good art should do, make people talk. Initially leaving the theater, I was undecided on my feelings about some of Peele’s choices, but I ended up having over 5 conversations, each lasting over 5 minutes, with different friends about their interpretations. While nothing is perfect, Us and moreover Jordan Peele cannot be dismissed without starting conversation about black excellence, expectations, and The United States.
We’re watching Jordan Peele create his own genre in horror. In ways, this film sticks to classic horror tropes. In Get Out, suspicions become the worst possible reality. In Us, small idiosyncrasies become caricatured, what culture has deemed safe is now made vulnerable, etc. There are even visual nods to Thriller, Jaws, The Birds, and more. Jordan seems to check off certain markers of a horror film while in other expectations, rewrites the rules altogether. While I’m still lingering on the beauty and drama of the movie, Peele has snuck in so much to unpack over time, a satisfying course with a hunger-inducing aftertaste. Jordan Peele’s work is headed in a dark and mysterious direction, tunneling towards something we’ve never seen before. In the meantime, we have Us, let’s talk, be uncomfortable and enjoy it.
Nicholas Goodly is an Atlanta poet and the Writing Editor of WUSSY MAG.