Us, and what it reminded me about the magic of black survival

Illustration c/o Asmaa.

From fear to unexpected feelings, Asmaa talks about how important black horror really is. Warning: *Spoilers* ahead.

Jordan Peele’s genre-bending thriller Get Out gave us an entire new lexicon to discuss microaggressions and racism, to the impacts of race on mental health in 2017. Now he’s released new horror film Us – which, excuse the pun, truly feels like a film… for us.

In the film, Lupita Nyong’o plays both Adelaide and Red. We think Adelaide is human at first, but she is later revealed to be one of a race of clones (also known as the ‘Tethered’). The government created the Tethered, who are clones connected to their respective humans, to control people. They kept the Tethered underground, and as Red says, ‘they worked out how to copy the body’ but not the soul. In fact, the entirety of Us throws this idea for a loop – Adelaide (who is in fact, the clone) is the one that loves and is loved, shows affection and care for her children, feels fear, is filled with emotion. What is more human than that?

We feel sympathy for Red, who is the human who was trapped in place of Adelaide. We understand no human being deserves to be kept underground all their life. These characters tragically prove that in the grand debate of nature versus nurture (are we born as we are, or do we learn it from our environment?), nurture wins. Adelaide is that mother, that wife, because of her upbringing – despite having ‘no soul’. And Red, the original human who was kidnapped, was stunted by her traumatic upbringing. Red is not cruel. She is not a person to be feared. She simply wants her time in the light. Time, one could argue, she deserves. Lupita crafted Red’s distinctive croaking voice from recordings of people with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that affects a minority of trauma survivors. In another interview, she clarifies that the voice of Red was ‘crafted with love and care’ and not an attempt to create something ‘creepy.’

It is refreshing to see black people in the film who are not presented with the ‘struggle’ against financial ruin, prejudice or blatant racism.

This love and care is woven into the film. Adelaide nor Red intentionally hurt the other’s children, and they even kill the clones that are chasing them, a gentleness when put in context. For example, when Umbrae, Zora’s (the daughter’s) clone, is killed, Adelaide puts herself and her family potentially at risk to see her die. Then, seeing she is pain, she gently soothes her so she can die peacefully. Black death is given proper space and grieving time.

None of the characters are painted as monsters, nor do we think they deserve to die – even those who are hellbent on killing others. By the end of the film, everyone is tarred with the same brush. There is no black or white morality. The characters only did what had to be done so that they could survive, and their children could survive.

Throughout the film, Peele centres the black experience, and specifically the experience of a black middle-class family. This is equally as important as representations of working-class black families –  in fact, it is refreshing to see black people in the film who are not presented with the ‘struggle’ against financial ruin, prejudice or blatant racism. Although, when the family does call the police, the officers despite claiming to be fourteen minutes away never arrive. Later, NWA’s ‘Fuck The Police’ plays, highlighting how even middle-class families are not protected from racism. Your wealth does not protect you. Later when the father, Abraham (played by Winston Duke) attempts to buy his way out of the clones hunting him, he is told to be quiet by his family, because once again, your wealth will not protect you. As a black person, it is impossible to assume for a second that because you have nice house or car and appear to be toe-to-toe with your white peers you will ever be treated the same.

The horror is not witnessing white supremacy unfold. This is a horror film that just happens to feature a black family.

However, what happens in the film is not ‘racist violence,’ as such. The horror is not witnessing white supremacy unfold. This is a horror film that just happens to feature a black family. And for once, the black people survive, and they survive in a way I can see my father and mother surviving. They are unapologetically all about survival. The children, when it comes down to it, do what they have to do – they kill. And they look out for each other. On the other hand, the white family are instantly and comically killed whilst debating which Beach Boys song to play. They’re disposed of with the same ruthlessness as every single other horror film that kills off a black character (if they feature one at all).

I was discussing the film afterwards with my father. He said nothing that anybody created in their mind could scare him, probably because of what he has survived. And I think this is true of people all over the black diaspora. Perhaps this film moved me because of what black people have survived and what they continue to survive. Much like ‘#blackgirlmagic’ it feels like something magical, innate, inexplicable. It’s as if the ancestors are still with us, helping us keep on. I think this is what inspired the audience turnout to Black Panther – all Wakanda has done is survive. All we can do is survive.

The story of Us is one of survival. It is black people surviving, no matter the odds, with grace.

I also think having a predominantly black cast, apart from massively increasing the diversity on our screens, actually changed the plot. Yes, in the way the characters survive – but also, in films with apocalypses happening, it never usually occurs to the characters that they are able to leave their situation. While in the real global south, when catastrophic events happen, people leave. They survive. They rebuild their lives elsewhere. When Adelaide suggests they go to Mexico to flee the horror and the rest of the family agrees, our Western-centric minds are blown. In horrors, thrillers and action films, the rest of the world does not usually exist. Only the West does. What could be the end of the road, in Peele’s plot, literally expands because his worldview is expansive. It includes Mexico, it includes Lupita Nyong’o who is Kenyan-Mexican. I understand this is fiction – but by expanding the world of his story and making that diverse, ‘Us’ is ground-breaking.

What I witnessed play out on the screen is the fictionalised version of how I came to be here, in this country. Because of the resilience of black people, our survival, our ability to expand our worldview, when forced. All things I have admired in my parents, and in my relatives.

The story of Us is one of survival. It is black people surviving, no matter the odds, with grace.

Any thoughts you’d like to share. I’d love to hear them. Get in touch with me on Twitter and the rest of the Rife Team on Instagram and Facebook.

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