Will Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ finally end the pigeonholing of black people in film?

Hollywood feeds the myth that black suffering is all black people can bring to the big screen, but by vowing to put black actors front and centre, regardless of the story, Peele reminds us all we have so much more to say

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Wednesday 27 March 2019 16:01
Us - Trailer

Since the release of the trailer for Us, the latest box-office horror smash from Jordan Peele, the writer-director-producer has been very clear about the intention behind his casting decisions.

The main characters in the film – a young successful family, the Wilsons, later hounded by their own doppelgangers while on an otherwise idyllic beach-house holiday – are black.

Not because of any unhidden themes of internalised racism, or the fetishisation of black suffering, as with Peele’s 2017 gem Get Out, but because they just are.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter about the haunting trailer, in which the Wilsons vibe out to an eerie rendering of Luniz’s “I Got 5 on it” in the car before everything descends into chaos, Peele said (as far back as December):

“Unlike Get Out, Us is not about race. It is instead about something that I feel has become an undeniable truth. And that is the simple fact that we are our own worst enemies.”

The story itself isn’t some deep foray into the inner workings of racial politics and pain in America; it’s a fun, albeit expertly crafted, blockbuster largely about duality. But still, it seems a select few are having a hard time accepting that.

In some cases, the response could have something to do with Get Out’s legacy. We’re still reeling from the simultaneous truth and absurdity of it. Of having something so real – microaggressions and white supremacy – represented so well in such a horrifying, supernatural way.

But I’d wager that the inability to see this film as a story about the “every family” delves into something a little deeper: the challenge of placing a group traditionally “othered” in the west – “them” – at the forefront of a universal narrative (Us), forcing everyone who’s ever struggled to resonate with people who don’t look like them in film to see this all black, all dark-skinned American family as part of a shared experience, their experience, all our experience.

Addressing the issue again this month in an interview with Polygon, Peele said: “All I wanted to put into place was the simple notion that for every ‘us’ there is a ‘them’. And that whoever the ‘us’ is that you identify with, there is a way we relate to them.”

So why are some people struggling with that idea?

The horror genre is deeply reliant on our ability to relate to the main characters. In Hollywood, the stars of those stories are almost always white. And that’s because whiteness has been presented as synonymous with normality, whereas blackness – when it’s not shaped by black directors and writers – usually serves some other secondary purpose. If a character’s whiteness doesn’t resonate with, say, me, a black woman, the universal themes in their story are expected to. And they do.

We gravitate towards the starring roles that we feel represent us, except that luxury rarely extends to people of colour.

We’re often driven to think about blackness in film in terms of what those experiences can teach us, or what deep feelings of guilt, pain or sadness they can evoke in us. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it pertains to true stories. But when there’s no discernable contrast to that, it means we’re pushed into a box.

It’s the same reason the Green Books of the world keep coming out on top during awards season. It also explains why, for so long, white people have shown a “selective exposure to movies” with casts of colour. They can’t see beyond the otherness, and they’re rarely forced to.

But that might all be changing. Because yesterday, during a talk at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Peele said he had no interest in casting a white man in the lead of any of his upcoming movies.

“One of the best, greatest pieces of this story, is feeling like ... a renaissance has happened and proved the myths about representation in the industry are false.”

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I couldn’t agree more. Really, the act of framing a mainstream horror around a black family and barely ever mentioning it should be revolutionary enough on its own.

Not in the sense that it’s possible to see past race, or that race doesn’t have a hand in framing our experiences of the world, but because this is new for so many of us.

We’re not used to this. The average all-American onscreen family, especially in mainstream horror, has almost always been white. That’s changing now, and clinging on to old tropes won’t do anything to bring us more mould-breaking films like these.

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