The week before Christmas, Jordan Peele took the unusual step of screening a trailer for his second movie, Us, to a small group of film writers in New York and Los Angeles. He didn’t seem entirely sure what he was doing there himself—why does a two-minute trailer designed to introduce audiences to a movie need its own introduction?—but since he was, he had one particular point he wanted to make: Unlike his Oscar-winning Get Out, he told his select audience, Us “is not about race.”
Based on the trailer, which has racked up almost 5 million YouTube views in the last day, that’s a claim that’s going to require some scrutiny. The movie centers on a family, composed of parents played by Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong’o, and their two children, who are menaced by their exact doppelgangers: four figures who appear out of the woods near their house and take on their forms, apparently intent on killing and replacing them. Duke’s character, clad in a Howard sweatshirt, brandishes a baseball bat and offers to “get crazy” with the half-seen intruders,” but the threat rings hollow: Whatever his origins, he’s now an upper middle class guy who owns a boat and has white friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) who say things like “It’s vodka o’clock.” In the opening scene, Duke’s character is driving his family when Luniz’s weed-smoking anthem “I Got 5 on It” comes on the stereo. He proclaims it a “classic,” but his young son doesn’t know it at all, and when his wife tells the child to feel the song’s beat, she can’t quite seem to snap in time with it. When the intruders break into their home, Duke refers to them as “you people.”
According to Peele, the theme of Us is that “we are our own worst enemy,” which the movie appears to take to audaciously literal lengths. It looks scary as hell, and proves that the trend of slowing down songs to give trailers a little extra creepiness works for hip-hop as well as pop. Moreover, the list of movies Peele gave Nyong’o to prepare for the role includes some extremely exciting forbears—not just obvious progenitors like The Shining and Funny Games but The Babadook and the terrifying Korean ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters—none of which are in the allegorical “social horror” traditional in which Peele placed Get Out. (He’s apparently saving those stories for his Twilight Zone reboot.) But if it’s not a full-on parable about race in America, it nonetheless seems to be stretching the truth to say race doesn’t play a major part. (Merely casting Heidecker, who excels at embodying a form of oblivious white privilege, feels like a judgement.) Like any advance promotion, Peele’s statement seems to have more to do with how he hopes the movie will be talked about than the movie itself. Whether or not audiences and critics play along will be interesting to see.
Us is due in theaters on March 15.
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