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US – Where the Black People Stay Alive Long Enough to be Good, Bad, and Complicated

By Stephane Dunn | @DrStephaneDunn | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Tuesday, May 6, 2019.

Here’s the first thing viewers need to understand and embrace before and after seeing Jordan Peele’s second big horror flick, US: Expect to be befuddled and remain so long after the final image and the credits end then commit to seeing it at least one more time. You can also question, is this an example of horror cinema genius or just a plain, strange, hot mess?  This is a healthy quandary.

Critical dialogue about the meaning of white rabbits and  the purpose and fate of the mirror in US, as well as the box office receipts confirm that Peele has directed two blockbuster horror movies buzzed about before and after release that have made us collectively think rather than just take notice.

Here’s another important unambiguous truth. In centering Black characters, and rewriting and directing a Black presence into the genre, Peele is popularizing again and refreshing the psychological horror film. As a cinephile of movies and of horror cinema specifically, he’s deftly weaving diverse elements from horror films with his grasp of contemporary cultural politics and the psychoanalytic underpinnings of all good psychologically intense horror dramas – those that traffic in suspense, unconscious and conscious fear, repression, and trauma.  Peele appears to have an astute understanding of what film theorist Christian Metz has explained as the “kinship” between the spectator’s psychic positioning and the “industrial” as well as economic mechanisms of cinema.

With Get Out, Peele distinguished himself by offering something viewers hadn’t seen in recent times and ever with such a cool serious vibe, a horror film – rather than a parody of horror flicks – whose core story utilized historical racial taboos, miscegenation, scientific exploitation, and White supremacist racial mythologies.  The film made history both in terms of money and cultural cache, as the “sunken place” became a popular half-joking, halfway serious  way to denote perceived emotional vulnerability or cluelessness danger to the former. The risky, well-written, and directed Get Out launched Peele as a serious filmmaker attached to his chosen genre. Peele’s ability to manipulate cinematic apparatus and spectatorial pleasure with Get Out so induced viewer pleasure that it left critics and moviegoers clamoring for more Peele horror fun.

Get Out’s success paved the way for him to fully linger within the recesses of horror film styles in the production ofUS, starring a revelatory Lupita Nyong’o simultaneously playing Red, creepy deep-throated double of Adelaide Wilson, a mother and wife haunted by a spooky childhood mirror encounter at the beach. Winston Duke as semi-nerdy, comical husband Gabe and the primitive double, Abraham brings much of the lighter moments of relief, whileShahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex amp up the action and chills with badass portrayals of the character’s son and daughter Zora and Jason and their scary red suited doubles, Umbrae and  Pluto.

Though US does not have the same thematic investment in racial politics as Get Out, it culturally signifies in terms of race in relation to Hollywood and the horror genre in particular. Black actors, a family of Black characters no less, headlining a horror film, already  anticipated as a hit, is indeed an unfamiliar big screen event. Thus, Peele’s second film, purposefully, like the first, acknowledges and stirs the pleasure and yearnings of Black spectators who have been historically marginalized and rendered  invisible in horror cinema. In Jordan Peele’s deliciously tripped out revision of horror cinema, the Black people stay alive long enough to be good, bad, and complicated rather than merely funny or inevitable food bait for slashers, monsters, or evil extraterrestrials. With the survival of the Black characters US undergirds the universal human experience of fear that the horror genre, and Peele in this instance, exploit.

In US, a Lacanian-like mirror stage experience complicates the “I” and self-identity when the lead character has a psychic response in childhood to a mirror reflection of her image that turns out to be more than a fleeting spooky encounter in a boardwalk funhouse. Whereas Get Out offered a restrained approach in terms of blood and gore until the last act of the film, US indulges in the mix of traditional slasher horror and the Hitchcockian psychological vulnerability. Genius marketing through a provocative, strategically well-timed trailer release and movie poster featuring Nyong’o’s double-sided character capitalized on Peele’s positive notoriety such that the reception of US by critics and viewers was well set up.

The film’s plot doesn’t entirely hold up. It heads in one direction with the family then jarringly departs – there is a bit too much left as abstract – which we will largely forgive because Peele has reinvigorated movie goers, drawn some scary movie haters to horror, and spooked us without leaving the Black characters behind.


Stephane Dunn is a Professor and Director of Cinema, Television & Emerging Media Studies Program (CTEMS) at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Dunn is the author of "Baad Bitches" and Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films.

Review: Jordan Peele's 'US'

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