Jordan Peele’s Us: Black Horror Comes Out of the Shadows

“It’s our time now.” –Us

Universal Pictures

SPOILER FREE

When I was growing up in Miami, my late mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, would sit with me and my two sisters and watch the Saturday “Creature Features” — reruns of old Universal horror movies like The Wolf Man, Dracula and The Fly. I never saw black characters in those films, but I was hooked on horror at a young age. So were many black men and women I know — especially black women. Our love of horror was gifted to us by our mothers and grandmothers.

The 1958 version of The Fly famously ends with the troubled scientist stuck in a spider’s web with his tiny fly body and human head, plaintively crying, “Help me! Help me!” The spider advances, and the scientist’s voice is too thin to be heard by human ears. It’s the first time I remember being truly terrified by a film — not by the shambling monsters, but by invisibility and inconsequence. By erasure.

Until recently, that’s how it has felt to be a black fan of horror films. But this weekend, with the release of Jordan Peele’s Us, a black family’s story is at the heart of a horror film in a way I never could have imagined as that child sitting between my mother’s knees. Peele’s follow-up to Get Out (which won him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) isn’t the same racialized story of the trauma of white supremacy — but its casting of Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and three talented child actors, all black and dark-skinned, feels no less revolutionary. (In a recent roundtable with me, Shadow and Act Managing Editor Brooke Obie, Clarkisha Kent and Jasmyn Lawson, Peele discussed the intentional blackness in Us.)

Shadow and Act

In Us, I saw reflections of my mother’s strength in Lupita’s tour de force performance as she hugged, protected and fought for her children. Every frame is a rebuke to black family invisibility in film, not just in horror. And excellence infuses Us, from Lupita to the standout performance of Shahadi Wright Joseph as Zora, the fluid cinematography, the chilling and energetic Michael Abels score, and of course the funhouse mirror imagination of auteur Jordan Peele. Peele’s second film shows that he’s not only a consistent and canny talent, but he’s a visionary who trusts his audience to follow him down the rabbit hole.

Clearly, Get Out was no fluke. Us boasted a $70 million opening weekend, a new record for an original horror film — numbers usually reserved for franchise films. It’s further evidence that white audiences can see their humanity reflected in black protagonists too.

That’s not just good news for Black Horror — it’s good news for horror.

Yes, as Jordan Peele tweeted: “Us in a horror movie” — and oft-disrespected horror fans, including me, rejoiced online. But it’s also a black horror movie, and it’s a distinction that matters. I executive produced Horror Noire, directed by Xavier Burgin and adapted from the seminal 2011 book by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman. Our 90-minute documentary (on the Shudder streaming channel and iTunes) details the cinematic history of blacks in horror, from Oscar Micheaux to contemporary films like Get Out, which Peele discusses. We also created a Horror Noire Syllabus at documentary co-writer Ashlee Blackwell’s graveyardshiftsisters.com.

The history of blackness in horror films mirrors so many social and political touchstones in U.S. history — from early films depicting blacks as Monstrous Other or comic relief to the tired, harmful tropes that elevate white characters and diminish (or dispose of) black ones: First to Die, The Sacrificial Negro, The Magical Negro, The Spiritual Guide. All of these depictions did, and do, speak volumes about white society’s attitude toward black people.

Scatman Crothers dies immediately in The Shining (1980)

When black creators like Peele write Black Horror, those tropes disappear — and something new, exciting and often revolutionary, emerges. And in a genre that thrives on novelty — where fans will watch low-budget films, unknown actors and foreign-language films in the endless search for a good scare — Black Horror rising as a sub-genre enriches horror overall.

Horror in general is undergoing a renaissance, with wider critical acclaim for films like Hereditary and A Quiet Place, and in quality horror television like “The Haunting of Hill House” and “Castle Rock.” But when we factor in Peele’s talent and influence, and the doors he is opening for other black creators, the rise of black horror is inextricably tied to the rise of horror.

Marginalized horror creators — marginalized creators, period — have always told stories worth knowing. “Outsider” status imbues stories with fresh perceptions, preoccupations and driving inspiration. We draw on our unique histories, examining trauma in a different light. In horror, “different” is the balm for jaded audiences searching for the next scare.

I teach Black Horror — feature films, short films and literature like my novel The Good House and Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler — in my popular UCLA course called “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival and the Black Horror Aesthetic,” inspired by Get Out. In much of the work I teach, whether it’s W.E.B. Du Bois’s sci fi/horror story “The Comet,” Stephanie Malia Morris’s “Bride Before You,” Cadwell Turnbull’s “Loneliness is in Your Blood,” or Kai Ashante Wilson’s devastating “The Devil in America,” these creators use history and culture to inform their horror. Sometimes the monster is racism, as in Get Out, and sometimes black characters simply exist in a world where everything can go badly wrong — as in Us.

(My Sunken Place class went viral after a surprise visit from Peele in the fall of 2017, so my husband/collaborator Steven Barnes and I created a public, non-credit version available for download online at www.sunkenplaceclass.com. Peele and Candyman’s Tony Todd Skyped in for interviews.)

As I said in Horror Noire, “Black history is black horror.”

My late mother wore dark glasses even indoors as long as I knew her because she’d been hit in the face with a teargas canister during a peaceful civil rights march in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1960, when she was only 20 years old. A police officer pointed her out and said, “I want you!” For the rest of her life, my mother suffered a sensitivity to light. (My mother told her story in our civil rights memoir Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.)

Patricia Stephens Due arrested in 1963. Courtesy: Florida Memory Project

I didn’t know it was a child, but I now realize that my mother’s racial trauma contributed to her love of horror. Even when the monsters on the screen weren’t black, I think horror helped my mother confront her deepest fears.

Dracula? The Wolf Man? Yeah, they’re scary — but not as scary as your own country jailing you for trying to exercise human rights. Not as scary as raising black children in a newly integrated neighborhood where your new neighbors are sending you death threats. Not as scary as witnessing the civil rights you risked your life for being rolled back before your eyes.

I’ve been publishing horror with black characters since 1995, and an older white woman once lamented after I described my book, “Why do the characters have to have a color?” On the surface, it’s an absurd question: characters in books have a color because people have colors. Duh. But hidden beneath this question is the expectation that a book should only center whiteness as the default race, or an assumption that art featuring black characters should be whispered about only in black circles, not fit for wider consumption.

In about 2007, after Steve and I pitched a film adaptation of my horror novel The Good House with Blair Underwood and Nia Hill producing, and Forest Whitaker attached to direct (and dreams of Angela Bassett in the lead), a white exec praised our pitch, but followed with: “Do the characters have to be black?”

Forest’s immediate answer: yes. Welp, no sale there.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that question, although racial history is woven in all my novels. Do the characters have to be black? is the unspoken question at most pitch meetings, to the point where many black creators abandoned attempts to tell black stories at all.

No wonder Lupita, a 2014 Oscar winner, hasn’t been a lead until now.

Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou (1998)

Hollywood is a highly risk averse industry, so without the examples of Get Out and Us, few execs or studios understood that black horror might actually be profitable. As was often the case for black creators, even well-made films from the 1990s like Eve’s Bayou and Tales from the Hood did not alter perceptions or result in immediate follow-up opportunities. Many 1990s era black filmmakers went unrewarded for iconic black films when the ’90s black film renaissance ebbed out.

But all signs point to a new black arts and Black Horror renaissance already underway. Black artists are once again gaining their voices to dismantle tropes, visualize new monsters and rewrite the role of blackness in horror.

As a character says in Peele’s Us, “It’s our turn now.”

Horror fans, hang on for the ride.

Tananarive Due, executive producer of Shudder’s Horror Noire, teaches in the African-American Studies Department at UCLA and in the MFA screenwriting program at Antioch University Santa Barbara. Follow her on Twitter @tananarivedue. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com