The first thing you should know about the movie Us is that it’s probably not the movie you’re expecting.
If you’re a fan of Jordan Peele’s 2017 breakout hit Get Out (and let’s be real, who isn’t), then it’s very likely that you’ll walk into his sophomore effort Us with a certain vague idea of what to expect. As a filmmaker, Get Out put Jordan Peele on the map as a writer/director with a particular style, one that examined socio-political and racial difference through the lens of horror.
While there are definitely some political themes at work, Us is doing something quite different from what Get Out did.
In Us, we follow Adelaide Wilson, played by Lupita Nyong’o, as her family travels to Santa Cruz for a summer vacation at her childhood home. In the middle of the night, a group of nightmarish doppelgängers of the Wilson family suddenly appear in their driveway and then proceed to violently invade their home. Much of the film is taken up by the fight between the Wilsons and their murderous doubles before the film slowly explains their origins. The film ends with a final, chilling plot twist which, while possibly obvious to some (I watch a lot of movies, sorry), is still genuinely affecting.
As a political allegory, Us has much more to do with ideas about the inner darkness of American society and our collective fear of those that we consider to be outsiders. It’s not quite as clear-cut as Get Out’s biting commentary about the current state of race relations in the U.S., nor is it as inherently racial. Instead, Us is much more concerned with simply being what it is: a horror movie.
Yes, Us is a horror movie! This may sound super obvious to some, but there’s a reason why Jordan Peele felt the need to write that exact message as a tweet. In some ways, the success of Get Out, a film in which the horror is intrinsically tied to the black experience and to the simultaneous marginalization and fetishization of black bodies, may have served to pigeonhole him. Raise your hand if you were expecting Us to also deal explicitly with race relations. I won’t lie, I certainly was.
Instead, Us is a movie that is very much in the spirit of classic horror and suspense films not unlike the Shining, Halloween, and Night of the Living Dead. Yes, there is a political subtext to the film, but the main intent is to do what any good horror film is meant to do: scare the hell out of you.
In many ways, allowing Us to simply be a horror film is just as important and subversive as Get Out being a horror film explicitly about race relations. Us focuses on the experience of a black family, something that, if you’re familiar with the horror genre, you’ll know is almost entirely unheard of. Horror movies are pretty much always centered on white, suburban characters, and are often weirdly sexist. When black people are featured in horror movies, they are almost always the first characters to be killed off.
In Us, however, we spend the entire movie following the Wilson family as they struggle against their violent doubles. In particular, we spend a great deal of time with Lupita Nyong’o’s two characters, the anxious yet strong Adelaide and her incredibly frightening double Red. Just the experience of watching the central struggle in a horror movie take place between two black women, their race and gender having nothing to do with their conflict, is pretty revolutionary. It also doesn’t hurt that Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is tremendous in both roles and will leave you wondering why she isn’t cast in every single thing ever (we know why).
Likewise, the rest of the family fits into the kinds of familiar archetypes that you rarely see black families inhabit in a film like this. There’s Adelaide’s husband Gabe, as the goofy dad who probably played football in college, their disaffected teenage daughter Zora, and their slightly hyperactive son Jason. A familiar cast of characters, but with the sadly much less common addition of them being black. In doing so, the film implicitly normalizes the Wilsons and their blackness, rather than exploring how it makes them “the other.”
That’s not to say that the movie ignores its central family’s identity. There are small nods to the specificity of the black experience throughout the film, from Gabe’s Howard University sweatshirt to the “keeping up with Jones’s” relationship the Wilsons have with their white neighbors. There’s also a number of amazing music cues by black artists, most notably the old school rap track “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz. In Peele’s hands, the song switches between a fun (if vaguely inappropriate) family road trip track to the haunting melody that plays over the film’s climax. Imagine, an old school rap song as a creepy horror movie theme. How beautifully subversive is that?
With Us, Jordan Peele gives us a genuinely chilling, politically relevant horror film that invites you to form your own interpretations of its deeper themes. While Get Out may have revolutionized the genre by allowing viewers to see the potential horror inherent in the black experience, Us manages to change it simply by allowing the black experience to exist on film, unquestioned.