Adelaide’s fight feels like a reflection of the stories of countless Black womxn, both known and unknown to me.
This essay contains spoilers for “Us”
Lupita Nyong’o is the best part of Jordan Peele’s latest social thriller, not to my surprise. She’s a phenomenal talent and with this project she truly shows her dynamism and demonstrates her abilities as a sharp and focused actress. “Us” boasts an ensemble of great performances, especially from Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as the daughter and son, Zora and Jason, but Nyong’o stands out far and above the rest as the most memorable, most compelling, and most terrifying. With this work, she reminds us of why she rightfully took home an Oscar for her role in “12 Years A Slave” (2013) and why she deserves more.
Nyong’o portrays Adelaide, gentle matriarch of the Wilson family. When she and her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), take Zora and Jason to Santa Cruz for a summer vacation, their lives become interrupted by an unthinkably horrific event. Murderous doppelgängers invade their quiet summer home, wearing red jumpsuits and brandishing gold scissors, and they are led by Adelaide’s shadow self, Red.
It’s clear that Nyong’o approached these two mirror characters with a deep understanding of Peele’s vision and the potential this horror narrative carries as a social critique. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, she offered, “[W]e’re preoccupied globally with the other, the monster that is the other: the other culture, the other country, the other political faction, the other religion, the other gender. And what about the monster that sometimes comes in the shape of the man in the mirror and the darkness that we humans are prone to and quite naturally inhabit, sometimes that darkness goes unattended to, unrecognized, ignored, and it is when that happens that we project it out externally and it becomes the destruction that we then have to contend with.”
Nyong’o’s performance as Red is haunting, one of the most chilling spectacles I’ve seen in a long time. The defining aspect of this shuddersome, otherworldly being is her fragmented voice, a shocking sound that simultaneously grates against the ears and compels one to listen closely and carefully to the words it struggles to form. Peele apparently describes it in the script as “withered from lack of use” and that direction was captured by Nyong’o in a way that terrified the writer and director himself, as well as Shahadi Wright Joseph on set. The voice is an exaggerated model of spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder which causes the larynx to involuntarily spasm, creating breaks in air, vibration, and sound. Red’s ruptured speech, along with her calculated and irregular movements, is something that will sojourn in my memory and disturb me infinitely.
While the sinister Red provides the premiere element of shivers that radiate throughout the film, Adelaide eventually becomes frightening in her own right. When we first meet her, she is just a girl at a carnival with her parents. The two of them fight constantly and, in turn, create a growing rift between themselves and neglect for little Adelaide. She strays from her father, who was tasked with watching her but too drunk and distracted to do so, and comes across a house of mirrors on the beach. This is when she sees Red for the first time, and the incident becomes a traumatic memory she is forced to carry with her always. By the time Red and the shadow family come to terrorize them, Adelaide has already been afraid of her for decades.
The house of mirrors has given Adelaide anxiety and PTSD, and she spends the first part of the film battling these things in secret. When Gabe suggests they head to the beach where the incident took place, she is hesitant but doesn’t reveal her reasons to him. He pressures her until she finally agrees. Gabe, goofy and loving as he is, doesn’t really listen to her, her concerns, or her eventual warnings. While on the beach, she nods and smiles as she listens to her friend Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) blather on about her recent plastic surgery and other mundane things, all the while worried about the safety of her children.
She presents as a mild-mannered, nervous, seemingly fragile character, but when she sees her family under attack, she becomes a ruthless annihilator. Even though she is in handcuffs throughout the majority of the film, she is still the biggest badass, the most capable combatant, and the most dominating force, even though there are also moments when she tries to be gentle and understanding with the shadow children. Because she is disadvantaged and more vulnerable to attack than those with free hands, she must fight the hardest. The odds are unfairly stacked against her, but she still finds a way to both survive and protect her family, because she has to.
The climax of “Us” brings everything about the narrative squarely into question, everything the audience might take for granted and accept as truth. It challenges audiences to consider who we think of as (un)reliable narrators, dares us to ask if we can even trust ourselves, and leaves us to revel in its mystery. Given its duplicity, it does not lend itself to straightforward interpretations of its characters or events.
Even so, as I watched Adelaide’s journey, I could not help but see it as representative of Black womxnhood. We are often thrown into unfair fights, battling misogynoir in proverbial handcuffs, struggling against both our terrorizers and our restraints. Continually cast as Cassandra, the woman cursed to see the future but have no one believe her prophecies, we often go unheard, our warnings dismissed, and our concerns disregarded. And in spite of it all, we are often the fiercest protectors of our communities, our partners, and our children, the foremost but under-credited leaders of our movements, and unsung heroes of resistance, and this is all labor that we are expected to do without question. Adelaide’s fight feels like a reflection of the stories of countless Black womxn, both known and unknown to me.
“This movie stretched me, it bent me, it cost me a whole lot,” Nyong’o told Radio 1Xtra. “It took its emotional toll on me. I definitely had a moment of rupture while making this.”
I absolutely understand why that is. “Us” is a story of duplicities and contradictions, a maze of moving walls and cunning illusions, a machination from the mind of a truly strange and striking individual. Lupita Nyong’o took Jordan Peele’s outlandish vision and willed it into the world with precision, poise, and uncanny dread. Her artistry is unparalleled here and, in my humble opinion, positions her as the reigning queen of modern horror darlings.
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