Jordan Peele’s Us and The Impostor Within

This past weekend, Jordan Peele’s second feature film Us opened to record numbers at the box office, once again proving our confidence in his talent as well as the need for more horror. His latest contribution takes another look at (North) American culture, but this time it’s a deep dive into who we see in the mirror and what we actually are.

Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family are on their summer vacation. She heads to her beach home along with her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), son Jason (Evan Alex), and handsome, good-natured husband Gabe (Winston Duke). It’s a good life, but the visit to Santa Cruz, California holds some traumatic memories for her. She is tense as they meet up with friends Josh (Tim Heidecker), Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), and their twin daughters on the beach; and frantic when she loses sight of her son Jason who is transfixed by a bloodied, jumpsuit-clad man gazing into the horizon. Later she tells Gabe about an incident that left her traumatized as child when she met her double in a creepy fun house on that very beach. She feels the double is still around and watching her. That evening, her worst fear is realized when her doppelgänger, and carbon copies of Adelaide’s family, appears at their home. They are called the Tethered from an unknown underworld, and they are set to terrorize the family for a larger purpose.

Adelaide and her terrified family.

I had to collect my thoughts on Us for several days. I left the theatre feeling overwhelmed by the images flashed on the screen, like a rich meal sitting on the palate hours after consuming. I felt uncertain, wondering if this feast for the eyes was going to sit right; if I would like it and want another serving, and I’m pleased I can say yes to both. There are layers and layers of themes to be discussed, and you’ll find wonderful pieces online covering doppelgängers, the biblical passage of Jeremiah 11:11, and double consciousness, but what came to the surface for me was class and Impostor Syndrome.

First, some other thoughts: Peele’s central protagonists are members of a black family, leveling the playing field for me so I could concentrate on other aspects of the film like the narrative and subplots. I could actually relax into the experience instead of wondering in the back of my mind what it would be like to have a black performer play the role of Adelaide if Us had an all white cast. I’ve mentioned before in my review of the documentary Horror Noire that I felt a certain anxiety over black characters in horror because they fulfilled tropes and stereotypes instead of proper representation. Here, Peele provides a master class in representing black culture; normalizing it instead of mimicking stereotypes and appropriation. You can see this in his organic use of the song “I Got 5 On It” and the Howard University sweatshirt – two feasible and easily believable “black” signifiers. This middle-class black family defies Hollywood’s representation of blacks. There’s no guns, gangs or prostitutes, just family trauma. He also normalizes the fact that young Adelaide’s mother is concerned with her well-being enough to take her to a therapist instead of asking her to pray for guidance, an interesting secular aspect even though there is a larger biblical theme of doom and gloom connecting the plot of the film.

The performances were fantastic, and just what you would expect from Peele as a director. The film itself was funnier than I anticipated, with Duke’s endearing and heroically bumbling Gabe and the great chemistry between Joseph and Alex as siblings. All eyes, however, are on Nyong’o. Her skill at becoming two completely different people is boundless. From facial and body tics to genuine menace, she clearly shows her attention to detail and the love of her craft. Her duality is, of course, central to the film and affected me the most.

Spoilers from this point on!

If you’ve seen the film, you know that Adelaide was once a Tethered, and switched places with the real Adelaide, now called Red, when they were children. America is the land of opportunity where the fittest will survive, and Adelaide’s switch is a great allegory for the opportunistic mentality of people’s drive to get what they want. She got herself out of the tunnels and into the real world. As a result, Adelaide is constantly looking over her shoulder because she knows she isn’t in her rightful place, and she is truly an impostor. I’ve had that same feeling because Impostor Syndrome started early for me. Growing up in a white neighbourhood, I was faced with the guilt of not living in the community housing with the other black kids, and the perpetual knowledge that my family was treated like we weren’t supposed to be in the white neighbourhood. I felt clumsy in my portrayal of a black girl, not knowing the right way to finally be accepted because the black kids were suspicious of me, and the white kids said I really wasn’t black because I didn’t fit their white supremacist rules of blackness or class. I was playing a role in each arena and not getting it quite right, like Adelaide trying to snap in time to music.

To add to this feeling of a fraudulent existence, my mother told me to keep my head down and behave because if something went wrong, black children would be blamed first. She did this to protect her black daughters in an unforgiving world, but it was a cardinal rule that boxed me in with expectations and dread. Like Adelaide, I had to keep myself in check, worried that my carefully constructed world of avoidance wasn’t enough to protect my fraudulent roles, and wondering whether I would ever show my true self; if I even knew who I really was. I understood Adelaide protecting her status, identity and American Dream; to deal with her secret plus the weight of heading a successful black family.

Red and her doppelgänger family.

Adelaide escaped the Tethered, a forgotten people, left to fend for themselves once the government experiment they were a part of went awry. They mimicked the upside world, every move warped, with no hope of escape. This hidden society, this powerless class found a leader in Red, who saw her opportunity to rise up and revolt by planning her own revolution based on one of the few things she remembered from her childhood, Hands Across America.  This charity event to help the homeless meant well but was a bust in the end. She planned to make her version a success for her fellow Tethered and regain her identity from Adelaide, driven by her entitlement to her real life. I sympathized with Red too, since her rightful place was taken from her. This jockeying for a prime position created the ultimate showdown between a woman and her double, in a world full of hidden meanings, our darkest fears and deepest secrets. 

The scope of Us is vast, and whether you see it as a battle between our worst selves, our fears, classes, or a biblical reckoning, it’s a literal rabbit hole of self-reflection everyone should fall down and get lost in over and over again.

The Tokoloshe: Mythology and Modern Trauma

With the South African film industry making new strides to create opportunities for local and foreign filmmakers, director Jerome Pikwane tackles the horror genre with his first feature film The Tokoloshe.

Busi (Petronella Tsuma) is a desperate young woman who finds work at a derelict hospital as a night-shift cleaner. She must deal with a predatory manager Mr. Ruatomin (Dawid Minaar), jaded coworkers and young abandoned patients in order to make money to bring her sister from their troubled rural home to Johannesburg. One night, Busi comes across Gracie (Kwande Nkosi), a little girl who is tormented by a nasty entity called The Tokoloshe, known to prey on children. Busi takes pity on Gracie, and even though she deals with the trauma of her own family issues and abuse, she sneaks Gracie out to live with her, unwittingly bringing the angry Tokoloshe into her home. Busi must protect Gracie, battle this entity and her own troubles to survive life’s harsh realties.

Busi (Petronella Tsuma) dreads another night at work.

The most popular definition of the Tokoloshe is a hairy, lustful, elf-like creature from Zulu folklore who wrecks havoc on people, especially women and children, causing mischief or death. Pikwane successfully melds this mythological figure with the difficult subject matter of sexual abuse and rape. In several interviews, Pikwane said he wanted to represent misogyny and the patriarchy through his film and the figure of the Tokoloshe was key in representing the patriarchy and all the oppressive men in Busi’s life. His handling of the abuse Busi and Gracie suffered was thoughtfully done with a few moments of brutality along with flashbacks and eerie atmosphere, surrounding Busi with shadowy settings to represent the hidden corners of her psyche.

I loved that there were two black female leads in a modern horror dealing with a real issue in South African society (and beyond). Tsuma and Nkosi had wonderful chemistry as lost souls looking for redemption and safety, and for a low-budget film, Pikwane incorporated an artistic and slightly gothic feel, comparable to The Babadook and Under the Shadow that also dealt with trauma and mental distress in similar fashions. The use of effects for some decent jump scares was also well done, with a few subtle CGI moments building up to big the creature reveal.

The Tokoloshe was screened at the 7th Toronto Black Film Festival (proudly co-presented by the Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival), with one of the films producers, Cati Weinek in attendance. She talked about the rampant sexual abuse in South Africa and the need for Pikwane to address this through his film. She also mentioned the call for change with stereotypical roles for blacks in film, and she had great hopes for financing and creating more horror and films outside of the typical rom-com fare popular with South African audiences.

I think a lot of movie-goers will resonate with the characters and themes of The Tokoloshe. After having attended a talk given by Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and advocate for sexual abuse survivors, I have to commend Jerome Pikwane and his co-writer Richard Kunzman for being real allies in the struggle for accountability. They’ve not only produced an encouraging debut horror feature with an exciting new director, but an important tool for creating dialogue about trauma.

Horror Noire: History Lesson, Validation and Hope for Black Horror

I am beside myself with relief, joy and optimism because my life as a black woman horror fan has been validated. When I watched horror films as a young person, I cringed when a black character appeared, certain they were going to be ridiculed, portrayed as a caricature, or something bad was going to happen to them. This was an internalized knowledge I didn’t have to think about, a feeling I had catalogued in my emotional bank because of my own experiences of trying not to be noticed lest someone started to ridicule or bully me, to the point where sometimes I was relieved there weren’t any black characters in a horror film so I could watch without the added anxiety as a person of colour. The origins of this programmed terror of misrepresentation has been vindicated and explained in the documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s extensive tome on blacks in American horror films.

From the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation to the current day Get Out, horror films featuring black characters and actors have an historical significance in how we are seen in society at large. Means Coleman puts all of this in a book entitled Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. It’s an excellent read outlining decades of misrepresentation of blacks and different tropes (like the magical negro and the myth of blacks dying first in horror), up to the shift in the 90s with urban horror and how we reclaim our stories and representation. Directed by Xavier Burgin, Horror Noire encapsulates the subject matter presented by three film scholars and producers of the documentary: the author herself, Means Coleman, author and teacher Tananarive Due, and Ashlee Blackwell, writer and founder of graveyardshiftsisters.com. Actors like Tony Todd (Candyman), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Keith David (The Thing), Kelly Jo Minter (The People Under the Stairs); and directors like Jordan Peele (Get Out), Rusty Cundieff (Tales from the Hood 1 & 2) and Ernest K. Dickerson (Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight) explore the impact of their films and other classic horrors featuring blacks had, like Night of the Living Dead and Ganja and Hess, on themselves and American culture.

The inclusion of actors listed above as well as Miguel A. Núñez Jr. (The Return of the Living Dead) and Rachel True (The Craft) bring an honest behind-the-scenes account of how they viewed participating in the horror genre and what it meant to them as individuals. I especially loved True’s candid nature, and her appearance in the documentary is important given the recent controversy of her history of exclusion at conventions. If you think there’s a lot of information to take in, you’re right, but the pacing of the documentary is fantastic. The viewer can absorb information covered in the seven chapters of the book without feeling like you’ve missed something, and the discussions, commentary and visuals all complement each other so everything is easily digested.

For this Black History and Women in Horror Month, the fact that there are three black female scholars guiding the documentary is so empowering. They know what it truly means to be “the other” as they move through spaces that may not readily accept them which is key in their examination of blacks in horror. As black women, we are an unconsidered entity; our intelligence is often challenged, and worse yet, we aren’t normally thought of as the go-to for horror. This time, black women are center stage here, scholars who have made it a priority to explore the history of what blackness is in horror films. What’s also important is the expansion of the discussion to include films up to the here and now, and the hopefulness as we see young female directors Meosha Bean and Monica Suriyage talk about persevering and collaborating to make films that represent themselves properly.

Horror Noire (as both a documentary and book) needs to be added to every film studies syllabus. It’s a vital testament to how a society driven by white supremacy can destroy a people with perception and how we can take it back by reclaiming our representation. If that doesn’t work, as Núñez Jr. says, “Black is the new green”, and money talks, so here’s to more black horror making bank and history.

Watch it now on Shudder.com, and if you haven’t seen some of the films referenced in the documentary, they’re also available on Shudder (hooray!). There’s also a code for a 30-day free trial for the month of February (wihmx), so get your popcorn, tone those eye muscles and get to watching!

*Apologies-I’ve taken the troll bait. Horror Noire is also important addition to the education of those who insist on exclusionary tactics; masking their discomfort of including people of colour by saying horror is getting too political. Horror is and always has been political, and whether these folks want to learn from a discussion that addresses the mistakes of blindly accepting misrepresentation is up to them. I encourage viewers to challenge these archaic views in the review section of  Horror Noire on Shudder to set the record straight. And for those who are whining about other people of colour not being included, here are some bullet points:

  • This is about blacks in horror, based on a book about blacks in horror films and black history.
  • There is an insidious and defensive behaviour of denial exhibited by some white (and a handful of non-white) people who tries to diminish anything involving blacks and black people calling out misrepresentation, and it needs to stop, like right now because it’s boring, stale, and pointless.
  • If you want documentaries on misrepresentation of other people of colour in film, they are out there. I shouldn’t have to spell it out for these folks, because there is a thing called Google, but try The Bronze Screen and The Slanted Screen for starters.

Escape Room: The Right Kind of Franchise Fodder

From derelict buildings to posh Victorian houses, escape rooms are all the rage, and they have been for several years now. Paying for someone to lock you in a room with a group of people so you can figure out an escape will help build spirit you never thought you had plus you’ll get a chance to flex your problem-solving skills. But what if it’s not all fun and games, and the reality of the timer running out is an actual death? This situation is posed with Escape Room, and it’s a nail-biting ride.

Zooey (Taylor Russell) is a shy, college student who is brilliant and a loner. She’s stuck in her dorm for Thanksgiving while everyone leaves for the break. She receives a mysterious puzzle box which she quickly figures out how to open, only to find an invitation to compete in an escape room adventure for $10,000. Zooey isn’t the only one who gets a box. Jason (Jay Ellis) a go-getting financial whiz, Ben (Logan Miller) a down on his luck grocery clerk, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) an ex-soldier, Danny (Nik Dodani) the uber-nerd, and Mike (Tyler Labine) a jovial blue-collar fella all figure out the cubed puzzle and end up in an industrial building where the game begins in the waiting room. They soon learn the mysterious makers of the escape room mean business when they’re almost roasted alive in the first challenge. So begins their life or death race to the finish as they work their way room to room, revealing more about each person and the invisible burdens they struggle with.

The players in a bad spot. (Sony Pictures)

The film starts with a bang as Ben tries to figure out how to get out of a library before he’s crushed by a moving wall. It’s a frantic few minutes, putting you on edge immediately and never loses the intensity throughout. Waiting to see what clues characters found and how they related to each of their pasts was fantastic and created a puzzle within a puzzle. And speaking of puzzles, the cast fit in perfectly with great performances. Canadian actor Taylor Russell (seen on numerous shows like Falling Skies and Netflix’s Lost in Space) is riveting as the shy loner Zooey who clears all the puzzle hurdles with ease and is a classic final girl. Other stand out performances came from Ellis (Insecure) and Woll (best known for True Blood), and we got the perfect amount of comedic relief from Labine, the veteran Canadian actor of Tucker and Dale vs Evil fame as well as a huge list of other notable roles. Kudos to director Adam Robitel for casting people of colour in a lead role, like, three, as well as an Asian detective played by Kenneth Fok. See? Not so hard, and the film is doing well at the box office and getting decent reviews with what seems like a teaser ending for a sequel if not a franchise (yes, please!). I also have to mention the production designer Edward Thomas who has worked on Doctor Who, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood. The sets were just brilliant and writers Bragi F. Shut and Maria Melnik came up with some great brainteasers to keep the audience guessing.

As a side note, my biggest joy received from this movie was the fact that I saw it with two young black girls: my great-niece and her cousin who nodded vigorously when I asked if they were pleased that the main character was a black girl. This is a moment that touched my heart because I know if I was their age, this would speak to me on a subconscious level. A black girl protagonist would have let me know without words that I could excel at math, I could be the smartest one in the room and not to feel ashamed about it. Actions speak louder than words and this time I got to see my sweet tween niece see someone like her winning on the big screen.

If you haven’t seen Escape Room yet, don’t miss out on it, not only because it’s a perfect Saturday night at the movies, but also for some fun, sustained suspense, people of colour in solid roles and a black final girl you can get behind.