Us (2019) by Jordan Peele
Review by Courtney Anderson
I want to know what the inside of Jordan Peele’s brain looks like.
I imagine that it’s kind of a chaotic place, with millions of ideas, societal critiques, and rational thoughts flying around at rapid speed. I also imagine that every nightmare, moment of fear or spike of anxiety Peele’s ever had is running around freely, too.
It’s kind of the only way to explain Jordan Peele’s work: it’s the result of Jordan Peele’s rational thought colliding with — and maybe being overtaken by — his deepest fears and worst nightmares. That’s what Get Out was, and that’s what Us is.
Jordan Peele’s actually said as much about Us. In an interview with MTV News, Peele says that he has had a fear of doppelgangers since he was very young, and would frequently daydream about seeing an evil version of himself from across the subway platform.
“It was a fun, sort of titillating fear, but it was primal,” Peel said of the daydream, “and I hadn’t really intellectualized it or thought about it, but it’s always been present.”
Peele says that when the idea of a family of doppelgangers came up, he knew he could take a new direction in doppelganger lore. I’d argue that Peele not only took doppelganger lore in a new direction, but he is also helping take horror as a genre in a new direction. Even though Us is not as interested in allegory and social commentary as Get Out was, the movie still manages to be a culturally specific interrogation of identity and oppression.
Us is a relatively straightforward story, despite what all those hyperbolic “US ENDING EXPLAINED” videos claim. The Wilson family — Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) — take a vacation to Santa Cruz, where Adelaide grew up. It’s supposed to be nice, relaxing trip. They’re going to stay in Adelaide’s childhood home, hang out with their friends the Tyler family, and go to the beach.
But, unbeknownst to the rest of her family, Adelaide is still trying to recover from a traumatic experience she had long ago. When Adelaide was a little girl, she came into contact with her doppelganger after wandering away from her parents at the fair and going into a hall of mirrors. The encounter drastically changed Adelaide, and coming back to beach after all these years is triggering all the fears and anxiety that have been building up inside of her. Adelaide feels as though the doppelganger is getting closer and closer.
Well, Adelaide is right. Not only does her doppelganger — referred to as “Red” — return to kill her, but she brings along three others who look exactly like the other members of the Wilson family. There’s Gabe’s doppelganger Abraham, Zora’s doppelganger Umbrae and Jason’s doppelganger Pluto. The Wilson family forced to fight for their lives and escape the ones who look just like them.
Us could’ve very easily been your standard, run-of-the-mill horror film. Because it is definitely a horror film through and through, with all of the structural imperfections and stereotypes you can expect from horror films. There’s always someone forgetting to grab the keys, or someone falling at the most inconvenient times, or someone who hears a noise outside and doesn’t bother to check it out. There’s always more character development needed in some spots and some inconsistencies in the plot (although I have to say that the plot holes in Us are not nearly as big or as confusing as some are making them seem.) And there’s always a very generalized comment about human nature and the awfulness of the world around us.
In the case of Us, the obvious topic is the duality of human nature, and our futile efforts of trying to hide the most grotesque parts of ourselves. Peele appears to be taking us to task for for having the audacity to intentionally create monsters only to bury them, erase their existence and then be surprised when they return, when we're finally forced to confront them face to face.
What makes Us different is who the story revolves around. Peele turned all racial and gender conventions on their heads by centering a dark-skinned Black family where the matriarch is both the most capable of the protagonists and the most dangerous of the antagonists.
It is exceedingly rare that Black people are the protagonists of a horror film. We usually show up and die within the first few minutes of the film. If we don’t die within the first few minutes, we usually get to the die in the second act, after having a few minutes of screen time. The phenomenon is so common that there’s actually an entire documentary titled “Horror Noire” that is dedicated to exploring how the strained relationship between Blackness and the horror genre.
For Peele to create a story where the Black family not only survives, but actually wins is a major turning point for the genre. Moreover, it creates an ironic sense of security for the Black audience; you feel included in a way that you haven’t before, because there are finally characters that look and act like you. Plus, there are a ton of little nods and shout outs to Black culture, from the use of Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It,” to the Howard sweatshirt to the absolutely hysterical way Peele uses N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police.”
It’s also really exciting to see Lupita’s Adelaide taking charge of the story, and to see Lupita take charge of the movie. This movie belongs to her in every sense of the word. Lupita gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in my life as Adelaide and Red. They’re both so unhinged, fierce, and terrifying in their own ways. Once Adelaide takes command of her own fear and past, she is able to take command of her family’s fate. There’s a brief argument between Adelaide and Gabe that reinforces the fact that she is the leader here, and that Final Girl has a brand new meaning when it comes to her.
Between Get Out and Us, it’s clear that Peele is committed to changing the landscape of horror. In an article from The Hollywood Reporter, Peele says that he plans to continue casting Black people in his movies because he can.
Peele says, "The way I look at it, I get to cast black people in my movies. I feel fortunate to be in this position where I can say to Universal, 'I want to make a $20 million horror movie with a black family.' And they say yes."
I’m very, very grateful for Peele’s take on horror. I want him to flip as many conventions as he possibly can. I don’t think I realized how much the genre needed a voice like Peele’s until we got it. Spending time in his nightmares has turned out to be a lot more satisfying than I would’ve imagined.