Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ is a new kind of superhero movie
- Its superpower is letting black people just be themselves.
Mar 31, 2019-
Black Panther,” which made more than $1.3 billion last year, became one of the highest-grossing superhero movies of all time. It did that by delivering a wide-screen vision of Black Excellence, where blackness isn’t just about the generational trauma and pain that comes from living under racism. It’s about reckoning with choices made to hold on to one’s culture and the best way to carry it into the future.Watching it for the first time last year, I felt overjoyed. I tear up when I think of the scene just before T’Challa fights to become king, when Wakandans make their way to Warrior Falls in an elaborate floating procession, an expression of communal love for their history and culture. I have been immersed in the Black Panther universe for years as a comics fan, critic and creator. Yet I still felt, sitting there at the premiere in Los Angeles, that this was the kind of art that I had waited my entire life for.
Superhero fictions tend toward the aspirational, showing humanity in broadly idealized form, and that’s exactly what the director, Ryan Coogler, and his team did with “Black Panther.” Africa, in the film, is presented as a place where glorious achievement has always happened. “Black Panther” feels like both a celebration and an investigation of what it means to be part of the global African diaspora.
After buzzing off that high, I wondered what the next movie capable of speaking to me on that deep level might be. Would it be another sweeping Black Excellence melodrama? A slavery period piece with a fresh perspective? A sci-fi legal drama where a black criminal defense attorney has to represent extraterrestrial refugees? A thriller where assassins target a college basketball phenom organizing a movement to get him and his friends paid?
The answer turned out to be something completely different: Jordan Peele’s new movie, “Us,” which excites me for entirely different reasons. This stylish and utterly terrifying horror film doesn’t makes its black characters into superheroes, because it doesn’t have to. They are normal folks, albeit with one big creepy paranormal problem, and their complete everyday-ness is what makes this film so resonant.
“Us” isn’t about institutionalized racism. Its subject is the other tensions that run through the fabric of American life. The family at the center of the film are fighting for their lives, and their fight is a metaphor for the class tensions that periodically explode into ugly factionalism in the United States.
In the film, metaphorical economic stratification turns some human beings into homicidal Others—they’re called Tethers in “Us.” And in a rare turn, the black people in the film, the Wilson family, aren’t the other. Adelaide, her husband, Gabe, and their two children occupy the position of the ordinary family who have their lives upended by the unsettling threat. They don’t respond to it with martial prowess or stoic durability, either. They freak the hell out, like any normal people would. Like the Griswolds in the “National Lampoon” movies, the Wilsons are just a family on vacation. The parents grumble and embrace, and the kids bicker, just like my siblings and I did when we went to Disneyworld.
When the Wilsons inevitably come face to face with their evil doppelgängers, “Us” becomes a film about, among other things, unaddressed histories creeping back into your life. If Mr. Peele’s new film can be said to have a moral, it might be about the cost we pay, as individuals and as a society, for wanting to live the good life, which means burying past trauma and refusing to reckon with all of ourselves.
That the director chooses to rest the prickly heart of his cinematic ambitions in a dark-skinned black woman, Lupita Nyong’o, makes it even more meaningful. Her Adelaide Wilson isn’t a resolute military leader, like Danai Gurira’s General Okoye in “Black Panther.” She’s a nurturing, nervous and neurotic mother, drawn with a nuance and texture that allows viewers to relate to her no matter what walk of life they might come from.
My euphoria over “Black Panther” last year felt like one answer to a deep yearning to feel connected to African-descended people all over the world and see our shared roots reflected in glory. “Us” giddily fulfills a different, opposite need: a desire to see black life reflected back at life-size scale, not idealized or put on a pedestal. Hey, look, there’s Winston Duke busting out dad jokes, awkwardly having to explain his favorite old songs to his kids and putting some bass in his voice to seem more threatening than he actually really is. I do those things, and so do a lot of my friends.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what comes after Wakanda, and “Us” points the way to the broader horizons Hollywood should explore. Mr. Peele’s new film presents its black characters the same way it does its white ones. The specific texture of their blackness is still palpable, in the way they talk and react to the world around them, but it doesn’t have to have any special meaning. It’s just part of who they are, and they could be any of the millions of other black people all over the world. In “Us,” the black performers don’t need to be symbols. They can just be, even with boogeypeople chasing them onscreen. For all the horror and mystery in “Us,” this element of charming ordinariness gives me a little bit of hope for the movies coming in a post-“Black Panther” world.
— © 2019 The New York Times
Published: 31-03-2019 10:17