Photo by Claudette Barius
“Hands Across America” was a 1986 charitable effort that sought to end hunger in our country by creating a chain of people locking hands from coast to coast in America. This human rights effort plays into the underlying Kubrickian tones found within Jordan Peele’s sophomore film “Us,” which saw a widespread theatrical release this past Thursday.
Peele, best known for his previous film “Get Out,” received critical acclaim as writer and director of a film that found itself so embedded in modern pop culture and the sphere of racial tension that surrounds America. This was his first attempt at writing and directing a feature seeking to break boundaries, terrify the viewer and place the classic horror genre in modern-day America.
One of my personal favorite films, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” released in 1974 and directed by Tobe Hooper, had a similar technique of twisting the genre’s concept and creating a deeper element. The film focuses on several teens in rural Texas escaping from a town of crazed people and a chainsaw-wielding maniac, but the film was crafted as an allegory for the industrialization of rural America — more specifically, the meat–processing industry.
Jordan Peele found himself among the ranks of the great horror directors when he released “Get Out.” To follow up a film of that magnitude was likely an uphill battle that any great artist would be able to describe, but he did it with the cunning of a veteran director.
“Us” revolves around an upper-class black family, the Wilsons, on an adventure to a beach house. The mother, Adelaide, played spectacularly by Lupita Nyong’o, had visited this beach in 1986 with her parents and found herself in an incredibly traumatizing situation. The trauma she experienced as a child haunted her as an adult. Her PTSD can be seen early in the film through her interactions with family and friends, depicted when her son strays from the family at the beach.
The classic American family vacation finds itself in essential horror trope form. A family of doppelgängers shows up at their house, seeking to instill immense fear and inflict violence upon the Wilson family. It gets pretty intense. Combined with some perfectly used songs, the horror goes deep to the gut.
After the release of “Get Out,” many people compared Peele and his work to Stanley Kubrick and his use of incredibly small details to amount to bigger, unspoken themes within the work. “Us” is no different: it doubles down on the microscopic visual and auditory elements within the film to represent larger themes. These elements take a different approach than Kubrick’s, in the sense that they spend a lot of screen time reflecting modern pop culture trends. In 2019, a lot of these pop culture trends provide insight into the deeper meanings of our current political and social climate.
One of the stand-out features of the film is the stellar cinematography, with an overall approach to lighting that features not only skin tones — an important factor in a film by Peele — but also adds contrast to his daytime and nighttime shots.
Geremiah Edness, a digital utility specialist who worked on the film, praised not only the crew on the film, but Peele as a director and as a leader.
“He’s a really good director, great at working with kids, and really knows how to tap into a scene, knowing what to say to keep the cast and crew really pumped up and excited,” said Edness, who has worked on a slew of great films.
In addition to seeing the premiere of the film, I was lucky enough to see a screening of “Get Out” recently at the famed Prytania Theater, which often screens many films that have already been released in relation to special events or current releases.
Although this screening and the screening I saw of “Us” weren’t as crowded as many other opening nights I’ve been to, the crowd was ecstatic.
When I had originally seen “Get Out” in theaters, the house was packed with mostly African American people, likely representing the target audience. Sure, the film is scary to the average viewer, but through a perfectly nuanced tone, both “Get Out” and “Us” are films designed to play into the fears that people of color currently face.
As time goes on, theaters are getting less and less support. Their prices are jumping to ridiculous numbers, and streaming services are making it easier to screen movies in privacy, especially since companies like Netflix have been making their own films without theater releases.
Seeing a film with a live audience of strangers is important. I saw how the film impacted its anticipated audience of predominantly black people, which allowed me to read the film in a totally different way than if I had screened it privately in my own home.
To view “Us,” I advise hitting up a local movie theater, preferably a small local theater like Prytania. Pick a prime night like Thursday or Friday, and go to a late-night showing. Go in blind: as little promotional material as possible. Peele takes painstaking efforts to guide viewers through the film. Let him take you through the themes and meanings within the film itself.
Don’t expect this to be “Get Out” part 2; treat it as a completely different film and a true genre-bender. Fully embrace the horror and hilarity of the film itself, see how the audience reacts and think about how the film makes you want to react; it’s important. There are two sides to every human being, and there are surely two sides to every scene within this film.