In Jordan Peele’s latest film Us, which follows on the success of his 2017 hit Get Out, an affluent black family has its home invaded by sinister doppelgängers—a sort of literalization of W.E.B. Du Bois’s noion of black “double consciousness.” Perhaps Peele even had in mind Du Bois’s famous sentence: “One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Peele shows horror to be a black genre par excellence, the perfect tool for talking about the atrocities committed in the Americas against people of African descent.
In Us, the country is under siege by evil body doubles who have emerged from an underground world. Among the doppelgänger “family” invading the protagonists’ home, the only double who can speak is Red, who is identical to the family’s mother, Adelaide (both are played by Lupita Nyong’o). Red describes to Adelaide how Adelaide’s life choices forced Red to do the same in a disjointed mimesis. Red was forced to “breed” with a brute, Abe, the double of Adelaide’s loving husband, Gabe (Winston Duke). When Adelaide gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), Red gave birth to the maniacal Umbrae. Adelaide’s son Jason (Evan Alex), born by hospital Cesarean, was mirrored by Red’s Pluto, who had to be cut from her unaided. Now Red wants her own life. Bearing a large pair of golden scissors, she has emerged from the doubles’ underground home not only to cut the cord connecting her to Adelaide, but also to take everything that Adelaide has, including her perfect family. As we eventually come to understand, Red wants revenge because she was, in fact, the original Adelaide, swapped as a child during a visit to a carnival house of mirrors.
Clearly the horror that interests Peele, who came to fame as a sketch comedy actor, is not only private and domestic, but also social, political, and historical. In an early scene in the film, when the doppelgängers first invade the family’s home, a terrified Gabe asks, “Who are they?” His wife’s double, Red, answers in a hauntingly strangulated voice, “We are Americans.” When Peele concludes his film with a chain of doubles wearing red jumpsuits joining hands across the continent in a parody of the 1986 charity stunt “Hands Across America,” the message is clear: this is America, a human chain of murderers, stretched from sea to shining sea, a fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. The red line gestures to a deep U.S. history of what feminist critic Hortense Spillers calls a human sequence written in blood. Us, after all, is also “U.S.” Especially resonant at a time when the country feels sharply divided between us and them, in a bloody civil war of “values,” Peele lays bare the horrors humans are willing to commit to protect ourselves and our own, our kin. Horror, he makes clear, dehumanizes both those who enact violence and its victims.
But Us is also, and perhaps most importantly, a film about the precarity of African American motherhood and familial intimacy. After all, its central antagonist is a fugitive black mother kept chained and forced to live a life of captivity. While many reviewers have remarked on how unusual it is to have black protagonists in a horror film (a genre notorious for sidelining blacks and eliminating them at the first opportunity), both Us and Get Out evince horror as a black genre par excellence, the perfect tool for talking about the atrocities committed in the Americas against people of African descent. In this sense, Peele’s vision of horror owes less to contemporary Hollywood than it does to Toni Morrison’s strikingly similar Beloved (1987). Beloved is also the story of a fugitive black mother, Sethe, who has freed herself from slavery but murders her child when she fears she is about to be re-enslaved. Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James attributes the death of nearly a third of babies born on plantations to infanticide, motivated by an understanding of death as “not only a release but a return to Africa,” to a life far away from the horrors of the plantation. Like Sethe, Red is a self-liberated enslaved woman. And like Sethe, she hopes that by committing a sort of filicide, she will in some fashion prevent her children from being returned to captivity. Are we to see this as homicidal mania, or an attempt at mercy by a desperate mother? This is the dilemma of black familial intimacy Peele presents us with in Us.
The very fact that Peele makes horror films has distracted critics from what Peele uses horror for: a recollection and representation of black maternity. Instead of focusing exclusively on the place of Peele’s work within the canon of horror, then, it’s beneficial to place it in conversation with the work of contemporary black artists Jackie Sibblies Drury, a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, and experimental filmmaker Khalik Allah, both of whom offer nuanced representations of black maternity and family. Like Us, Drury’s Marys Seacole, which just finished an extended run at Lincoln Center, and Allah’s independent art film Black Mother (2018) interrogate what is unresolved and unreconciled about black genealogies in the Americas, offering another valuable context, besides horror, in which to understand Peele’s work.
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Red hopes that by committing a sort of filicide, she will prevent her children from being returned to captivity. Are we to see this as homicidal mania, or an attempt at mercy by a desperate mother?
Marys Seacole is a surreal and disorienting play about women who are paid to care. It freely adapts the life of Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican nurse who created a hospital in Crimea for British soldiers during the Crimean War (1853–56). Six women—three black and three white—play various and connected generational roles throughout the play. The historic Seacole is cast as the opposite or shadow of the more famous white British nurse Florence Nightingale. Nightingale is also known for her nursing work in Crimea, but unlike Seacole did so with official state support. Such support was sought by Seacole but denied because of her race, and as a result she would return from the war bankrupted.
Early in the play, Seacole’s black mother, Duppy Mary, paces in the background, haunting her daughter. “Duppy” is a Jamaican term for a kind of ghost, and the spectral presence of Seacole’s mother is set against Seacole’s proud and anxious assertions, repeated often, that her father—a man she never knew—was Scottish. In the face of these spoken claims to whiteness, Duppy Mary warns Seacole not to forget her black roots: after all, her abilities to use herbs and natural remedies to heal are thanks to her West African, not her Scottish, ancestry.
Suddenly we are transported to the present day, and Seacole changes from her Victorian garb into colorful scrubs, becoming a home nurse. One of the white actresses becomes an elderly, incontinent woman in Seacole’s care. The play thus tethers the historic Seacole to an underclass of modern-day black West Indian women in wealthy cities such as New York—women who, like Seacole, burn up their lives for a pittance while caring for their charges, typically white children and elderly people. Soon Seacole transforms again, this time into a nanny who is talking with another Caribbean nanny at the playground, a conversation permeated by the disinterest, apathy, and resentments that some of these women must understandably harbor.
Do these women who are paid to care share the same grievances as Peele’s homicidal doppelgängers? The infamous case of Upper West Side nanny Yoselyn Ortega, a Dominican American woman recently sentenced to life in prison for murdering her two charges with a kitchen knife, indicates such horrors and resentments are not far from reality. The haunting arrangements of the plantation still echo in contemporary life and power relations. What of these women’s children and elders at home in the Caribbean? Surely this detached arrangement—in which the master class depends on and makes invisible this labor of the most intimate and denegrated of occupations—is the afterbirth of enslavement, in which a raced and gendered shadow class continues into the present.
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When Peele concludes his film with a chain of killers joining hands in a parody of the 1986 charity stunt ‘Hands Across America,’ the message is clear: Us, after all, is also ‘U.S.’
Khalik Allah’s documentary Black Mother (2018) is a stream-of-consciousness exploration of Jamaica through the lens of maternity. Through the loose arrangement of three sections (that is, trimesters), the film reads as a uterine dream in which Allah presents the viewer with a heady, disorienting mélange of raw documentary footage shot both in Kingston and the Jamaican countryside. Black Mother throws light on a side of the island rarely seen by tourists, but in a sense produced by the tourist industry: an underclass of sex workers, Rastas, and indigents.
As in Peele’s film, Black Mother portrays a dark world of have-nots, people whose lives have been lived in the service of “haves,” at the center of which is the precarity of black maternity. Allah’s film begins with an ultrasound and ends with footage of the “miracle of life”: a black mother giving birth in a Jamaican hospital. We see the crowning head of the baby emerging from the body of a woman who writhes in agony, exhaustion, and joy. The imagery confronts the viewer with the bloodiness of birth and the universal experience of the origin of life.
Black Mother, like Marys Seacole, operates through a critical retelling of black history, centering maternity. In one hypnotic sequence, a Rasta raps: “When you know your history you know where you are coming from, you know where you belong. Each and everyone one.” His pace increasing, he describes the Maroon warriors Cudjoe, Nanny, and Tacky fighting for the land of Jamaica. Importantly, however, he dwells on Nanny, known as Queen of the Maroons, the only woman national hero. Known to have developed guerilla warfare techniques by taking refuge in the natural landscapes of Jamaica’s mountains, Nanny is invoked as a national mother and figure of maternal resistance and resilience. The Rasta’s injunction, “Black haffi know we history,” is precisely the sort of temporal and meta-historical thesis driving Marys Seacole, but also subtly Us. After all, the past and the telling of history are entangled in the present in Us too, as both Adelaide’s and Red’s histories entwine in their struggles to survive. And indeed, in Peele’s Red we might find echoes of Nanny’s fugitive tactics for liberation.
But Adelaide is like Nanny as well: the land treaty that was signed in 1738 for their freedom was predicated on the capture and return of other fugitive and rebel enslaved persons. Jordan Peele leaves us wondering what sorts of complicities are not simply a matter of black and white, but rather a matter of family and what we are willing not to see. We are all culpable. The tethered shadow class of doppelgängers could represent the willfully unseen labors that connect economies and luxuries of the Global North to the Global South. Privilege and modernity are underwritten by the suffering, or at least disadvantage, of others. Nowhere is this more apparent than the United States, which is a haunted house.