Us is not a movie about Black people but a movie in which the main characters happen to be Black. That statement is both true and misleading. Although the film makes no overt references to the Blackness of their lead characters, the fact that the lead characters are Black is already, by itself, a sort of proclamation. Sure, Black people have appeared in horror films as tropes (the Black character who is murdered first or within the first two acts) or as leads in Blaxploitation movies (Blacula comes to mind) or even leads in indie and Hollywood films (Night of the Living Dead and Vampire in Brooklyn) but Us is different.
The way the Black characters are at the center of Us isn’t to say so much that Black people are Black or different or “the other”, but that Black people are, in the words of the film, Americans. They are ordinary, everyday Americans who own summer houses and buy boats and sing songs on road trips and make dad jokes. It shouldn’t feel noteworthy to depict a Black family in this way, but it does. Even the opening of the film, with young Adelaide (Madison Curry) precociously straying away from her parents feels different. This is a different type of danger that she faces, a danger of precocity usually reserved for young white girls in similar settings. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is not a token character in an otherwise white cast nor is she a Black character in an all-Black world; she’s just a little Black girl wandering around a boardwalk where she has no business being. And yet she’s there.
“We’re Americans” Red (Adelaide’s Double) says in response to the question, “Who are you people?” We’re Americans. It’s a simple declarative sentence, but there’s more to it, there has to be. Even if Jordan Peele, certainly aware that his casting choices and setting were statement enough, didn’t want to make a statement about the Black experience he certainly wanted to make a statement of some kind.
The doppelgängers subterranean, dystopian existence symbolizes the lives of the lower class. The doppelgangers are forgotten people, created so that the “surface people” can live their lives freely. This sentiment is expressed in the film but never explained. Why does the doppelgangers’ existence ensure freedom for surface people? No practical reason is given in the film. The doppelgängers do not run around on hamster wheels providing electricity for the surface people, they do not control waste by eating the scraps of food thrown into the rubbish; it was not necessary to use such a device to get the point across. It is enough that the doppelgangers are kept from the nicer things in life, that their status as Americans is questionable, that their status as people has to be asserted with force for their humanity to be recognized.
Ultimately their bid for personhood falls short. Adelaide escapes the world of the doppelgangers, the low-level existence, the cold rabbit meat, the mindless monotony, she uses her wits and cunning to escape to the surface and vanquish the doppelgängers. She’s Br’er Rabbit escaping the thicket.
The other members of Adelaide’s family also have to escape the doppelgangers by killing the mirror image of themselves. In order to live the other must die, there can be no coexistence.
The film’s rich thematic material outshines other aspects of the film. When the Wilsons’ doppelgängers first encounter their surface family, Red’s monologue is a bit off. There hadn’t been much explanatory dialogue leading up to that point creating anticipation and curiosity. Red’s speech reveals much but it’s more bizarre than truly terrifying or arresting. It doesn’t help that Red’s voice is distracting. It turns out to be an important aspect of the film later on, but in the moment her unexpected gravely tone calls to mind Christian Bale’s batman, a voice most either tolerated or hated.
The larger problem with “Us” is the high bar created for it by its themes, its casting, its overall “fresh” approach. On the surface Us is just another horror film with some blood and thrills and gruesomeness. Digging deeper the film reveals itself to be a subversive social critique. Thus, unmasked as an intelligent film, Us creates expectation. It is not enough for the film to follow the path of other horror films, it must blaze new trails in all directions. That’s why the twist at the end falls short; it’s unsurprising and, worse, it’s not new. It is an unfair metric by which to judge the film, but that’s the pedigree the film created for itself. For all the out-of-the-box ingenuity Us brings to the screen, its storytelling is very much conventional.
What exactly is Us? Is it a conventional horror film? If so it simply isn’t that scary apart from a few standard jumpy moments achieved with solid editing and horror staples (and the looming threat of the scissors severing an Achilles tendon; maybe this fear is personal and ingrained from Kill Bill and hours of NBA viewership?). Is Us an art film, an intellectual film? Certainly, there is a depth to the filmmaking that isn’t typical of genre films. At times the depth is offset by a humorous tone or the broad horror structure imposed by the genre, but that doesn’t negate it. Is Us a Black movie? The characters happen to be Black. They listen to hip-hop, but so does most of America. Indeed, listening to hip-hop (rather than experiencing it let’s say) has not been an exclusive Black experience for quite a while. Probably the “Blackest” thing that happens in the entire film is Gabe (Winston Duke) attempting to sound authoritative when the doppelgangers show up by dropping his voice an octave and speaking in AAVE. Us is only a Black film in the sense that it’s about Americans and some Americans are Black. The true horror is the fact that that is news to some people. When that initial shock wears off, is there anything left to be scared of?