Jordan Peele's 'Us' Is Setting Box Office Records — And Breaking Down Racial Barriers

Mar 26, 2019
Originally published on March 26, 2019 5:02 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Jordan Peele's horror film "Us" had a massive opening weekend, making $70 million at the box office. That is the largest weekend for any original horror movie ever. The film "Us" is about a black family, led by actor Lupita Nyong'o, fighting for their lives when confronted by their doppelgangers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "US")

EVAN ALEX: (As Jason Wilson) There's a family in our driveway.

WINSTON DUKE: (As Gabe Wilson) Who is that?

LUPITA NYONG'O: (As Adelaide Wilson) Run.

CHANG: That a horror movie centered on a black family really excited writer and professor Tananarive Due. Due is an expert of the horror genre. And from the moment she saw the trailer, she knew "Us" wasn't going to be just another scary movie featuring black characters as tropes like the first guy to die or the spiritual guide.

TANANARIVE DUE: The difference between a trope and a character is that the trope exists only to service the white characters. They don't really have lives of their own. They don't have needs and wants of their own. They're not protecting, say, their own family members.

CHANG: They're not real people.

DUE: Right. They're not real people.

CHANG: Now, when I interviewed Jordan Peele last week, he said that, you know, race isn't the central theme in "Us" unlike in his previous movie "Get Out," but he did say it was still a very deliberate choice on his part to make his protagonists a black family. So what is the message you think that sends?

DUE: Well, this is a quiet revolution I would call it. With "Get Out," it was more an in-your-face confrontation of racism as the monster. In "Us," it's the skin color on many levels alone that serves as the revolution because it is the first opportunity to see a black family operating in this space with an absolute expectation that all horror audiences will support this film even though the characters are black. And that sounds like - some people hear that and say, well, of course, we would, but that's not been conventional wisdom in Hollywood.

CHANG: And here we have this moment where non-black audiences have to stretch and relate to what a black protagonist is going through in this horror movie.

DUE: And it sounds so basic on one level, but if you really think about it, people who are from minority groups have had to always identify with protagonists who didn't look like them or we wouldn't be a part of the American entertainment industry, you know, so...

CHANG: Totally. I read that you have been a fan of horror films since you were a kid. Like, your mom was the one who gifted that love of horror to you. What was it about this genre that your mom loved so much?

DUE: Well, this is the thing that I didn't realize until I was older. My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, was a civil rights activist and had visible trauma from her activism. She wore dark glasses the whole time I knew her because she'd had a police officer throw a tear gas canister in her face. So for me now as an adult, I think I have a better understanding that when she watched these horror movies, she could see those monsters as a visualization of the trauma she had internalized, bring it out, air it out and engage with it, you know, kind of expel it.

CHANG: Hollywood horror was a way to process real horror.

DUE: Absolutely.

CHANG: It feels like we're in this time now where horror is seeing more critical success. Where do you see this genre going?

DUE: I think the future is fantastic because those box office numbers for "Us," to have earned $70-plus million on its opening weekend, is all the information we need going forward that, hey, audiences will watch horror about characters who are not white. And that also opens us up to outsider perspective. So it's not just, OK, that the skin color changes, but creators from different backgrounds, from marginalized backgrounds, are bringing their specific histories, stories, traumas and observations into horror in ways that will be fresh for all viewers to help us process politics, to help us process problems in our neighborhoods, just our overall societal fears.

CHANG: Tananarive Due is a professor at both UCLA and Antioch University Santa Barbara. Her piece entitled "Jordan Peele's Us: Black Horror Comes Out Of The Shadows" was published on Medium. Thank you very much for joining us.

DUE: Oh, wow, thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUNIZ SONG, "I GOT 5 ON IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.