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Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’: New wave of Black horror


Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) strikes again, with his new thriller “Us.” Similar, yet different Peele’s genre type is transparent as plexiglass. Yes, stereotypes also play a role in this movie, but different than past exploitative images of African-Americans. However, the genre that Peele uses is slowly growing to get more and more attention. Whereas African-Americans were usually the villain in many Hollywood blockbusters, in Peele’s films the usually portrayed victim, turns into the hero. And no, not a cliche, because it’s not predictable.

“Us” is adrenalin-pushing, palm-sweating delicious. It captivates the viewer throughout the two-hours running time. Nevertheless, the genre “Black horror” is nothing new.

The official term, used to attract a Black-only audience, is called “Blaxploitation.” However, as the term says it, it’s a subgenre of “exploitation films.” An exploitation film is a film that attempts to succeed financially by exploiting current trends, niche genres, or lurid content. Exploitation films are generally low-quality “B movies.” Blaxploitation (or “Blacksploitation”) is an ethnic subgenre of exploitation film that emerged in the United States during the early 1970s. The films, though having received backlash for stereotypical characters, are among the first in which Black characters and communities are the heroes and subjects of film and television, rather than sidekicks or villains or victims of brutality. The genre’s inception coincides with the rethinking of race relations in the 1970s.

Failure of ‘Blaxploitation’ movies

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hollywood struggled to connect to a broader audience. Although, despite the fact that most directors and producers of Blaxploitation movies were White, the genre was aimed to attract African-Americans, which Hollywood took full advantage of, and it realized the potential profit of expanding the audiences of Blaxploitation films across those racial lines. The first director, screenwriter, and producer who got signed by Columbia Pictures was Melvin Van Peebles. Known for the controversial and Blaxploitation movie “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” where he plays an orphan in a brothel who gets wrongfully arrested by the White authorities. As Variety Magazine reported, in the eyes of Hollywood, films which portrayed rebellious Blacks could be highly profitable, leading to the creation of the Blaxploitation genre. The movie was however, highly controversial for its time.

However, the first ever all-Black horror movie was the Black answer to “Dracula,” with “Blacula,” starring William Marshall and produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff and Joseph T. Naar, ironically – two White guys. Nevertheless, the Black-Horror genre – or Blaxploitation horror – is taking a different direction with Peele. He was the first Afircan-American, who took an Oscar home, for original screenplay of “US”.

New view of Black protagonist

And although there were a few other African-Americans before Peele, such as Spike Lee, to win an award in Hollywood it is still a rare occasion. However, it seems like with the success of the Black horror genre, Black actors and all-Black shows are all over TV channels and not just shown on Black-Entertainment-Television (BET). Shows like “Empire,” starring Taraji P. Henson, along Terrence Howard, received prime time on Fox, and Henson also received a Golden Globe award for her role as “Cookie Lyon.” But racism in Hollywood is still prevalent. Although many Black actors and actresses receive award nomination, not many take an award home in comparison to their White competition. Something that still leaves a sour taste in the mouth of many Blacks. Peele was able to break the stereotyping in movies. His success is undeniable.

“I almost never became a director because there was such a shortage of role models,” Peele said in his 2018 Adademy Award acceptance speech. “I am so proud to be a part of a time that’s the beginning of a movement, where I feel like the best films of every genre are being brought to me by Black directors.”

His new movie “Us” made already $71.1 million Box office, with a $20 million starting budget.

Black horror vs. White horror

However, the term “Black horror” might just have an entirely different meaning for African-Americans in film. According to the documentary on the streaming website Shudder, “Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror,” written by Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows, and directed by filmmaker Xavier Burgin, what horror means for White folks is different than it means for Black folks. As novelist and scholar, Tananarive Due mentions in the beginning of the film, “Black history, is Black horror,” in suggesting that, in White horror movies – or for the White audience – the Black person usually dies first, or is the bad guy, or makes sure nothing happens to the White protagonist. Even more so, as the documentary tackles on, Black history involves nothing but horror inflicted by White supremacy.

In the documentary, Peele shares that he mainly created “Get Out” for the Black audience. Apparently, White people expected the movie to have at least one good White person. Is this new genre of Black movies – including an all-Black cast, writers, directors, and producers – starting a new era in Black horror? According to an article in the Verge, Peele explains in the documentary, “Horror Noire,” how the movie – in many ways – is a response to the history of Black horror and Black representation in cinema.

Peele’s “Us” is dark, twisted, and juicy. Starring Lupita Nyong’o as “Adelheide Wilson” and Winston Duke as “Gabe Wilson,” “Us” tells the story of what would happen if our undesirable demons, fears, and anxieties come to the surface in the form of a doppelgänger, the so called “evil twin,” and then take over. Almost like a zombie apocalypse, where we are destined to fight ourselves. But what if “the other self” becomes one of us? Peele chose an interesting style of music, mostly composed by Michael Abel, the first song “Anthem” reminds of a Steven King movie, such as “The Shining,” or “Pet Sematary,” with that alone the anticipation is growing. And then the “scare-o-meter” goes down, and Peele mixes in some satire and parody – just like he did in “Get Out,” a comedy feel, with blatant terror. “Us” is not considered suspenseful, so to speak, but there’s a suspense like a thriller should have. Peele put his own fears in it as well, there are tons of symbols represented throughout. Interestingly enough, he also fired back on stereotyping. Elisabeth Moss who portrays “Kitty Tyler” and Tim Heidecker who plays “Josh Tyler” get stereotyped as the “basic Whites” who are not in a loving relationship, but are together because of convenience, who are both social drinkers, but who drink a lot (Kitty with her rosé – or as Josh calls it “medicine,” – and Josh with his whiskey), and the fact they own a device such as “Alexa” to do things for them. Although they only play a minor role in “Us,” it’s hard to miss the parody that is involved with all the “Whiteness,” – as well as “Blackness” – when Kitty ask her device to call the police and then N.W.A. “F— The Police” comes on instead.

The elements of folklore

There are elements throughout the story that remind of folklore, such as urban stories about the mole people, who live beneath a big city, and who eat rats (or white rabbits) and eventually look for revenge – such as the Tethered in “Us.”

“I think the main idea that went into writing this film is that we’re our own worst enemy, and that idea created this monster, The Tethered,” Peele told Entertainment Weekly in an interview. “I wanted to forge this new mythology that explored our duality and the duality of the characters.”

The true meaning of “Us” might mean something different to each and everyone, whether it’s fighting one’s inner demons, or not letting the past define one’s future, in regards to social upbringing and being able to adapt. Peele’s movie shows that we carry a balance of both good and evil, terrifying and innocent.

“There’s a duality to scissors—a whole made up of two parts,” Peele told Entertainment Weekly, “but also they lie in this territory between the mundane and the absolutely terrifying.” In regards to the many rabbits, he told the Guardian.

“They’re an animal of duality. They’re adorable but they terrify me at the same time. And they got those scissor-like ears that creep me out.”