Film & TV

In Us, the Woke Generation Scares Itself

Lupita Nyong’o in Us (Universal Pictures)
Jordan Peele depicts black American identity as a freak show.

The title of Toni Morrison’s new essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, indicates what should be the point of the horror-comedy Us, if Us had a point. Morrison figures out the roots of identity, personal awareness, and artistic ambition. Through 43 compositions mostly about race, reprinted without original dates and bound in a subtly defiant pink jacket, the Nobel prize winner reintroduces herself to the woke generation. Morrison’s examples of belles lettres contradict Jordan Peele’s low-brow Hollywood-backed hucksterism, yet she addresses the generation that Hollywood has learned to control, especially in this moment, when “inclusion” and “diversity” are little more than marketing strategies. How better to sell Black Lives Matter tickets than by calling a movie “Us”?

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The actors who portray the besieged black family in Us were obviously cast for their dark skin tone. Writer-director Peele apparently likes the political horror-comedy frisson of colorism, using Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey in 12 Years a Slave) and Winston Duke (M’Baku in Black Panther) the same way he cast Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out — as ultra-blacks. This nontraditional Hollywood casting is more than counterintuitive; it’s a specious form of authenticity. Peele emphasizes racial difference — taunting it — but without Morrison’s in-depth exploration.

During 1970s blaxploitation, filmmakers exploited black beauty by eroticizing dark-skin actresses such as Brenda Sykes, Gloria Hendry, Judy Pace, Mae Mercer; and photographer-turned-director Gordon Parks cast former model Richard Roundtree as ebony-hard detective Shaft. It might seem impolite to bring all this up, but it’s important to grasp actor-comedian Peele’s temerity, which has been taken seriously since his 2017 hit Get Out won acclaim for treating race as a visual joke.

Peele exploits race without owning up to the manipulation. Showcasing his actors’ surface physiognomy is part of an insidious ploy, often used by race-hustling politicians, that Peele himself probably doesn’t completely understand. Inadvertently, his movies follow the lineage of black movie caricatures without improving them: Coal-black Nyong’o and Duke are PC exaggerations of the black American phenotype. When they get bug-eyed, just as 1930–’40s comic actors Willie Best and Mantan Moreland did, Peele’s audience is signaled to not only laugh but be frightened. Fear is Peele’s idea of cultural progress.

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Us pretends to critique black social progress via horror-comedy shtick. Nyong’o and Duke play bourgeois couple Adelaide and Gabe Wilson — artistic, proper-speaking, and unappealing yuppies (buppies) who, along with their TV-commercial-styled children Zora and Jason, vacation at a fashionable beach town. The exclusivity of the Wilsons’ upscale retreat is violated by crazed mutants — freak-show doppelgängers who attack the family, seeking revenge for reasons unspecified beyond haves-vs.-have-nots. (Peele’s contrived explanation is ludicrous.)

The Wilson family’s travail indicates race guilt (not the all-American dystopia of Brian Taylor’s horror-comedy Mom and Dad). Yet there isn’t a single moment of empathy between the characters — only hysteria as the Wilsons attempt to survive with their privilege intact. Peele depicts this struggle superficially and incoherently, as he did in Get Out. He knows that race makes people’s heads spin. Add bludgeoning musical effects, an illogical, sub–Twilight Zone premise, plus bloodshed, and critics will genuflect, taking Peele’s manipulation to be sociologically profound.

But thrill-ride gimmicks that distract from the concept’s incoherence expose Peele’s essential non-seriousness. His beach scene incompetently mimics Jaws, and his pop-music references are dubious: The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” is used during ironic Tarantino mayhem, and Peele proves his cultural ignorance when he misses the chance to underscore a call for the police with “Roxanne,” the song by British rock band The Police that Eddie Murphy wailed and subverted in 48 Hrs. Instead, Peele blares N.W.A.’s “F*** tha Police.” Yawn.

This film’s doppelgängers — inarticulate, dressed like convicts, and carrying gold shears — claim that they are “tethered” to the Wilsons. “We’re Americans!” they announce, then inflict imprisonment (beatings and handcuffs) like specters from Ava DuVernay’s prison-industrial-complex fetish. In pale imitation of the classic horror-film concept of “the return of the repressed,” a neighboring white family (headed by PC standard-bearer Elisabeth Moss) is also beset by replicant ghouls. Peele attempts to revive the discredited “post-racial” notion from 2008. But political reality outstrips his comedy routine. Us runs up against the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) movement, which isn’t founded on fright-movie terms but insists on confronting the horrific past without make-believe.

Black social fears are not alleviated through the teasing and mockery seen in Us; only clueless viewers would think so, and they turn out to be the audience most susceptible to Peele’s race-based conceits.

Critics have praised Us as a satire on class envy, especially black upward mobility, yet Candace Owens lays waste to Peele’s “post-racial” folly with her suggestion that the recent bureaucratic exoneration of Jussie Smollett “destroyed the myth of white privilege.” The Wilsons may be dark-skinned, but they’re the whitest-acting movie characters ever seen on screen. The “class” charade substitutes for Peele’s inability to grasp the lingering effects of slavery or see through the phoniness of Peele’s race-baiting. His notion of being “tethered” to mutants suckers white liberals just as the “sunken place” notion suckered disconcerted blacks struggling with their own unarticulated miseries. They’re being preached at by a bad comic who specializes in ridiculing black pathology.

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Interpreting Peele’s silliness — early nods to The Man with Two Brains, C.H.U.D., and The Goonies — doesn’t go beyond his trivializing black American deprivation into junk-movie entertainment. And no intelligent moviegoer should be impressed by his tonier affectations, which are mere sketch comedy. He starts Us with a prologue of preteen Adelaide wearing a Michael Jackson Thriller T-shirt, wandering off from her parents at a carnival in 1986. She winds up in a “Find Yourself” haunted-house attraction where she sees her likeness in a mirror — it’s the back of a little black girl’s head, evoking René Magritte’s 1937 painting Not to Be Reproduced.

Given the political funhouse that the United States has become since 2008, Peele’s obsidian mirror goes no deeper than a carnival hoax. It’s the same game as Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo staring face to face like Ibo vs. Dahomey statues in Steve McQueen’s Widows — a middlebrow art affectation such as the 1980s black gallery exhibitions Toni Morrison critiques in her essay “Harlem on My Mind: Contesting Memory — Meditation on Museums, Culture, and Integration.”

The woke generation that Morrison pursues is not more literate than their ancestors who read Morrison’s Beloved. (Some of them even appreciated Jonathan Demme’s bold film adaptation, which others scoffed at as a black version of The Exorcist.) But gullible responses to Get Out and Us show that woke viewers outsmart themselves and are cinema illiterate, and Hollywood knows a surefire way to trick-or-treat them: Under the horror-movie rubric, the woke generation will fall for anything. From here on, I will no longer refer to Jordan Peele as a race hustler. Us proves he is something simpler: a charlatan.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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