When it comes to the portrayal of black women, Jordan Peele’s Us is an act of defiance.
“You don’t get to make the decisions anymore!” Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o’s character Adelaide Wilson shouts half way through Jordan Peele’s new horror film Us. Adelaide directs this at her husband Gabe, played by Black Panther’s Winston Duke.
While I was scared out of my mind and clinging for dear life to the stranger beside me at this moment, I understood Adelaide’s declaration not just in the context of the film, but also as a promise that a line has been drawn in the sand concerning the representation of black women in horror films. No longer will non-black directors singularly decide the fate of black women in this genre.
Nyong’o is not the first dark-skinned black woman to star in a horror film but Us is the first time I have seen a black woman presented at the very centre of an original horror film in this way. Adelaide is not the sassy sidekick or the nagging girlfriend - she is the matriarch of a black family and is fighting desperately to protect them from evil forces.
The whole film is an act of defiance and - dare I say it- cinematic revolution. And I know this sounds like hyperbole but the history of horror on the silver screen is a damning indictment of the treatment of black women at the hands of the genre’s leading voices. Us reminds black people, and black girls and black women specifically, that while our race is important - it’s not all we are.
Peele’s 2017 Academy Award winning directorial debut Get Out deftly tackled race and forced well-meaning white liberalism to analyse itself and its horrors. While Get Out’s protagonist Chris’s attempts to escape whiteness and the ills of its privilege are the driving force behind that film, Us is unencumbered by any racialised socio-political discourse.
Peele takes care casting an ensemble of black actors who actually look like they could be related (this is harder than those who get it right are given credit for - see the original My Wife & Kids cast for reference) but somehow the writer/director manages to make the fact of their race unremarkable.
The Wilsons are a universally recognisable family; Nyong’o is the disciplinarian mum; Duke is the fun-loving bubbly dad; Shahadi Wright Joseph is the teenage daughter, Zora, who can’t put her phone down; and Evan Alex is her younger brother, Jason, who’d love nothing more than to perfect his magic trick. I can’t begin to explain how refreshing it is to experience a horror film led by a black cast where the colour of their skin isn’t a signal for impending danger, trauma and violence. The irony of feeling safe watching a horror film isn’t lost on me.
A pervasive trope of horror cinema is that, while people of all races and genders must die, black people always die first. This trope isn’t fact based and according to this list of 50 horror films starring black characters only 10% of them died first.
The trope rose from a Nineties’ trend of black people, and black women specifically, often dying quickly - the most high profile example being Jada Pinkett Smith’s character dying in Scream 2 before the opening credits even rolled.
Cis gendered, able bodied, black women starred in only 35% of the films on the aforementioned list. Black disabled and trans women have yet to be included in the genre in a meaningful way. And of the 19 films black women starred in, they were three times more likely than black men to die first - despite black men starring in twice as many films.
As I sit here tabulating the death count of horror films along racial and gender lines it can begin to feel ridiculous and unimportant but that just isn’t true - it is important. How blackness is represented in the media, be it news or in film, has a direct correlation between how black people are treated in real life.
Negative tropes that encourage a casual disregard of black womanhood manifest in the mistreatment of high profile black women like Ilhan Omar, Diane Abbott and Michelle Obama as well as everyday black women like me, my friends and the women in my family.
When you have no visibility and very little representation in media like black women who are trans and/or disabled you are further marginalised and your mistreatment in everyday life is exacerbated.
White men make up 89% of the directors of the films on that list, 11% are men of colour, none of them are women and none of them are black men. I can’t help but see a link between the people telling the stories and how, if at all, black women are represented.
Peele’s presence in that exclusive men’s club heralds a changing of the guard. Last year it was announced that Peele’s film company Monkeypaw Productions will produce a reboot of the horror classic Candyman with director Nia DaCosta at the helm. Peele’s choice to create opportunities that would have black women both in front of and behind the camera speaks to an active feminism we need to see more men in power emulating.
Gender equality in horror is a long-term ambition. For now, I am thankful for Us. I can’t stop thinking about the kind of mind it takes to create a narrative so layered, so beautifully shot, whose soundtrack is one for the ages. What kind of director inspires such confidence that an actress of Elisabeth Moss’ magnitude is happy to accept the supporting role; the role others might have reserved for the black actress?
Peele has solidified his role as the foremost auteur of his generation and his latest offering proves it was possible to achieve this aim without sacrificing story quality or marginalising black women. In fact, it is his centring of Nyong’o on screen and in the film’s marketing materials that sets him apart from the pack, many of who perhaps bought into the myth blackness and black womanhood don’t sell. I am excited to watch Us again and again. For so many reasons, it is truly a beautiful film.
Images: Universal Pictures