I saw “Us” last week one day before it was officially released in theaters. Since it’s billed as a horror movie this was a big deal for me. I don’t do horror. When a new scary movie comes out I am not the one to jump up and say: “I can’t wait to see it!” I am not that girl. A part of me — the little twelve year old who tagged along with her sister and her teenage friends to the movies when she should not have — is still traumatized by Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” When that lone bloody hand came out of that grave…
But I’m a big girl now. I like challenges and am actively working on facing my fears. Besides, Jordon Peele’s first film “Get Out” (which I saw almost a year after everybody else) while scary, wasn’t a bloody mess of a movie filled with demons and slime and/or hellfire stuff so I figured “Us” would be somewhat safe for me to see.
I was right. The director doesn’t rely on gimmicks like flying bats or rabid rats (thank God!) but what he does in this film, as he did with his first, is make you scared of the motives of seemingly regular people. He forces you to wonder if you really know who you’re messing with.
In “Get Out” (which “Us” will inevitably, relentlessly be compared to) the scary people are the white folks who, via their basic daughter, seduce the main character into a situation where he is being bought and sold for body parts and he doesn’t even know it until it’s almost too late. In “Us” the villains and the heroes here are black. That is a deviation from the horror genre norm. Yes there was “Candyman” (which I have never seen) and “Blackula” and countless other horror movies where the villain is black but let’s face it: When you think horror movie villain you think white and male. You think Norman Bates; the creepy clown from “IT”; Freddie Kruger; Michael Myers; Jason from “Friday the 13th” (which is the name of Adelaide’s son in this movie. I see you, Jordan Peele). I mean even the scary mask in “Scream” was white. Jordan Peele knows this and gives his Jason’s doppelganger a creepy white mask, too.
Despite references to many other horror movies (the Twins from “The Shining” anyone?) “Us” is a very different kind of horror movie. For instance, we all know somebody black always dies first in scary movies; it’s like a thing. That doesn’t happen here.
What happens is all because the main character, Adelaide as a little girl, takes her hard headed self down to the beach alone, even though her mother told her not to move and asked her husband to watch the child. Why can’t anybody listen to us black women? Don’t they know we know everything? Why must they make us have to say ‘I told you so’? Sheesh.
Anyway, something happens to the girl in the house of mirrors on the beach, something so terrifying that she is markedly changed. She does not speak. She is not the same. Her mother cries to their therapist “I just want my little girl back.” But that little girl is gone and we think it’s just because she was scared shitless. She was not. We don’t find out until the very end what really happened (although the director teases the truth along the way. Some people will catch on early. Some won’t. I didn’t.) so we glare at the screen thinking we are watching one thing but are actually witnessing something else entirely.
I started to suspect something was off when Adelaide (the little girl all grown up played brilliantly by our beautiful Lupita Nyong’o) didn’t simply tell her husband the truth from the beginning. Why didn’t she put her foot down? They arrive at the family summer house and he wants to go to the beach. Yes, that beach. But instead of saying “Look boo-boo, some crazy scary stuff happened to me at that beach when I was a kid and I’m not going and neither are you or our children. We’re staying right here. We got games. We got us!” she lets him pout and bat his eyelashes (done adorably by the burly brother from “Black Panther”, Winston Duke) and convince her to go.
She should have stayed her behind home because now their presence has awakened what lies beneath. Now it is on.
The family returns home and is soon confronted by their doppelgangers in the driveway. Who are these people? What do they want? Adelaide knows although you don’t know she knows until later. But she continues to play protective mother telling the daughter “Put your shoes on”- because she’s about to be told to run out into the night all alone — while clutching her son to her chest for dear life. Black women have been accused of raising their daughters (making them strong and self-sufficient) and nurturing their sons (making them codependent, needy, useless) and this scene speaks loudly to that accusation. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it because very soon the doppelgangers are inside and everyone in the family has to fend for themselves.
When Red, the name of Adelaide’s doppelganger (also played by Lupita), makes Adelaide hand cuff herself to the table, we think Adelaide is obliging because she is scared, because she is being cautious. Actually, Adelaide is not surprised to see Red. She knows exactly who Red is and exactly why she is there. But unlike the alabaster skin, ice cold blue eyes and flaxen hair of the main character in the classic “Carrie”, in this movie (which will surely also be considered a classic) the monster is a Black Woman. The monster looks like US. How about them apples? Red, in a creepy clipped voice, gives a monologue where we find out about how she’s been living and it’s just not right. While Adelaide was happy and healthy eating hot food in a nice home with doting (although constantly clashing) parents and grows up to find true love and have two beautiful children, Red has been literally eating rabbit cold and raw. Talk about opposite realities. Talk about the Have and the Have Not’s (and I’m not talking about Tyler Perry here. Tyler Perry is not this deep.) We soon discover that Red and her family are not the only doppelgangers doing damage. They’re everywhere and they’re blood hungry, honey. The movie, which is more about abuse of power than race, takes on a wider worldview when we realize Red — the ultimate activist and organizer — has planned for this very day, when the tethered would be free.
The closing image is an overhead shot of the tethered holding hands as a sign of solidarity. They have taken over. They have won. But where are we? Or, are we them? There are a myriad of themes to unpack in this movie but the one of falseness and fraud is as timely as Trump. When “Get Out” came out Obama was still president and the hate for black people by some was (is) real. Now, in 2019, here comes “Us” just when we are all wondering: Who was Michael Jackson, really? What was all of that mess with Jussie Smollett? Did Elizabeth Holmes really think she could get away with the lie that was Theranos?
As the camera pulls back we hear the voice of the late great Minne Riperton singing Les Fleur (the director uses music magnificently in this movie, Fuck the Police by NWA being blasted in a pivotal scene) which is sadistic in itself since that sweet song will never sound the same again. It’s very unsettling, like a weird dream you can’t shake but keep trying to figure out, to no avail. I think that was Jordan Peele’s point. This movie will get you thinking. It will have you screaming and hiding your face in your hands a few times, too, but not too much. Some of my die hard horror fan friends were disappointed in the movie’s lack of gratuitous gore but not me. For me it was just enough.
That’s the thing. “Us” is about you, and how you interpret it depends on what you bring to the movie, your baggage, your demons, the things that if you don’t face and conquer will come back and destroy you. Now that’s scary.