I recently saw the movie Us. I’m a huge sci-fi/horror buff and so I was excited about this film for various reasons. In addition to being scary as heck, Us was quirky in the best ways (spoiler alert). The overall premise - a family being terrorized by their doppelgängers - was both sobering and terrifying. I saw the cliffhanger coming a mile away, but that did not minimize the movie’s intensity. Us is definitely the kind of movie that had me thinking days later. This was an accomplishment because, although I watch lots of movies, most are usually forgotten in a few hours. Of course my sociological lens was in full effect while viewing Us. Despite several troubling dynamics (i.e., the stark violence perpetrated by a black female or the docile black male who seems to abandon the fight for his family’s lives to his wife), the strengths of Us outweigh its weaknesses. In addition to the singular, thought-provoking writing and directing of Jordan Peele, this movie is groundbreaking for the following reasons.
It was great to see a horror movie focused on a black family. Many movies include a black family “next door” or the proverbial black “sidekick” who is often killed off in an early scene or retained for comic relief. By centering a black family, Peele normalizes them. Although black, this family experiences challenges like any other family - teens tethered to cell phones, older siblings who show disdain toward younger ones, concerns about keeping up with the Joneses, and tensions while making time for family vacations. Most importantly, the terror the Wilson’s experience could have befallen any family regardless of race or ethnicity. Moreover, I was excited by the way blackness was depicted. When blacks are included in many movies they are often light-skinned or mixed-race persons with flowing hair and phenotypically white features. It was refreshing to see black characters of darker hues and natural hair on the big screen. The Wilson’s were clearly middle-class, which added another nuanced dimension to the story by presenting the intersection of race, class, and gender in a pronounced way.
Next, although some viewers may have been troubled by the violence met out by the female lead, Adelaide, for me she harkened to the reality of the many black women who are required to “handle their business” to protect their families, especially their children, from interlopers. These same women make great sacrifices to this end. Even if you disagree with the way the black female lead was presented, I enjoyed seeing a black female lead, in general, as well as witnessing yet another example of the exceptional acting acumen of Lupita Nyong’o. Additionally, the film reminded me of the vulnerability of children. Much of my research focuses on marginalized groups, yet society often forgets that children, regardless of their demographic profile, are the most vulnerable population in the world. Even the pluckiest child is still dependent on adults and is thus susceptible to the foils and foibles of persons responsible for their care. The message was clear that a few moments outside vigilant parental eyes can irrevocably alter the life of a child.
Lastly, the “Us versus Them” dichotomy was not lost on me. When I partner with poor and working-class people during research, their challenges are usually tethered to those of their more economically stable peers. Similar statements can be made about minority groups such as women, racial, ethnic and immigrant groups, the LGBTQIA community, and the physically and mentally challenged. I wonder how often the “Us” in the world concertedly think about the “Them” and, more importantly, commit to the work of dismantling negative structural forces that perpetuate such dichotomies. In so many instances in our history, the successes of Us were built on the backs of Them. It is a difficult and complex conversation to have, but one that is required if we ever hope to make significant strides in illuminating and undoing the dynamics that create and perpetuate marginalization and oppression. This reality is further complicated because so many individuals can be part of multiple Us and Them groups simultaneously based on our varied profiles! But our diverse experiences can make it easier for us to empathize with other diverse groups and commit ourselves to helping make change. I remind my students that as a society and world, we have the resources and mechanisms to eliminate social problems like poverty and “isms.” Yet we don’t, partly because it takes time and energy to understand such problems as well as cause systemic change - and because these fractures benefit certain groups.
The movie Us presented other important themes and narratives that I’m sure many people will be discussing for a long time to come - including myself. The best movies do. More importantly, I hope that this movie encourages more people to think about the experiences of swaths of society that have been ignored, left out, or forgotten and to begin to actively do their part to foster equity and inclusion in tangible, permanent ways.