Scarier (and better) than you even think: Jordan Peele sees ‘Us’
How a comedian evolved to horror and transformed Hollywood
Even in the most horrific of occasions, Jordan Peele can find the funny. It’s perhaps his strongest asset: locating something that may not belong in a space and helping us all to see it with him.
It’s a gift that started building during his formative years as an only child in a single-parent household on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Peele was influenced by Keenen Ivory Wayans’ comedic masterpiece series, In Living Color. He’d sit in his mother’s living room and watch the Sunday night series, finding comfort in the way that Wayans, his family and his cast turned up comedic genius in unexpected places. Sometimes that comedy was uncomfortable. But the actors tapped into the things that many black families — and Peele was reared by his mother, Lucinda Williams, who is white — would talk about at the dinner table.
“It went far,” Peele says now of the early ’90s Fox series while sitting on a sofa in a nearly empty soundstage on the Universal Studios lot. “It stepped on the line, over the line — and way over the line sometimes. Being able to find comedy where you’re not supposed to find comedy is … liberating for me. As an African-American, from a young age … we’re put in boxes, all sorts of boxes. There’s all sorts of expectations of what we’re supposed to be and who we’re supposed to be. My passion, and my art and my career, has largely been about pushing … the boundaries of that box and saying, ‘Look, we can be anything we want to be.’ ”
Which brings us to Peele’s latest project, Us. It’s the follow-up to his Oscar-winning Get Out, which explored racism for the horror that it actually is and was not only 2017’s breakout hit but also one of that year’s most profitable films.
Exactly one week before the Us trailer dropped — and almost no one knew what the film was about at that time, except that it starred Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o and Black Panther breakout Winston Duke — Peele invited a small group of journalists to a screening room at Universal Studios to watch a two-minute, 30-second trailer.
That handful of people came from all parts of Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley to screen a quick snack of a film all on the strength of what Peele was able to do with Get Out. “Unlike Get Out, it’s not about race. It’s about the undeniable truth [that] we are our own worst enemies,” Peele said back in December before airing the trailer. Then Peele thought for a beat before adding that the only thing that was really important to him, with regard to race and Us, was that the story centered on a black family.
I disagreed with him. Almost immediately after seeing the snippet, and definitely after seeing the film, last week, in its entirety. Us has everything to do with race. Not in the way Get Out did, but there are subtle nuggets that Peele drops in his new horror film that are absolutely for the culture.
Us is centered on a dark-skinned black family, which is an image that we rarely (if ever) see in Hollywood films because colorism casting remains a very real thing. Duke’s character is a father who fights off a family of unknown evildoers while, for most of the film, wearing a Howard University sweatshirt.
And then there’s that haunting, chamber-music-like refrain of Luniz’s 1995 “I Got 5 on It” that pretty much soundtracks the film and is an alley-oop to the knowing, considering that the Oakland, California, group’s biggest hit is about going half on a $10 bag of marijuana and that Peele himself is a former weedhead — at least he smoked significantly less than he did while writing Get Out.
Add to that that the two main protagonists in this movie are Nyong’o and Duke, who both co-starred in the record-breaking, progress-pushing, historic film that was Black Panther.
Whew. Jordan Peele sees us. And — ahem — we see Jordan Peele.
Jordan Haworth Peele was born 40 years ago in New York City. He graduated from a progressive K-12 school in his Upper West Side neighborhood. He participated in amateur theater, and by the age of 12 he had an agent. When nothing much panned out, he headed to Sarah Lawrence College to study — believe it or not — puppetry. And everything changed.
At Sarah Lawrence, he was part of an improv sketch group called Judith, named after actor Judith Light, and it was the most fun he’d had in his life. His college roommate Rebecca Drysdale, who also was his comedy partner, decided after two years to quit college and move to Chicago. The thought: become comedians, or bust.
Smart move. After working in Amsterdam as part of improv group Boom Chicago, Peele found work at The Second City Chicago and joined the cast of The CW’s MADtv along with Keegan-Michael Key in 2003. The two had impeccable chemistry.
In 2012, the two teamed up for their own Comedy Central sketch series, aptly titled Key & Peele. The series produced a number of viral sketches, including a “collegiate bowl” sketch that pokes fun at the creative names of professional football players.
At the time, Peele was not at all a fan of professional sports. He was, however, a video gamer, and one night he asked Key if the names of some of the NFL players Key controlled via his gaming system were, in fact, real.
Key laughed. They were. And Peele tapped into the comedy of it, staying up late that very night. When Key showed up to work the next morning, Peele had written out the East/West College Bowl sketch (see above) that has racked up close to 50 million views on YouTube alone.
And even though that sketch was done about seven years ago — sketches centering on the NFL came later — it’s still a highlight for NFL athletes.
In 2015, after the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller got a sack, he clasped his hands behind his head and thrust his pelvis forward, an homage to “Hingle McCringleberry” — a fictional professional football player who excessively celebrated in an old Key & Peele sketch. Miller was fined for the move: $11,567 for “unsportsmanlike conduct.” Peele tweeted about it.
He didn't even do three pumps!! https://t.co/cWCMYvR977
— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) October 2, 2015
“We paid the fine,” Peele says now. “I believe we paid to an organization called [Von’s Vision] … it’s an organization he has where he helps supply eyeglasses to kids who can’t afford them. It’s this great organization. I felt like he was referencing the sketch. … We thought it would be a cool thing to do, and we wanted to encourage more people to go get that [McCringleberry] triple thump. We got you.”
Finding comedy in untapped places, and serving an audience often hungry for content that reflects them — this is what Peele excels at, and what the popular football sketches show and prove. But Peele had an appetite for something else.
“When dealing with insecurity as a child and as a teenager, like we all do,” said Peele, “when I found comedy and my art, I found comfort and confidence in the idea that I can provoke. I can be a provocateur. I can say things I’m not supposed to say, and that’s how I’m a badass — because if I do it right, there’s power in not caring what they think. So for any sketch … any movie I write, I’m first trying to do something that hasn’t been done [or] isn’t supposed to be done. I often lean towards things that I think will make people angry. I try to frame it in such a way where it makes them rethink why they are angry at that. My process is about biting off an impossible task and trying to frame it and nurture it in a way that everybody gets it.”
But comedy is not everything. For Peele, it’s that prodding and fostering of thought and conversation, and sometimes that needs to be delivered sans laugh track.
Growing up, when Peele wasn’t perched in front of In Living Color, he was also watching scary movies — Alfred Hitchcock is a fave — and had an interest in telling those kinds of stories as well.
“As a comedian, I went through what feels like an entire lifetime performing and writing,” Peele said. “It wasn’t until the road felt like it was ending, both in my enjoyment and in what I felt like was the ceiling, that I said, ‘You know what? I know what I need to know in order to do my true passion.’ The connection of comedy and horror to me is they’re both highly conceptual. There’s layers, and it’s about ideas. The only real shift for me is tonal cause. ‘Is this a little bit too funny?’ Yeah, it is. Let’s take that joke away for this horror movie.”
In Us, there is some comedy there. And it’s a horror film made with the idea of black groupwatch intact. Some of us like to yell at a movie screen, especially, as we’ve seen in many different comedic spoofs of horror films, when we’re watching a horror film or a thriller. “TRICK, RUN! LEAVE, GIRL!”
Peele laughs when we talk about that. “It’s called Get Out … !” he delivers in the hilarious, matter-of-fact way of his first foray into the horror space. “I want an audience to have a movie that they can sort of huddle together for, yell at the screen. I want it to be a community experience.”
In the first Los Angeles screening of the film — which happened the same night as the Austin, Texas, SXSW premiere — that’s exactly what happened. The small room was filled with notables such as Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, black-ish’s Tracee Ellis Ross, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Janelle Monae and others. Folks gathered and gasped, groaned and giggled at various moments. It was noticeable, too, that in many of the moments ripe for live audience reaction, it felt as if Peele built in pauses, accounting for that exact phenomenon.
That early screening, which also happened on the same night in Atlanta and in New York, was designed for black critics, black content creators and black tastemakers, and the organizers implored folks to use the hashtag #UsFirst.Get it?
Black people get to be the evildoers and the protagonists in an elevated horror movie — a genre that, we’ve long joked, kills off the one black guy early on in the film.
“It’s wild to me that this is still … that it’s fertile ground to cast this way in a genre film. I think that in itself is why it’s important to me. I realize I have been in an industry that has been hesitant to say the least, and racist to say the most, to portray diversity. I’m in a position where I’ve thankfully proven that a black lead in a horror movie can work and can make money,” Peele said. “For, I think, what will probably be the rest of my career, I will want to continue to push boundaries and to see different types of protagonists in genre film. But after that, the answer really is because I can.”
Peele gets my fascination with Nyong’o and Duke and the two young actors cast as their children. It’s different. We don’t normally see this. As much as we love, say, NBC’s This Is Us for the love story of Beth and Randall, the shade formulation we normally see with black couples on-screen is fairer-skinned women paired with darker-skinned men.
Seeing two dark-skinned actors coupled up in a movie, as the leads, with their distinctly brown babies in tow, is a moment. It’s why the image of Chadwick Boseman crushing on Nyong’o in Black Panther is so endearing and impactful. It just feels progressive. And we have to take notice of it.
“Yes, but at the same time that wasn’t the criteria that caused me to cast Lupita and Winston. That really came down to these two people inspiring me as performers and inspiring me for these roles. Now, there is something to the fact that, like you said, we don’t see chocolate skin in movies like this,” Peele said.
This film comes a little over a year after the successful marvel that was Black Panther, which isn’t as weighty as you might think.
“Lupita was in my mind [while] writing the script before I saw Black Panther. I was introduced to Winston from Black Panther, and I called Lupita. I said, ‘What do you think about Winston?’ She was like, ‘Yes!’ I had … witnessed them in press stuff … their chemistry is there,” Peele said. “There [are] few gentlemen you feel like are worthy of Lupita, and Winston is. He has that charisma. He’s a stud, but also he’s a gentleman and a funny guy. For me it was putting together this perfect American family for subverting that image of what the perfect family is and meeting the dark side of that family, so to speak.”
And in the aftermath of the success of Get Out, that’s a tall order. More eyeballs are watching Peele. The stakes are way higher.
“I made Get Out for $4.5 million, and it was my film. Nobody could tell me anything about what I was going to do. In movie terms, it’s low-risk, and the upside with a movie like that … you trust your author. After the success of Get Out, I found a remarkably different Hollywood than the one that I spent 15 years trying to come up in as a sketch actor, screenwriter or whatever,” he said. “The doors open up, and I realized I’m in this position where I can make choices no one else can make. … Before Get Out, nobody got it. … I would tell people about the project and they would look at me like, ‘OK. This is a disaster.’ … When it worked, I could walk into the room and say, ‘Look, you guys have to trust me here.’ ”
Last year, Get Out was nominated for best picture, best director and best original screenplay, which made him the first black filmmaker to be nominated for Academy Awards in those three categories in the same year. He won for original screenplay.
He then threw his weight around to get BlacKkKlansman made. Peele produced, Spike Lee directed and co-wrote — and last month, Lee won an Oscar for it for best adapted screenplay. The film also earned Lee his first Oscar nomination for best director in his 30-plus-year career.
“The problem,” Peele said, pushing his glasses back up on his nose, “is we haven’t nurtured black artists. We haven’t given them money to make films enough. We haven’t given a diverse group of actors the opportunity to fail the way we’ve given white actors the opportunity to fail — and then to learn and to get it right. This huge systemic problem sort of resulted in this idea that, ‘Well, sorry, the world’s too racist to make proper money from films.’ We know that’s not true now.”
Mostly, Peele’s thrilled about being able to move comfortably in Hollywood. Coming soon is HBO’s Lovecraft Country, a series he’s producing that’s embedded with Jim Crow racism and supernatural horror. There’s also the CBS All Access Twilight Zone reboot that Peele is executive producing (Betty Gabriel of Get Out and Zazie Beetz of Atlanta were recently added to the cast); the first two episodes are scheduled for broadcast April 1. And Peele is working on a reboot of 1992’s Candyman as well — it’s scheduled to hit theaters in June 2020 and will be directed by Nia DaCosta, whose directorial debut, Little Woods, premieres in April.
“I think,” he said, “the most exciting shift in the industry that’s happened in the last few years is that there’s an understanding now, quite frankly, that white people will see movies with black protagonists.” Even if they scare the hell out of us. And especially if they scare the hell out of us.