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.

Shudder Exclusive: Kuso the Anti La-La Land

A forest sparkling with fairy dust, it’s woodland floor peppered with what can only be called anus mounds; psychedelic collages of body parts flashing before your eye to an electronic beat; poxy-faced characters in absurd and disturbing circumstances as they struggle through the literal muck of life. That muck, which at first looks like your garden variety sludge, is actually made up of the complexity and randomness of everyday drudgery. All of this can be found wrapped in a psychedelic, comedy/horror package of interconnected segments in the Shudder Exclusive of Kuso, directed by DJ and artistic virtuoso, Flying Lotus aka Steve Ellison.

Kuso opens with a spoken word chorus, or “news pirate” (Regan Farquhar aka Busdriver) hijacking a news report of an earthquake that has hit Los Angeles, and carries on to various TV spots showing the aftereffects of this seismic event on a motley crew of characters. In Royal, a young man partakes in erotic asphyxiation administered by his loving sister who has a secret. Then we have Smear, with a bullied boy whose mother forces him to eat horrific meals. He is ridiculed in school because of his intestinal discomfort and when he runs away, comes across a magical forest with a feces hungry anus-like creature. There is a woman in a subterranean hell as she searches for her baby in Sock, and finally Mr. Quiggle takes us on a journey of another woman who deals with her dating dilemma and her “trans-dimensional” monster roommates, and a man who seeks radical treatment for his fear of breasts.

What we have here is, to me, a nightmarish commentary on the current social and political climate. The reviews have not been overly receptive to the film, citing the over-the-top gross-out scenarios as too obvious or beyond the reach of comprehension. They have also compared the film to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, which makes sense with the bizarre subject matter and body horror. I beg to differ with these reviews for the most part however, because as a person of colour, I see it as a psychedelic, avant-garde and horrific approach to life as a marginalized person.

Avant-garde film, music and comedy is often seen as a white endeavour, but one only has to remember the epitome of avant-garde art, Jean-Michel Basquiat; the afro-futurist movement with Parliament-Funkadelic’s George Clinton (who plays “Dr. Clinton” with his bowel motivated treatments); the cyber-punk gore fests of Japanese horror; the musical DNA from Flying Lotus’s grand-uncle legendary saxophonist John Coltrane; and the decades of spoken word poetry based in the bebop/hip-hop arena to realize this is untrue. Snobbery would consider the latter to be merely a symptom of the “urban” experience with popular music and art of today, but dig deeper and you’ll find modern observations on life as a marginalized or Black person in continually trying times, like the thought-provoking news pirate chorus at the start and end of the film. This is why the Black director and cast composed of mostly people of colour is so important. It shows that we too have a sensibility for the avant-garde, perhaps even more so since some of our real-life experiences can be surreal and literal representations in modern film can often be too painful to watch.

Each sore-riddled character in the vignettes lives on the fringe of society in their filthy abodes. They are the antithesis of the meet-cute, rom-com story, the absent father tearjerker or the mild-mannered guy overcoming his fears. Dialogue in the film mimics formulaic scripts like the intimate, after-sex talk between lovers or the awkward comedy between strangers that just may become friends, and characters sport grotesque skin eruptions instead of picture perfect skin, making the film an abomination of the squeaky-clean Hollywood crank that the masses are addicted to or sick of. That this earthquake takes place in L.A. isn’t unusual, in fact, it is most telling as this is the very place that ideals of how we should live are created even though many a civil unrest has taken place there. In the current climate where racial tensions and turmoil are coming to a head, the earthquake has pushed the build-up of all the white-washing and cover-ups to the surface, spewing forth the discontent, anxieties, fears and truths of the ignored and gagged masses, much like the pus, semen and feces that bubbles from Kuso’s characters.

Although we are now in the internet age, the use of television is so important in this film. One story leads to another from endless screens of all-seeing eyes in each household, illustrating how TV has become a part of everyday life, an extension of ourselves; guiding us in what we should be doing or consuming and feeding us edited and suspect news stories. It is still one of the most powerful electronic mediums in society today as Marshal McLuhan once prolifically predicted, and Hollywood has always been the defining force in what we consume, being the makers of the messages sent through these electronic mediums. When that message is continually manipulated, distorted and upended in no uncertain terms, we must reprocess what is shown to us, which is what Kuso attempts to do.

Incest and general foulness aside, I have only two issues with Kuso. One is with the Mr. Quiggle segment involving the woman “B” (rapper The Buttress) who realizes she’s pregnant and is treated like trash by her two furry TV screen faced roommates played by Hannibal Buress and Donnell Rawlings. These fantastical creatures whip excrement at her and belittle her every chance they get. While her exchanges with them are meant to be comedic, there is an underlying misogyny that can’t be missed as well as the suggestion that she has been date raped by her stalker Phil, played by comedian Tim Hiedecker. His usual Adult Swim-Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! blank-faced delivery gave this story a more disturbing turn even though “B” brushes the incident off. She is also questioned about her decision to get an abortion at the Coathanger Clinic by Manuel (Zack Fox), even thought she says that it’s her body and her right. While she is tough and holds her own with her male counterparts and her stalker does get his comeuppance, it’s a hard reminder of the struggles women endure in the real and surreal comic book world.

The other is a sign spotted in the Coathanger Clinic “B” and Manuel visit, advertising a vaccine for “N*ggapox” with a smiling white face. I will go on record to say that I will never, ever get used to hearing the “N” word, even if it’s used between Blacks and in almost every hip-hop song and Tarantino film out there, but this sign in the clinic made me stop for a moment. It seemed to be a joke, but I wondered if a deeper meaning could imply removing Blackness from society; inoculating us from the Black struggle so we can all live in oblivion and denial, or even removing it from whites who have, perhaps according to their peers, become too ingrained and involved with Black culture. I could be over thinking it, but the few gasps I heard from the mostly white audience at the screening when the camera focused on that sign gave me pause.

There is also a strong pornography element throughout the film, from flashing imagery and TV commercials to full on ejaculate, and even a cameo from porn actor Lexington Steele. Flying Lotus was interviewed by the Guardian, and he mentioned growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where he says “all the porn comes from”, making it a sort of background din for him. He manages to create this feeling of overconsumption with clips of body part collages made of magazines cut-outs undulating to catchy electronic beats that is seamlessly erotic, surreal and absurd at the same time. It desensitizes the viewer at some point, much like the constant battery of airbrushed and perfected bodies plastered before us on a daily basis.

One of the “trans-dimensional” tv monsters in Mr. Quiggle critiques a bizarre porn movie he watches stating that it was “exploitive and sexist though artful”. This along with other statements from the cast like, “I fucking hate this movie!”, is almost a foreshadowing or a mocking of what critics would think once the film was released, and Flying Lotus wasn’t wrong. While some may focus on and denounce the obvious gross-out splatter of Kuso (which is apparently a Japanese word for “shit”) that made people walk out of the 2017 Sundance screening, I challenge viewers to go a little deeper with the insanity. There might be arguments for or against this film as art, and it’s certainly not perfect and will definitely offend with themes of rape, incest and over-the-top sexual content, but it will show you life’s uglier side through fresh eyes, eyes that tire of the La-La Land universe of denial and white-wash.  I caught Kuso at a limited screening in Toronto, but you can now see the real dirt streaming (sorry!) exclusively on Shudder.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]