I don’t enjoy horror. I do appreciate a good time at the movies. I do need buttery popcorn at the movies. I had both. I also had my mind blown by this incredibly creative, inventive, ambitious, and elegant parable on freedom and bondage. Of course it’s a horror story. I realized when it was over that the genre is what allows for so much D R A M A, which lets you infuse so much meaning into a buttery popcorn spectacle. Auteurs know this. Jordan Peele knows this and is inviting us to join him; to meet him where he’s been all along without us knowing–sketch comedy giant by day, horror auteur by night.
I’m well aware of the mixed reviews. Including the woman sitting next to me in the theater, with her 5-year-old, at the closing credits proclaiming it the dumbest shit she’d ever seen, while I applauded, loudly. I, and my fellow Wesleyan-minded, extra-deep-thoughts companion, Steve Gray also seem to have taken significantly more meaning and majesty from the film than many. We debriefed for well over an hour and both intend to see it again. For the record, it is rich. Proverbially dripping with the following, exceedingly relevant, American narrative themes:
A mother’s love
As a mother myself, of a precious boy, for whom I would do anything—and have already done so many things I never would have otherwise, which is how I know how incomparable our love is—the bond Adelaide has with her son, Jason, was powerful to watch.
When she snaps her fingers, encouragingly off beat with him, in the car.
When she tells him to stick with her. She’ll keep him safe.
When she tells him to show his magic, offering him hope and faith in himself which ends up protecting him.
The many knowing looks they shared.
A bond so tight they are both indebted to it—he, for his security; she, for her secret.
The protagonist, Adelaide, gains and retains her freedom
by any means necessary. She’ll never give it up, and isn’t she entitled to it? Adelaide’s crime is revealed as theft, but
under what unlawful state must one steal her own freedom? Everyone in the film,
we are told explicitly, is an American.
The film is about free and not free
peoples—all human, all entitled to the same freedom, living vastly different
lives, struggling through a bloody revolution, and all through the centering and
featuring of dark chocolate skin.
The heroines are black. We sympathize with one more than the other, but it’s not a unanimous vote. Some of us Americans are rooting for Red. In fact, Adelaide is tricking us. She was born as Red. But, beautiful, middle-class, identity-thief Adelaide remains the hero because, well, isn’t she entitled to her freedom? We Americans know well, it’s not okay to steal freedom from another, so it was never okay for the original Red’s freedom to be stolen at birth.
Original-Adelaide (who becomes adult Red) is born free and loses her freedom, without recourse—the worst of living nightmares. More than the other shadows who have never known freedom, Red once knew it well. She is nine when she loses hers. She loses this core identity for another which she is forced to learn. The fact that she wasn’t born into bondage makes no practical difference. Our circumstances dictate as much of our lives as our genes do. We tend to disassociate from this reality when facing the lives of others, but we never escape the risk of our circumstances changing.
The climax is a battle of wills between
two women (the same woman) who know two worlds—free and bound. The horror.
Both Adelaide and Red represent Americans who have achieved security and even affluence from humble beginnings, yet run an inescapable risk of losing it all. Fun fact: any American runs this risk. Some Americans know it and can’t unknow it. Double consciousness is a double-bind of oppressive myths.
role of a lifetime
Twice now, in the last 14 months, I have been treated to Lupita Nyong’o as a central performer in perhaps my two favorite films of the same period—Black Panther, and now, Us.
That climax I referenced above, the one between the two central characters who are two sides of the same identity? Those complicated characters are played by one actor. I can only imagine the dream (and perhaps the nightmare) of such an opportunity. What Nyong’o is holding in every scene, for the audience, without our knowledge, with her depth of craft.
To say the least, it bears repeat
viewing. Every scene. Every emotion.
As the climax emerges Red tells the story of her exceptionalism. She’s a ballerina—a textbook image of western perfection (with dark chocolate skin). She and Adelaide share this talent, as equals.
There’s just so much to unpack. It doesn’t matter what anyone can see unfolding in advance; doesn’t matter what “spoils” it. The metaphor is too rich to be ruined. The shadows are also humans, with the same needs, same talents, same potential, but not the same opportunity. In fact, they have the inverse of every opportunity.
What a thing to ponder …
Abraham (Gabe’s shadow) needing but not having glasses.
The little boy, Pluto, living as a pet—as a dog almost. And then burning in a fire.
His sister, Umbrae, dies hanging from a tree.
It shook me. This is me, as the audience, adding meaning. A filmmaker can’t honestly take all the credit for the impact a film has. Any communication has more than one party. Jordan Peele may just be a genius. He may have plotted every point, but the myth-making and breaking of the film is mind-bending. He can’t and doesn’t own all of it.
Additional musings, for your ruminating
myth of safety in the middle class
The first protective action Adelaide takes is to call the police. She and we, the audience, hope they can save her. We soon learn the police need saving too.
children are not ours
In the childhood flashbacks of a
silent Adelaide recovering from her disappearance, we see her parents
struggling emotionally from the fallout. Later, we find out something they don’t,
or do they know too?
When Adelaide’s son Jason disappears momentarily, at the same place Adelaide disappears as a child, we’re never told exactly what happens. We do know that he returns with an image he can’t explain.
Both events remind us that our
children will all go through things from which we can’t protect them, and they may
not return the same.
at the center of American life
The protagonists are black
Americans. This entire family survives perhaps as a measure of how much more
familiar they are with the threat.
The affectation of this black family having neutral American accents raised my eyebrows at first, until I became immersed in the world. Then it was gone. It was intentionally jarring to our American ears, so we might notice the discomfort, and then stop noticing when it stops mattering.
The supporting characters, who also have a bigger house and more visible wealth, are white, and it’s awkward to view them as secondary. It’s an interesting challenge for us as an American audience. I’m up for it.
was applying makeup and looking at the clothes!”
Steve caught, and I missed, how readily the white shadows slide into middle class performance.
Steve also observed, “Adelaide doesn’t give a fuck about those things,” in noticeable contrast to her husband. Adelaide knows better than anyone what’s at stake—anyone except Red.
When you’ve never been free you don’t know it.
It takes Red, the only shadow who has known the light of freedom, to lead the way to revolution.
I bet you so much more than I noticed was intentional. I love film so much, because when you’re watching a creative work helmed by a master everything can be contemplated—can be considered deliberate—because it very well may be. That’s how much time and effort it takes to make a film. It’s a team effort. There are countless variables. It is not easy to succeed. It is astounding when you do.
And now perhaps you see why an executive coach and facilitator, would write a dissertation on a modern horror film. I am deeply invested in our human progress. I’ve made its revelation my life’s work. On a regular basis, I am astounded by what we can accomplish together.
So, what else did I miss? Jordan? Anyone?
Tell me in the comments how I just blew your mind or where I’ve gone too far. I’m dying to know.
I think that’s why it won, technically-speaking—because of the preferential ballots system. Considering the audible gasps in the room on Sunday night, it’s unlikely that Green Book was an overwhelming top choice, and I would love more actual data analysis of the voting. Here’s how I think it went down:
After the initial elimination of films (those without enough number one votes) Green Book and Black Panther are left standing.
Blackkklansman’s votes go to Black Panther.
The Favourite’s votes go to Green Book.
Roma’s votes go, mostly, to Green Book.
Green Book wins.
Because at the end of the day, Oscars still so white.
#Oscarssowhite (much like #blacklivesmatter) is a powerful, high-concept, branding message. It’s simple and resonant and full of potential. When I follow the thought, it leads inevitably to #theseinstitutionssowhite.
All of our validating bodies, as an American culture, are white. The power to decide is culturally entrenched in the “white” identity. It’s an exclusionary power—where you can live, what you can own, what gets mass-media distribution or a winning campaign for votes. Ownership identifies as white (and straight, and cis, and male).
What’s hopeful and inspiring about the “door-opening” effect of women and Americans of color winning Oscars they’ve never won before, is the idea that we might be shifting ownership and access to the single most validating body outside of the presidency—the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“What was so crazy to me was that they were so self-righteously proud of themselves for making themselves the center of a story about black struggle and perseverance… it’s insane.”
A white identity looks out from the center. It cannot conceive of the view from the margins. It cannot even conceive of the distinction between the two, except academically.
So, why can my black ass see both?
“You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me.”
To survive, I have to look at you. I must look at you. It’s my only hope of survival, and even then, it’s not a sure thing.
what if my view from the margins really is an advantage; a terrifying one even?
Go there with me for a second my dears…
It’s an enhanced skill set. It’s the x-factor that makes the art so good, and the potential so great. The capacity to survive and even thrive under conditions of terror has many applications. It’s also unduly tragic and hard. But then, all life is tragic and hard. Every single life on earth. If you can live your life in awareness of this inescapable truth, you can claim tremendous advantage over those who live in ignorance of it. (We pretty much don’t. But we can.)
The truth is that neither hardships nor tragedy can limit the potential of our lives. Our potential is boundless and remains to be seen.
Our potential is Wakanda.
Tell me, friends, how has the margin been good to YOU? I’ll go first: I’m from Canarsie/East New York, Brooklyn. Growing up in those margins = “street cred” for life. To that, I’ll add my excellent taste, rhythm, and ear for dope beats. East Coast all day. Everyday. When I add to that my elite liberal arts education, you get quite the uppity bitch destroying small-mindedness at will. “You wan’ test the rocket launcher?”
Now, you go. Tell me your street story of success in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Booyakah!
Today we debut a NEW, quarterly, feature series we’re calling,
The Mother Load
about all of the things.
In this inaugural episode my featured co-host Nina Laing and I discuss:
– the shock of new motherhood
– mom identities and model moms
– the elusive village
– Halloween and the holidays
– the dollar store
– Nina’s love of pharmacies
– the Staten-Island’est neighborhoods of Brooklyn
– where to find our joy
And we do it all through the worst free podcast recording app the apple store has to offer.
Seriously, sorry for the quality of the audio. It will not happen again. We hope the quality of our POV’s will make amends.
If you like, please hit subscribe and drop us a note here. We love you for listening.
This week is by far the most personal episode I’ve recorded, of me, telling my story. Here it is for you, and for me, and for free. I hope it gives you any amount of inspiration for the days ahead in your own precious life.
As the wise queen Kela Walker once said: #aintnofutureinfronting