There is an old Negro saying: If you want to get a black woman to shut the F up, actually listen to her! (I swear I heard my grandmother say that to my grandfather once).
I come from a long line of mouthy women married to strong black men who loved them fiercely—a dynamic I actively chose to repeat in my own marriage. Unfortunately, there remains a false belief that for black women to be strong and complex, their black male partners must be weak and simple. I am seeing an offshoot of this patriarchal bullshit in readings of Winston Duke’s character, Gabriel Wilson, in Jordan Peele’s horror film, Us. Us explores what happens when the Wilsons, a black middle-class family (with their own summer home!), are faced with their doppelgängers, or the Tethered, in a night of reckoning with the past. The challenge of the film is that each family member must confront and kill their respective doppelgänger: Adelaide/Red, Gabriel/Abraham, Zora/Umbrae and Jason/Pluto.
My dear friend, critic L. Michael Gipson told me, “It was like he [Peele] had to neuter Duke [Gabriel Wilson] to make space for Lupita [Adelaide] to be the alpha.” I believe this to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the horror genre. Horror, at its foundation, is a cultural critique—as what determines our fears is highly influenced by our cultural mores. And to survive in horror, it is necessary to break down the hierarchies that chain us, and reifying the patriarchy simply won’t do. This is seen in Us through the failures of calling the cops (a black family, calling the cops? Really?) and Gabriel’s reliance on physical intimidation in their initial encounter with the Tethered.
Once confronted by the Tethered, Gabriel proposes that his family stay in the home of their murdered friends and wait the invasion out. However, his wife Adelaide screams, “You don’t get to make the decisions anymore!” This is a harsh but necessary shift in their relationship—and a clear declaration that they must develop into a true partnership in order to survive as a family. And that requires the person that is best qualified for the situation to take the lead. Here, Peele may be suggesting that black folks need to develop reciprocity in our heterosexual relationships. And black men are going to have to realize that the patriarchy won’t ever save them; it’s literally killing the rest of us, and liberation does not come in replacing the oppressor.
My dad was under the weather this past weekend, so I called up another older black family man with sense, my friend and mentor, Dr. Reynaldo Anderson: “You can tell these cats [saying Gabe is weak] ain’t family men. He removed the greatest [physical] threat from his family in both encounters.” Automatically, you know Dr. Anderson is a real one because he refers to other men as cats. Dr. Anderson is also a Marine Corps veteran and continues to praise Gabriel’s strategy: “[Gabe] had a valid point in wanting to stay there [in the home], it’s good military strategy, but all fails when the enemy knows where you are and you don’t know when they are coming. She [Adelaide] is right in staying on the move.”
When the black family unit is in peril—mirrored in Us and in the U.S.—creativity in survival must take us out of such harmful hetero-normative family structures. There is a history of rejecting the oppression of Western gender norms when we were enslaved. Angela Davis speaks about the erasure of gendered roles in the private homes of our enslaved ancestors in her foundational work, Women, Race, & Class (1982).
Peele is doing something truly revolutionary with his construct of Gabriel, who is incorrectly being misread as weak, which is interesting because he kills just as many Tethered as Adelaide. Gabriel must renegotiate what is necessary to save the people he loves because he can no longer rely on the tools of the patriarchy: his physicality as a big black man to protect them. He kills two male characters, actively moving them away from his family, while relying on his wife and children to do their part in protecting themselves and each other.
Artist/scholar Stacey Robinson noted that Gabriel uses his intelligence to employ classic military techniques: getting his enemy alone, playing possum and forcibly changing the rules of engagement highlight how he does some serious wet work in this film. Later, the renegotiations of the family dynamics are reinforced when he cares for Zora in the ambulance as they await the return of Adelaide and Jordan by assuring his daughter, “Your mom knows what to do.” Also, can we take a moment to admire a scene in which a black man lovingly cares for his daughter? As a serious daddy’s girl, I simply had to highlight that beautiful moment.
The need to shatter hierarchies in order to survive is reiterated in the very next scene as Zora sits in the driver’s seat and insists she drive the family away from their friends’ home. There is witty banter back and forth, but Zora rightfully points out that her mother is handcuffed and her father is injured and she has the skill to maneuver their family out of the driveway. Though this sets up a crucial plot point, it is necessary to highlight just how revolutionary it is for a youngster to so willfully take charge in a black middle-class family in which, many have argued, suffers greatly because of its strict adherence to detrimental familial hierarchies. When, in the history of Negrodom has a black child taken such charge and lived to tell the tale? Subtle intra-racial plot points such as Zora’s car scene push back against some critics’ insistence that Us is not as much about race as Get Out. Peele is supporting a crucial strategy for the black family’s survival amidst governmental plans to terrorize and destroy them.
Often, the American family has been used as a metaphorical microcosm of the different aspects of the U.S. government as a whole. That Peele racializes the family is significant in that it allows him to have simultaneous conversations with his black and non-black audience members. Non-blacks may be caught off guard by Red’s patriotic edge—as she insists that the Tethered are Americans. This moment reiterates whiteness’ stranglehold on who is considered worthy of citizenship in the U.S. The racialization of the Wilsons is also a distinct warning to middle-class black Americans, interrogating their complicity in the U.S.’s project and demonstrating how the black family must be accountable to themselves and each other as a unit.
Peele may be suggesting to his black audience that the only way to survive is by subverting the hierarchies that continue to hold them hostage—the shattering of normative roles between husband/wife and parent/child—to forge deep, lasting, equal partnerships that bring black Americans ever closer to liberation. Gabriel Wilson recognizes this need and is able to walk away with his family at the end of the movie because of his commitment to their survival. Peele presents a nuanced black man as complex, powerful and in partnership with an equally powerful black woman—a possible new role in how black manhood can be considered as it faces the terrors of the U.S.