After just delivering the highest grossing opening weekend film headlined by a black woman, you would think Us star Lupita Nyung’o would be on the highest of highs.
But unfortunately, her performance as Red—the deranged doppelgänger of matriarch Adelaide—has drawn outrage from the disabled community due to its perceived insensitivity.
In discussing the role, Nyung’o told Variety that Red’s “guttural, husky voice” was a byproduct of studying a rare speech disorder called spasmodic dysphonia.
“I was inspired by the condition spasmodic dysphonia,” she said at the Us Los Angeles premiere. “Which is a condition that comes about from trauma, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical. It creates this spasming in your vocal cords that leads to an irregular flow of air.”
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These comments, while innocuous in intent, drew criticism from a number of disabled organizations, most notably the nonprofit RespectAbility, which according to NBC News, “fights stigmas placed on people with disabilities.”
“The issue at hand is that in order to intentionally achieve a creepy effect, the creative choice was to make the character have a disability,” the organization wrote in a statement published on their website. “And demonizing the disability.”
They then go on to cite a report published by the Ford Foundation, that shows how an overwhelming majority of people with disabilities in film are portrayed negatively, including as villains.
Nyung’o responded to these concerns during a visit to The View on Thursday, in which she assured those offended that her portrayal of Red wasn’t intended to be malicious.
“The thought that I would, in a way, offend them was not my intention,” Nyong’o said. “In my mind, I wasn’t interested in vilifying or demonizing the condition. I crafted Red with love and care.”
But RespectAbility wants to use the success of the film—and Nyong’o’s role in particular—as a teachable moment for us all. In a statement to The Root, they accepted her apology and expressed the following:
“We appreciate Lupita Nyong’o’s heartfelt apology. We’re all on a learning journey to be sensitive to all marginalized communities whether it be race, gender, sexual orientation/gender identity, disability, religion or anything else. Us – especially with Lupita Nyong’o as the lead and Jordan Peele as the writer/director – is opening up doors, and breaking glass ceilings for people of color and is a massive advancement for Hollywood as a whole. We hope Nyong’o will use this experience to continue lifting up all marginalized groups including the 1-in-5 people who live with disabilities. In general, the Hollywood practice of using disability primarily to villainize people or to show them as objects of pity needs to end.”
Despite the controversy, the Jordan Peele-helmed Us shows no signs of slowing down at the box office. After its record-breaking opening weekend, it’s currently on pace to break $100 million a week after its release.