*Spoiler Alert: This article may contain details and plot points about the film Us. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, why the hell did you click on this article?
Once upon a time, in my 11th-grade literature class, the teacher separated students into groups and handed out poems. We were given 30 minutes to come up with an analysis of the poems. I suspect my group was “randomly” assigned Countee Cullen’s “Incident” because I was the only black student in the class.
After reading the poem that contains a racial slur, my group members immediately turned to me, suspecting that I was familiar with this particular negro poet. While that may sound a little presumptuous, they were actually right. Because of a childhood fascination with the Harlem Renaissance, I knew the poem by heart. So, my group used the rest of our time to clown around because obviously, Mike had this covered.
I distinctly remember that the person before me analyzed Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee”—a beautifully haunting poem about lost romance. She explained the themes of childhood love, how it reverberates throughout our lives, how it is so strong that it can only be dissolved by supernatural angels in heaven.
“The poem is not about Annabel Lee,” Elizabeth explained, using her five minutes to wax rhapsodic about how we blame supernatural elements for loss and grief.
When it was my turn, I knew I was in trouble. My group members gazed upon their wise negro poetry interpreter knowing that I was about to explain racism in four minutes (It would take me a minute to recite the poem). I’m sure they assumed that I would highlight the shock value of the n-word and the indelible mark it can leave on one’s memory. (It should be noted that this occurred before the phrase “the n-word” became the standard euphemism for the n-word.)
I stood in front of the class, not even glancing at the Xeroxed handout of the poem. I did not recite the words as much as I told the story in Cullen’s monotone, matter-of-fact style:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
I followed up my solo spoken word performance by expertly deconstructing every single angle of the poem in three short sentences: “Sometimes, you’re just minding your business, when ... Boom, racism,” I explained. “That’s what this poem is about.”
“Sometimes, people just call you a nigger.”
And then, to the flabbergasted and half-angry looks from my group members, I went back to my desk and sat down.
We got an A.
Us was a horror movie.
It was intense, thrilling, fast-paced and beautifully shot. The story was strong, the acting was excellent and—most of all—it was scary.
But for a black movie, that is not enough.
Good black films can’t be about regular black people. For a black film to be a critical darling, it must be centered in whiteness. The pain, the heroism or the story must be relatable to white people. The film must have a white savior or teach us an existential lesson about the universality of mankind. Black people are only seen as human when they are suffering from black shit (slavery, oppression or injustice).
As a musical love story, Beyond the Lights was as good as L.A. Story or A Star is Born, but it was just a love story about black people. Comparing band films, Straight Outta Compton shits all over Bohemian Rhapsody but F. Gary Gray didn’t concentrate enough on Easy E’s AIDS or the group’s oppression enough to pull white people’s heartstrings. Rami Malek earned the Oscar for his supposedly great acting in a mediocre movie, but it still wasn’t as transcendent as Demetrius Shipp Jr. in All Eyez on Me. That nigga was Tupac.
A black actor acting in a well-made black movie is not enough because regular blackness is not relatable. An overabundance of negro pain creates a certain depth and humanity and can elevate a decent black movie into the stratosphere of white excellence. And in the absence of excellence, if enough white people like it, they will ascribe their own meaning to it. Yet, white folks heaped so much praise on aiight movies like The Butler and The Hate U Give, I’m still not absolutely sure that someone didn’t dupe me into buying tickets to remakes by the Lifetime network.
Which is why Jordan Peele apparently followed up his award-winning 2017 documentary Get Out with a social commentary on the duality of mankind, a treatise on the current tribal political climate, why black people die first in horror movies, an essay on the feminine heroine, or some other ethereal, polysyllabic parable about race, politics or Generation X. We need it to be about something more because—if it is just regular horror movie about a regular family who happens to be black, running from creepy shit—then, where’s the genius in that?
So all the big-brained thinkpiece writers and social media influencers have pulled out their cinematic divining rods to dowse the philosophical subtext of what is essentially a slasher movie. Perhaps my favorite of these comes from the New Yorker’s Richard Brody who writes:
“Us highlights the unwitting complicity of even apparently well-meaning and conscientious people in an unjust order that masquerades as natural and immutable but is, in fact, the product of malevolent designs that leave some languishing in the perma-shadows.”
What the fuck does that have to do with scissor-stabbings?
To be clear, Jordan Peele is a brilliant filmmaker who made a great horror film. And, like all good movies, there are underlying themes that people will interpret in their own way. I have a friend who swears that Killmonger and T’Challa’s relationship in Black Panther is the story of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Green Book is about how white supremacy still exists only because white people just haven’t taken enough extended road trips with black people. I didn’t watch The Passion of the Christ but I assume it’s about rampant identity theft in the suburbs of ancient Jerusalem (I’m sure that’s what it was about because I saw white people playing Jesus, Mary and the disciples).
However, the entirety of the hullabaloo surrounding a film that is either a biblical-level allegory of our nation’s psyche or, alternately, a pretty good flick about bashing the skulls of monsters with golf clubs, can be summed up in the beginning of the second act when Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Adelaide, says three words:
“We are Americans.”
Perhaps no single sentence in recent cinema has been dissected as much in one week. Some film analysts hypothesize that the quote by Nyong’o’s character, Adelaide, challenged the notion of black “otherness.” Aside from their skin color, the Wilson family was a boilerplate American clan with two kids, a summer house and a brand new home. Even their names were unremarkably indistinct. Therefore, people who were intelligent enough to interpret Peele’s obvious allegory extruded multiple meanings from this line.
Perhaps it was meant to expose the duality of being black and an outsider in this country. Maybe she used the term to draw a line of distinction between her family and the feared “shadow people.” It may be that—in this context—“Americans” meant “white” as opposed to a Muslim, a Mexican or anyone who is not an Anglo-Saxon Protestant who drinks hot wine on the beach.
But what if Peele’s line meant something totally different?
Now, hear me out on this one because it is a radical idea that might seem impossible to believe but, what if the importance of that line is being dissected by pseudo-intellectuals because—in a movie with doppelgänger monsters and bunny-eating tunnel clones—maybe the most difficult thing to grasp is one unthinkable but super-simple concept. What if the line “We are Americans” simply means they are Americans?
Again, I know this theorem erases the literary analysis by trendy frames-wearing thinkpiece writers and white people who want to ascribe post-modernism to a movie that is about running from scary shit, but there is one thing that legitimizes my argument and gives me credibility:
They. Are. Americans.
So here’s what Us really about:
The Wilson family represents the Wilson family. The white people in the movie represent white people. The shadow people represent scary shit. The recurring bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 is just a bible verse that could be used in any horror movie. The underground world represents a world that is underground. The rabbits represent rabbits and the all-red outfits represent a wardrobe designer’s thought: “I bet this will really pop on-screen.”
Maybe Peele’s point and ultimately, the point of Us, is that black people are just regular human beings who aren’t any different from white people. But the offhanded idea of black humanity is so unbelievable and hard to accept that it is easier to think of them as symbols instead of actual humans who bleed, act and run from monsters like everyone else. Not even fictional black people in absurd movies can be regular black people. They must mean something. They must be literary devices. They must be thematic placeholders. How is an audience supposed to reconcile their mutual sympathy with plain-old, ordinary negroes?
And sometimes, people just call you “nigger.”