Us: A film about ‘Them’?

By Dev Agarwal

Us (2019) - IMDb

Currently, the horror renaissance sweeps through mainstream cinema and television at a pace that’s hard to keep up with. Horror narratives have always been out there, lurking in popular culture, but until recently they felt like a niche interest, ghettoised with fantasy monsters played by actors in thick make-up and rubber suits, tucked alongside the bug-eyed aliens of science fiction.

However, like science fiction, by the mid-2010s, horror is everywhere, reaching huge cinema audiences and, through Netflix and terrestrial television, coming right into our homes. The horror genre, appropriately enough, has now infected a wider host body, and it is mutating, challenging viewer expectations as to what horror is and what it is capable of. I would suggest that horror as a genre has always carried the power to challenge our thinking, to make us consider what defines a monster, and to pull back the veneer of everyday life to expose what’s going on underneath. However, you once had to be a horror aficionado to appreciate that the genre was more than just jump scares and screams. What’s new is that, by busting out of its culturally marginal position, horror is now expanding its narrative, satirical, and critical powers in front of the very mainstream society that it challenges.  

A recent spate of films exemplify horror’s breadth and its depth. The mirror that these films hold up not only reveals our individual inner fears, but it also shows us our relationships with others in new ways, and helps us to examine our assumptions about different experiences, perspectives, and cultures. Moreover horror, like SF, has inched forward in recent years towards more diverse representation, and also started to show greater awareness of tired racial and gender stereotypes. 

Jordan Peele’s Get Out needs no introduction. When I reviewed it in Vector #287, I emphasised the film’s masterful build-up of tension from small incidents, and the way it plays with the distinction between “normal” and “horrific,” even before it reveals its big horror tropes. Peele himself needs no introduction either. Following his early career in comedy, where some of his sketches already demonstrated his love of horror (such as Key and Peele’s “Gremlins 2: Brainstorm” sketch),  Peele broke out in 2017 with his commercially and critically acclaimed debut Get Out. Since then he has stayed prominent in producing Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman in 2018, and for his work on the relaunched The Twilight Zone television series in 2019. He has also, among other things, been Executive Producer on HBO’s Lovecraft Country, out later this year. In 2019 he released his second film as writer-director: Us.

Between Get Out in 2017 and Us in 2019, the horror genre has been joined by other notable works, among them John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, Ari Aster’s Midsommar, two iterations of Stephen King’s It, directed by Andrés Muschietti, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and Blitz Bazawule’s The Burial of Kojo. These films span domestic dramas, stories about children, and post-apocalyptic adventure. In tone, they range from the comedic to the melodramatic. If they did not contain monsters, they would arguably not sit together in one single genre. 

That said, it is important to remember that horror, as a genre, is not just concerned with the monstrous. The genre is also characterised by the interplay of what Tzvetan Todorov, the French-Bulgarian theorist, calls “the marvellous,” “the uncanny,” and “the fantastic.” Todorov uses the term “the marvellous” for encounters with the supernatural, and “the uncanny” for when something apparently supernatural actually has a rational explanation. “The fantastic” incorporates the uncertain territory in the middle, when a character (or the audience) hesitates between a rational and a supernatural explanation. Of course, the more Freudian sense of “the uncanny,” to do with experiences that are simultaneously strange and yet familiar, is also relevant to the horror genre. Horror narratives frequently make everyday experience feel eerie and strange, or present events that may or may not have a perfectly ordinary explanation. 

Filmmakers often start by building up strange and unsettling moments — such as in Peele’s Get Out, when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) begin their road trip from New York City to Rose’s family’s home. Hints of the supernatural become increasingly uncomfortable and distressing. Todorov suggests that the fantastic is very fragile as a form, swinging in and out of the narrative as the characters reject supernatural phenomena for being too fantastical to accept. This oscillation occurs throughout Get Out, and with increasing frequency as the narrative speeds up. The whiter Chris’ surroundings get, the more threatening they become. Following Todorov’s model, this brings Chris ever closer to the fantastic. Eventually the horror is brought fully into the story.

This is also the case with Peele’s second feature, Us. Peele chose to remain within the horror genre for his second film, while continuing to innovate and push in new directions. The impact of Get Out was always going to be a hard act to follow. But Us also become an important milestone for genre cinema. In Get Out, Chris, is the (mostly) lone black character who journeys into a world increasingly antiquated and white (moving from the comforts of tech-saturated New York City to a rural hinterland of New York State that steadily resembles a pre-Civil War plantation of the American South). 

By contrast Us has a mostly black cast, and focuses on a fairly affluent middle-class black family. In the past, Hollywood has been reluctant to make movies with largely black casts, and when it has, it has limited itself to certain kinds of stories: black actors have long been cast as criminals, cops, gangbangers and addicts. However, Us not only gives us positive images of Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her nuclear family — financially secure, travelling, relaxing, and having fun on holiday at their summer home — it also uses their lives to explore universal themes of love, power, guilt, trauma, monstrosity, and complicity. Significantly, Peele is careful to ensure that Us is not a reductive experience of the African-American lived experience, i.e. one that erases or sidelines the issues of race and class and their specific histories of discrimination in America.  These are quickly pushed to the fore as the story progresses.

The opening of Us begins with a domestic scene — it’s 1986, and Adelaide is a child in Santa Cruz playing at a beach-front carnival. As we expect, this scene introduces a sense of menace, with the uncanny creeping towards us. The film transitions to the present day and soon we are provoked by the uncanny again when the monstrous penetrates the domestic family home. As we know, the vast majority of horror cinema lends its subjective point of view to white protagonists, often middle class, threatened by hordes of horrifying and violent monsters. Such monsters, who often literally dwell below the protagonists in sewers or subterranean lairs, can be interpreted as coded versions of working class people, people of colour, the inhabitants of the Global South — all those on whose exploitation the comfortable lives of rich white people is based. ‘Monsters and aliens are stand-ins for black folks, but we’re not actually present in the story,’ says Tananarive Due in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019). 

That’s one reason why smart horror cinema has so often asked questions about who the real monsters are. Furthermore, Hollywood has also gone through several paradigmatic shifts away from this monolithic perspective. We can trace a kind of progression in horror films. At first black characters are usually limited to minor subservient roles. Then black characters tend to be victims, often killed off early in the story. There are black sidekicks and supporting roles, whose importance to the story is what they can do for the white heroes. Eventually we start to see black characters with their own agency and character growth arcs, even if they are often still quite two-dimensional. Yet rarely has Hollywood told stories entirely from black characters’ point of view. While those films do exist, they are infrequent. Horror arguably fares a little better than mainstream cinema, and includes one or two important landmarks. For example, Richard C. Kahn and Spencer Williams’s 1940 horror film Son of Ingagi focuses on a black middle class experience, and features the female black scientist Helen Jackson (Laura Bowman) in a prominent role. And how many other films in 1968 gave us a black leading character like Ben (Duane Jones) in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, even as the rest of the cast was white? However, the horror genre has also been notoriously homicidal toward its black characters.

Peele’s Get Out recalls Night of the Living Dead, depicting Chris surrounded and menaced by white people. But Us takes us in a new narrative direction. All the major characters are black, both heroic and villainous. Furthermore, the film poses important and complex questions, including those relating to race, without needing white characters to articulate them. Ideally, mainstream Hollywood will embrace this approach to filmmaking, rather than fall back into more formulaic cliches.  

The rest of this article discusses plot in detail and inevitably contains significant spoilers for Us, plus smaller ones for Get Out and Bazawule’s The Burial of Kojo. So if you haven’t seen these films yet, stop reading and start watching them first.  

Adelaide and her family are confronted by doppelgängers who have crept up from subterranean banishment to swap places with them. The doppelgängers, or Tethered as they identify themselves, are physically almost identical to Adelaide’s family. They are, arguably, the ‘Us’ of the film’s title. The only physical differences between them seem to come from the different lives they have led. We later discover that there are vast numbers of Tethered, hidden underground and out of sight, each one corresponding to someone on the surface. “Replacement” in horror is achieved by destruction, and genre viewers will be long schooled in the implications of being confronted by a monster with your own face, who is implacable, mostly mute, and bent on your destruction.

Two points are striking about this set-up. One is that Jordan Peele uses the thriller convention of home invasion as the device to introduce the monstrous. In thriller terms, home invasion scenarios often imagine some innocent, law-abiding white family getting attacked by criminals, often people from minority groups. This is one of very few instances of a black family suffering home invasion (One False Move by Carl Franklin comes to mind). Second, Peele is using the collision of thriller and horror to refresh that convention in multiple ways. Mark Kermode, in his Secrets of Cinema series, observes that usually the monster has to be invited into our home or community. Not so in the home-invasion trope, where an uninvited attack often forces its way into the familial space (utilising the jump scare that is so essential to horror films). Yet at this stage in the film, it is not only the family’s domestic space that is being invaded. It is also their reality. Adelaide and her family (and the audience with them) are thrown into Todorov’s fantastic: can there possibly be any rational explanation for what is happening?

As we wonder if these events will ever make “rational” sense in the world of the film, we are also invited to make sense of them as social commentary. When the Tethered are first presented, Adelaide and the other Wilsons stare at them in shock. Jason (Evan Alex) remarks that the intruders are “us.” When Adelaide demands to know who they are, the response from her double is: “We’re Americans.” Peele has said that he wanted to highlight how “we like to point the finger.” And in the doppelgänger subgenre, a pointed finger comes right back to ourselves — indeed, this is explicitly stated by one character in the film.  

Fundamentally, Us is a film about disempowered people. The Tethered have been constrained, trapped, and dehumanised. Now they have risen up (literally, as they are subterranean dwellers). Peele has also said that America “fears the other” and “maybe we are our own worst enemy.”  When viewed with these ideas in mind, the conceit of the Tethered makes perfect sense. Black America has long been tethered to white America, first through slavery, then as the builders of homes they were segregated out of and employees in industries they were allowed little or no stake in, and eventually as full legal citizens, supposedly legally protected from racist discrimination, but living a social and economic reality offering no equality of opportunity.

In Get Out, the horror is grounded in science (or at least pseudo-science) rather than in the supernatural, using hypnotherapy and then neurosurgery to create its horrific premise. It is through science that Chris is menaced with possession and the destruction of his self. Similarly, Us offers a rational scientific explanation for the Tethered and their relationship with the surface-dwelling humans. The reveal of the rationale, almost inevitably, proves a little less effective in Us compared to Get Out.  

Us contains other staple horror ingredients: chases and escapes, bloody fight scenes with domestic tools for weapons, an obligatory late occurring twist. Again, for those who have seen Get Out, all of these components may feel a bit more familiar and less startling. Where Us is more stimulating and challenging, however, is in its suggestive use of metaphor and history. Us is set mostly in the present day, but key events occur in the 1980s, and the film draws on a campaign against homelessness, Hands Across America. Hands Across America was a major charity event, in which over six million participants joined hands in a series of human chains. In 1986, America was aspiring to literally holding hands with all members of the nation, tethering themselves to fight poverty and homelessness around the world — but without really addressing the roots of inequality. Flash forward to the present day, and the uprisen Tethered are re-enacting their own eerie version of Hands Across America. The symbolism — human chains, the things that join us together, the things that divide us — is rich but also remains mysterious. 

The story Peele tells in both films centres on the experience of black people in the USA, and the genres he is working in are both science fiction and horror. That makes a case for viewing both films through the lens of Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism has been defined as the artistic movement that combines futuristic or science fiction themes with black history and culture; Ytasha Womack characterises it as blending “elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs,” and the musician Afrika Bambaataa (and godfather of hip-hop) summed it up as: “Afrofuturism is dark matter moving at the speed of light.”

Set within the connected landscape of Africanfuturism, The Burial of Kojo (2018), directed by Blitz Bazawule, makes for abundant comparisons. The term Africanfuturism has grown in prominence in recent years. As with most artistic movements, there is no overwhelming consensus about the definitional difference between Afrofuturism and Africanfuturism. It’s best to be open-minded about the intentions of those who use these terms and the contexts in which they are used. However, as a generalisation, Africanfuturism describes work that seeks to centre diverse cultures, traditions, histories, folklore, mythologies, etc. of Africa and the African diaspora, rather than Afro-American experience specifically.

Bazawule’s Kojo was made in Ghana on a microbudget, but has received wide distribution through Netflix. It tells the story of Kojo (Joseph Otsiman), who is trapped in a mine, while his daughter Esi (Cynthia Dankwa) seeks to save him by travelling through a fantastical spirit land. Kojo is stylistically a very distinct film. Nevertheless, it shares a number of themes with Us. In both films, the source of horror emanates from within a family (if we consider the Tethered are an extension of Adelaide’s family) and through the conceit of the doppelgänger. 

Stylistically, Kojo uses magical realism to cast a dreamlike quality over Esi in her quest to save Kojo. Esi has recurring visions of birds. She sees a crow who “ruled the land in-between” (and who is exposed as a family member who has already died) and a sacred white bird, who is revealed to be Kojo. Bazawule reveals the narrative steadily and incrementally. In this case his metier is magical-realist as he works with the aesthetic of a waking dream. The Ghana of his film is a land filled with symbols that reveal their meaning to those receptive to them, such as Esi. She encounters a blind shaman who says that he is from “the realm in-between, where everything is upside-down,” dramatic shifts in the film’s visual palette, and even varying speeds of motion of time itself (including time running backwards) to indicate that the true meaning of the characters are hidden beneath the normal world. For much of the film, the viewer is left questioning whether what they are seeing is real or not. As Todorov might argue, we are suspended between knowing what is real and what is a spirit vision.

Kojo plays out as a story of love, memory and regret. It’s also the story of Esi’s journey. She is initially too young for the dangers of her quest, but increasingly becomes clear-eyed and mature as she navigates this landscape to try to rescue her father. In this regard, Esi’s journey echoes Adelaide’s. The world ruptures around them and then shifts in meaning. For Esi, the story is one of redemption, whereas for Adelaide it is an altogether darker journey. Ultimately, both characters become stronger and firmer in their convictions through the nature of their experiences.  

Taken together Us and The Burial of Kojo both challenge the viewer’s expectations and ask us to consider what assumptions we have made about family, belonging and trust. Both play with audience assumptions within the unifying framework of family, and challenge us to consider who belongs, who is welcome and who might have been excluded so that we can be comfortable — either physically or emotionally.

Culturally these films represent a shift in the status quo. They are stories that foreground diverse black lives and black lived experience, without pandering to majority white audiences. That suggests that there is a wider conversation playing out culturally: who can be the hero, who can audiences identify with, how can cinema be transformative within culture and society more widely. The films’ success with audiences of all backgrounds suggests that there is an appetite for this discussion. Once again, genre filmmakers lead the way in exploring it.

Importantly, these films also form the core of a canon of films worth seeing entirely on their own merits. Kojo celebrates Ghanaian cultures before a wide international audience. Us challenges the definition and the meaning of being American. Neither needs championing through a tokenistic commitment to diversity, or the buzz of promising filmmakers “finding their voices.” The politics of these films are well-integrated into the stories they tell, and those stories are exciting and dramatic in their own right. Both films are compelling, fully-realised stories that entertain as well as resonating with a wider cultural and artistic significance.

Dev Agarwal is a science fiction and fantasy writer. His work has been published online and in magazines including Albedo One, Aofie’s Kiss, Hungur and Aeon. Dev is the editor of Focus, Vector’s sister magazine for genre writers, also produced by the British Science Fiction Association.

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