At 6 feet 5 inches, Winston Duke already stands out as the gentle giant who has to get brolic in Jordan Peele’s new nightmare Us. But the real star is what he’s wearing throughout the film—a sweatshirt with the word “Howard” emblazoned across it. This fact was not lost on the campus of Howard University, a star HBCU having a Hollywood moment of sorts, with references to the storied institution popping up in popular culture—from episodes of Black-ish to This is Us.
During an exclusive screening of Us at The Mecca on Wednesday featuring Duke, co-star Lupita Nyong’o and director Jordan Peele at a Q&A following the screening, Peele discussed the importance of having Gabe Wilson, the father figure played by Duke, wear a Howard sweatshirt—to showcase the family’s attachment to blackness. Duke said that Gabe’s alma mater was intentional after having a conversation with Peele.
“It starts breaking down the boxes we are relegated to,” Peele told students. “Howard is dope. Howard is iconic. It’s one of these things that pops and represents on film.”
Although the movie is not a satirical critique on race in the way that Get Out was, there was no getting around the topic of race with the lead characters being a wealthy black family.
“This movie is about duality and this idea that for however we define the word ‘us,’ for there to be an ‘us’ there has to be a ‘them,’” said Peele. “It can be your class, your country, your family. The way we think about ‘them’ informs the way we think about ‘us.’”
In Get Out, there are symbols that inform the movie’s themes. Similarly, in Us, there are symbols from the Bible and spirituality that continue throughout the movie. Feel-good anthems like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and party songs like Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” sound suddenly sinister as they play in the background. The all-American dad Duke plays isn’t necessarily the head of the household. Symbols of wealth and an attachment to the American Dream exist in the lead characters of the black family—from their Range Rover to their boat to even the Howard sweatshirt, a symbol of the Mecca of HBCUs.
“Jordan likes to take things we find familiar and turn it on its head,” said Duke. “There’s a great duality in Gabe Wilson. Even though he is defined by patriarchy, he’s also defined in action that isn’t your typical male in film. He’s not stoic and uncommunicative. He can be a bit sexy,” he says amidst screams of approval from the crowd.
Nyong’o told the Howard crowd that this was her first time at Howard. The crowd screamed in delight.
“In fact, this is my first time visiting an HBCU,” she said. The crowd screamed a welcome roar.
“I am honored to be here with this film, and with these two..,” before she was interrupted by the crowd as they yelled: “H-U!” And the other half of the crowd answered, “YOU KNOW!”
Nyong’o laughed: “Oh, of course, I do know that one.”
She went on to say that she was grateful for her journey as an actress and being able to choose her roles carefully. “And that’s why you see me in the movies I’ve chosen,” she said. “Shout out to Black Panther!” amidst more screams of delight from the crowd.
Howard has been the site of exclusive screenings and television and film story lines lately. Steph Curry premiered his documentary, Emanuel, about the nine parishioners killed by a terrorist in a South Carolina church, at Howard a few months ago. In a recent episode of the hit TV show This is Us, a young Randall Pearson decides to attend Howard over Harvard. On ABC’s Black-ish, Junior is accepted to Howard and Stanford as his father Dre tries to persuade him to choose Howard.
Howard students were thrilled by the sweatshirt representation in the film and by having an exclusive screening on campus. Students brought their own interpretations to the film and its symbolism in what Peele said was a movie where “black people were at the center of the film, but the film was not about race.”
“It was more relatable than a typical horror film,” said Tiyi Christopher, a senior studying maternal child health. “We are a little more detached to those because there is not much black representation.”
“It’s important for us to define some of these works for ourselves,” Duke said.