The Importance of Us: African Americans in the Horror Genre

Jordan Peele’s second horror film, Us, premiered in theaters March 22, 2019, and has already grossed nearly $175 million dollars worldwide. Us is not only a financial success, but a cultural one as it is a blockbuster featuring an ensemble cast of all-black actors; few horror movies can boast a similar claim.

Black representation in the horror genre has had a fraught history. Black actors and characters are underrepresented throughout the film industry, but in horror films they are notoriously relegated to short-lived, secondary roles. Horror movies, especially commercially successful ones, have traditionally had predominantly white casts. Most of the time, characters of color served as monsters, villains, or flat secondary characters; they were defined by their relationship to the white protagonist. Tropes such as the “black sidekick,” “black best friend,” or black characters rarely living until the end of the film are commonly critiqued in the horror genre. One of the first horror films to feature a black protagonist was 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. However, though films in the late 1960s and early 1970s started featuring more black roles, they often emphasized racial stereotypes such as violence and drug addiction. More black directors in the 1990s and early 2000s enabled horror movies to focus on more well-rounded, developed black characters, such as in 1992’s Candyman.

Jordan Peele’s first film, Get Out, was a groundbreaking commercial and critical success. It was one of the most successful horror films rooted in the African American perspective. As a consequence of America’s deeply racialized history and culture, African Americans and white Americans have very different views of what horror means. Get Out exemplified the daily horror present in the lives of people of color (specifically African Americans) in their interactions with systemic white power. Peele layered complex symbolism about slavery with issues specific to the black community, like police brutality, well-meaning white condescension, and microaggressions,  with tropes from the horror genre in order to create social commentary about fear specific to the African American community. He also introduced the concept of the “Sunken Place” as a psychological symbol of marginalization, perfectly meshing the African American experience with the horror genre. Get Out was also exemplary because it made its protagonist relatable to audiences of all backgrounds. Viewers were frightened for the black character instead of frightened of a stereotypical caricature of the black “other,” as had been common in older horror films. Within a movie with many white actors and characters, the black character was the only one who existed as the audience stand-in. Get Out explored a new way to create horror and tackled issues faced by the black community, changing cinema by showing how horror can be used to confront and discuss racial issues and realities.

Jordan Peele’s latest horror film, Us, is different from Get Out in that it does not seek to tell a story about race or the African American experience. Peele himself has stated that Us is “not about race.” Instead, it casts black actors in a more general story about classism and marginalization in America; though a black cast lends these themes a racial perspective, the story itself would not necessarily change had white actors been cast instead. While not dealing with issues specific to race or racism, Us does deliver an important commentary on diversity in cinema. It makes the audience empathize with a black family, a phenomenon rarely seen in the horror genre, and it uses black characters to tell a story meant for all people. It is important to cast black actors and other characters of color in a diverse array of roles that do not necessarily pertain to issues of race; this way, we normalize seeing more actors of color on the big screen and open up opportunities for actors of color across the cinematic industry. By casting diverse actors in more roles, we can not only explore stories about marginalized groups, but also replace the perception that in every single movie, the common everyman the public relates to has to be a white man.