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Culture & society

The representation of race within ‘Us’ in relation to previous horror films

Written by Esther Roberts

Jordan Peele is a name that won’t be going out of style any time soon. The New York City born and raised comedian rose to fame in 2003 after becoming a regular cast member on the Fox comedy sketch show ‘Mad TV’. He continued his work in comedy with cast mate Keegan-Michael Key on a sketch show of their own named ‘Key and Peele’ where they covered a number of social topics surrounding pop culture, ethnic stereotypes and race relations. It is clear that through his most recent works ‘Get Out’ (2017) and ‘Us’ (2019) that Peele has a lot more to offer to the conversation surrounding such subjects.

In February 2017 Jordan Peele made his directorial debut with the critically acclaimed ‘Get Out’, grossing over one million at the box office. It is here that we see the kind of movies that Peele wants to make, the stories he wants to tell and the themes he would like to explore and address. The film was a huge success, especially for what it did for Hollywood, as for decades the idea that ‘black films’ (films with a black cast and focus) don’t sell has been the excuse for the lack of diversity in Hollywood and the absence of a black lead in a blockbuster franchise. But due to the success of ‘Get Out’ -– more and more black directors are being given the same opportunities of their white counterparts and are able to create unique films that are also social commentaries on black culture and race issues in America (see ‘Sorry to Bother You’ and ‘Blackkklansman’).

Representation is a huge part of Peele’s philosophy as a filmmaker and in ‘Get Out’ he was able to turn black stereotypes on their head and present the audience with a strong black lead who lives to see the end of the movie. It is extremely common in horror movies for the ‘Black Dude Dies First’ trope to rear its ugly and extremely outdated head. Darnell Hunt, Dean of Social Sciences at UCLA says, “Black people in horror films were largely accessories, who were disposable in many ways,”. He continued to note that in their existence was only to serve the white lead, examples of this include Dick Holloran from ‘The Shining’ or Jada Picket-Smith and Omar Epps in ‘Scream 2’ who are killed before the opening credits have even rolled. Such characters were never created to be cared about, their only purpose is to aid the white lead.

“It is extremely common in horror movies for the ‘Black Dude Dies First’ trope to rear its ugly and extremely outdated head.”

Peele says no more.

‘I don’t see myself casting a white dude in a lead of a movie – its not because I don’t like white dudes. It’s because I’ve seen that movie’.

Cue, ‘Us’, the latest instalment of his ever-growing filmography. ‘Us’ stars Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’O in the lead role as Adelaide Wilson. She is joined by her ‘Black Panther’ (2018) co-star Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson, and th extremely talented child actors Shahidi Wright and Evan Alex as siblings Zora and Jason Wilson. This star-studded cast play a black middle-class family who have ventured to their summer home in Santa Cruz, hoping to spend some time as a family and with their friends, an upper-middle class affluent white family named the Tyler’s. But their vacation turns to chaos when they’re shortly greeted by their doppelgängers who begin to terrorise them.

“I don’t see myself casting a white dude in a lead of a movie – its not because I don’t like white dudes. It’s because I’ve seen that movie”

Jordan Peele

‘Us’ is all about duality –- that is no surprise – and to help build that connection Peele used a lot of mirror imagery in the film, from people looking into mirrors, being crushed against mirrors, looking at literal mirror images of themselves or using the location of the shot of a funhouse hall of mirrors. At the beginning of the film text appears across the screen describing miles of abandoned tunnels under the United States that the government owned which foreshadows the ending events of the film which happen in said tunnels. We learn through Red – Adelaide’s double – that the people who live there are named the Teathered, a U.S Government experiment gone wrong in an attempt to try and control the American people.This was soon abandoned and the Teathered were forced to live in the tunnels and feed on raw rabbit. The duality between the two lives – above and below – begs the bigger question of the class divide between the haves and the have-nots. This juxtaposition is strengthened through the relationship between husband Gabe and the Tyler family who make the Wison’s feel uncomfortable about their upward mobility and class status. Despite the Wilson’s having enough money to own a quaint summer home and newly purchased speed boat, they are constantly bested by the Tyler’s who have an extremely high tech and modern home operated by an Amazon Alexa-like device and a much superior speed boat, playing into Gabe’s insecurities that he isn’t ‘enough’ to feel comfortable participating in such a lavish lifestyle.

This leads to the ‘Hands Across America’ event of 1986 (again, foreshadowed in the beginning of the film) that happened in real life where participants all over America pledged ten dollars or more to stand and hold hands for the sake of raising money to fight homelessness and poverty. It was a heavily raved about event where the Tyler’s and the Wilson’s of the world could feel good about themselves, where they could hold hands with people of the same class status as them and feel like they’re really making a difference in the world. In the end the event was a massive flop, raising nowhere near its goal of one-hundred million. But the film ends with a sweeping overhead shot of the Teathered accomplishing the goal, all of them stood hand-in-hand across America. The Teathered did what their counterparts couldn’t which rounds out the main theme of the movie — if everybody in the world was given the same opportunities to succeed, anybody can rise to the occasion.

Many believe this is the overall metaphor that Jordan Peele is trying to put across – it has nothing to do with race or politics but more with social standing and the way the less fortunate are treated. It says that suppressing or forgetting about the marginalised people in a community or society makes us weak and holds certain individuals back from achieving what we (the fortunate) can’t. He questions the notion of success and whether or not it can be fully earned without stepping on the backs of others because as Red explains, while Adelaide ate hot meals up top she was forced to feed on raw rabbit, while Adelaide was able to find her handsome prince she was forced to be with someone whether she wanted to be or not and while Adelaide was greeted with success the Teathered was filled with nothing but pain. It suggests that Adelaide’s success was built on the back of someone else and that is the way the United Sates operates. When Adelaide asks the doppelgängers ‘Who are you?’ and they reply ‘We’re Americans’, that is what cements this idea that the American system is built off of the backs of other people, and those other people are looked down on and forgotten about in modern day society.

Jordan Peele has managed to create a film rich with colour and meaning, leaving audiences question everything they thought they knew about themselves and the world around them. He has established himself as a true Auteur and extremely skilled writer, producer and director. It is positive to say that what we get next from him will be sure to continue his winning streak and celebrate true Hollywood creativity and diversity.