Like Us Jordan Peele’s Skin is Black

‘I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie … Not that I don’t like white dudes. But I’ve seen that movie.’

Hollywood Reporter

The Internet has managed to generate a hundred hot takes on whether Peele’s words that he shared with an audience at the East Hollywood Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, are either a sign of the revolution or a symptom of reverse racism. Us, the director’s second feature film and follow up to Get Out is in cinemas, and like Get Out, it a film decidedly by, for and about black people. Which is not to say it can’t be enjoyed by anyone else, or that’s its sole premise.

Peele has had fun retweeting the various Twitter threads which analyse generational and economic themes within the film; threads which hash out the craft behind the choreography and cinematography of particular scenes. But though enthusiastic, in its opening week, the tone of the critical commentary surrounding the film contained recurrent disbelief,
for example, The Observer called the success of both Get Out and Us at turns, ‘shocking’ and ‘surprising’ [1]. Part of this may have to do with the snobbery around horror films in general, which has stilted the much-deserving success of films like Hereditary. But there’s no point trying to deny that the success of Us is fraught with just genre.

Daniel Kaluuya & Allison Williams stars of Jordan Peele’s debut feature Get Out (2017)

A few days ago, reported so quietly that it may have gone under your radar, a smattering of black news outlets pointed out that Us has made history by having the highest domestic grossing weekend on record headlined by a black woman since 2004. So Peele’s comments and the divisiveness with which they have been interpreted are all the more interesting.

Perhaps it’s easy to understand why ‘I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie’ has been used at the end of a sentence of a headline by those reporting or otherwise throwing in their two cents on the matter. It’s a soundbite that makes for good clickbait. But to focus exclusively on it is to take a crowbar to what Get Out and Us stand for as cinematic achievements. Finding the fallacy and humour in those crying reverse racism in light of Peele’s words don’t take reading the so earnest New Yorker [2] or IndieWire [3] film reviews bent on pointing out all the ways it is important that Us is a film about race. Googling a picture of Peele’s blue-eyed, white-skinned wife and similarly featured mother will do that for you in half the time. No. Peele isn’t a reverse-racist. Nor should his comments be up for debate as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. He just, like all of us, has seen the white-protagonist-led film before. The reason reviews for his films tend to be littered with phrases like, ‘colossal cinematic achievement’, is very likely because he is giving us something new.

(l-r) The ‘tethered’ Wilsons Abraham (Winston Duke), Umbrae (Shahadi Wright Joseph), Pluto (Evan Alex) and Red (Lupita Nyong’o)
Photo credit: Claudette Barius / Universal Pictures

There’s a lot to be gripped by in Us, but one of its most revolutionary aspects could pass almost unnoticed. Unable to make my mind up about it, I revisited my local Picturehouse, not to pick out any of the biblical verse or hidden visual metaphors I missed the first time, but for the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss (Kitty), Tim Heidecker (Josh), Cali & Noelle Sheldon (Becca & Lindsey respectively). The upper-middle class, white family the Wilsons (Lupita Nyong’o (Adelaide), Winston Duke (Gabe), Shahadi Wright Joseph (Zora), Evan Alex (Jason) spend time with during their beach holiday in Santa Cruz.

In a minor but significant way, reminiscent of the sketches Peele used to make with Keegan Key for Comedy Central, the Tylers’ role as a nuclear white family is to offset, characterise and nuance the blackness of the film’s main cast. In this way, they are supporting characters in the vein of cinematic tropes usually reserved for ‘the girlfriend’ or ‘the ethnic friend’.
Million-dollar grossing box office cinema is constituted almost entirely of stories about the Tylers. Yet, I realised on my second watch, here was Peele, quietly but firmly pushing them to the outskirts of his film and here I was surrounded by an entire cinema-full of Tyler-esque families enjoying it.

(far left) Tim Heidecker as ‘Josh Tyler’ and Elizabeth Moss as ‘Kitty Tyler‘ in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

When the Tyler’s finally meet their fate, it’s within the confines of a virtually assisted, electronically secured house, as complete a manifestation of white-American privilege you could imagine— with N.W.A’s Fuck The Police blaring with beautiful irony in the background.
The interesting aspect of Peele’s comment is not whether it is right or wrong for him to only cast what he calls, ‘black family’. It’s how the effects of doing so up-end our notions of what is expected from certain actors in certain roles, and more fundamentally, what is expected from certain bodies in certain situations outside of cinema.

To strip it down completely, Peele’s thinking is simply an arguably more authentic, successful version of Marvel or DC Studios spearheading women-led superhero films and marketing them on the premise of feminism. Does the specificity of his casting matter? Of course, it does. But stopping the conversation at the fact that Us is made up of an all-black cast renders what that cast achieves ultimately redundant. Get Out was a black film about race. Us is a black film about privilege, identity, and capitalism, from which explicit meditations on race are conspicuously absent and honestly— so much the better for it. There aren’t enough films currently doing the rounds which present black experience as a normalised context against which plot can take place (Tinge Krishnan’s 2018 Been So Long springs to mind as one). Peele’s casting choices should by now be an ordinary enough concept to allow his films to shine through as examples of black cinema which—though maintaining the integrity of their blackness— do not have to dig their way out of a niche in order to enjoy the success afforded their white counterparts. To me, that is true headway towards equality.

Article written by Jo Hamya



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