‘Us’ Makes a Radical Argument for Black Identity By Ignoring It

With "Us," Jordan Peele has much more than race on his mind.
Lupita Nyong'o stars in Jordan Peele's new horror film, "Us." (Universal Pictures)
Universal Pictures

Jordan Peele said he initially intended “Get Out” as a sledgehammer response to the illusion of a “post-racial” America. “The movie was written in the Obama era, which I’ve been calling the post-racial lie,” Peele said after a Vanity Fair screening of the film in October 2017. “That’s the era I imagined this movie would come out in.”

With “Us,” Peele takes the opposite approach: His latest horror movie features a predominantly black cast, but race doesn’t influence the plot. As a result, Peele delivers a more complex assessment of black identity by ignoring it altogether.

“Us” stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, and Shahadi Wright Joseph as a family confronted by a group of doppelgängers. A home-invasion chiller that messily unfolds with elements of other horror movie subgenres – without neatly fitting into any single one of them — “Us” could open conversations about a range of issues facing American society. But race, racism, and blackness aren’t among them.

Instead of assailing the myth of a post-racial America, Peele envisions a world in which that exists. Despite the film’s more-familiar elements, this gives the movie a unique quality that expands Peele’s ability to have a dramatic impact on the way America views its challenges with race.

In “Horror Noire,” professor and author Robin R. Means delineates between movies that are “Black horror” versus “Blacks in horror” — a difference Peele embodies in his first two films. “Get Out” is a “Black horror” film — an extension of “race films” with narratives that call attention to racial identity, specifically blackness, and are told from the POV of a black protagonist. Alternatively, “Us” would more likely fall under “Blacks in horror” films, in that there isn’t an explicit added narrative focus on racial identity.

“Get Out” was a bold racial provocation, right down to the unorthodox Grand Guignol finale. Released a few months after the 2016 election, “Get Out” took on a new level of urgency and, for black audiences, the film’s insights were pure catharsis. The concern was whether white audiences would be able to identify with a movie in which every white character was evil. “Using the darkness of my imagination, there were so many ways this movie could go wrong,” Peele recalled. “I thought, ‘What if white people don’t want to come see the movie because they’re afraid of being villainized with black people in the crowd?'”

But white audiences did come, in droves. On paper, this might not have been the most obvious outcome. “Race film” images of a black man gruesomely slaughtering almost an entire white family — no matter how justified —  were still radical. But audiences of all shades were more than ready for what was effectively “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” for a new generation of black viewers. White audiences may have found it awkward to talk about race, but it certainly was not awkward to talk about “Get Out.”

Us Jordan Peele

Peele has repeatedly said that “Us” is not about race, shattering any expectations of fans prepping for a “Get Out” sequel, or a film that exists in a similar universe. “Scores of people will walk into this movie waiting for the racial commentary, and when it doesn’t come in the form they’re looking for, they’ll be forced to ask themselves: ‘Why did I think a movie with black people had to be about blackness?'” he said in one interview. That realization may provide an opportunity for self-reflection and eventually a change in perception.

The idea of a “post-racial” America first gained traction with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. However well intentioned, for black people the concept was ludicrous — a perception confirmed by the rise of Donald Trump’s white nationalism eight years later. Nevertheless, the historic election of America’s first black president did represent some sort of advancement toward a distant and amorphous “post-racial” paradise. Obama’s rise marked a fundamental shift in how the country thought about race; it was the extent of that shift that fell prey to exaggeration.

Genre black filmmakers like Peele, with mainstream reach, might then be free from storytelling limits mired in variations of race and racism, a delimiting notion with the potential to stifle creative imagination and ambition, and muddy the development of African-American film achievement.

“On the broader strokes of things, this movie is about this country,” Peele said during the Q&A after the film’s SXSW premiere. “We are our own worst enemy.” And if audiences do want to see “Us” as a movie about race, that reaction may say more about their own assumptions than anything Peele himself is bringing to the table.

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