Winston Duke On The Social Message Of Us And How Jordan Peele Changed His Mind About Horror

Daniel Welsh

Two years after taking the world by storm with the critically-acclaimed Get Out, director Jordan Peele is back to terrify us all once again, with his new film Us.

At the centre of the drama in Us are the Wilsons, led by former Black Panther co-stars Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, whose summer holiday comes to an abrupt and horrifying end after the arrival of a family of dopplegängers, intent on terrorising them.

Winston with his Us and Black Panther co-star, Lupita Nyong'o

Ahead of Us’ release, HuffPost UK caught up with Winston Duke, to talk about the film’s social message, the hidden symbols you should be looking out for, and how Jordan Peele changed his mind about horror films...

What was your general attitude to horror films before making Us?

I was not a horror fan, because in the past I just wasn’t represented in it, so I never really took it in as a genre.

I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence, I just don’t do well with it, I’m not a gore fan, either. That just makes me immediately imagine my body going through it, so if something gets cut off or blown up I’m like ‘ugh’... I don’t like that feeling, it’s always a little uncomfortable. So that always was not something that I liked.

Did you have any reservations about signing up for this horror film, in that case?

No! It was Jordan Peele! After reading the script, I saw the conversations involved. And from Get Out, I got that Jordan Peele’s approach to violence and all those things… it was always very made to measure, you know? It was something that was made for you and detailed about the character. So it wasn’t gratuitous in any way. 

Winston Duke as Gabriel, one of two characters he plays in Us

You just mentioned representation in horror, and there’s a bit of a tired horror trope that black characters are often the first to be killed in slasher films. Did it feel good to subvert that in Us?

100%. 100%. It felt good to subvert that, it felt good to subvert who we look at as the leads in situations like that, to see a woman dominate that space, to see the cultures of patriarchy not being anything that serves our protagonists, to see them have to adopt a position of allyship to actually figure out their way through this actually felt really refreshing, and right. It was really wonderful.

It’s interesting you say that, because the men of the film are pretty useless, aren’t they?

Yeah, they’re the ones not listening, and to be honest, it holds a mirror up to society and says ‘Look at what this looks like, when you’re actually needed’. It doesn’t actually work.

Like, if you’re trying to survive an extreme encounter, does it matter if it’s a woman who’s your ally, or someone who’s LGBTQ or an immigrant? All that matters is that you’re in there as a team. Your life is saved regardless. To be racist in the zombie apocalypse is… kind of dumbfounding, right? It’s misplaced. It’s the wrong thing to really adhere to. So it’s really powerful what Us shows you, without actually telling you.

Winston at the UK premiere of Us in March

It feels like horror is having a real moment right now, with films like Hereditary, A Quiet Place and, of course, Get Out. Why do you think people are suddenly taking to horror again?

I think horror, as a genre, always starts making great societal commentary. And I think we’re at a time when we’re losing definition… we don’t have a clear definition of justice, we don’t have a clear definition of equality and equity, we don’t have a clear definition of so many things, because we get into the weeds over the politics of it. We lose track of what ‘is’. 

Horror helps to subvert the norm, and the norm isn’t always right, you know? What is normal and acceptable isn’t always what’s right. And this genre in particular gets to say, look at it through the lens of extremity or Look at it through the lens of distress. And redefine it.

Redefine violence, redefine leadership, redefine love! Redefine everything. Redefine how you see gentrification, how you see class, redefine how you see privilege. Redefine how you see “the villain”. So, I think we’ve lost a lot of definition, and this genre is begging us to redefine.

As with Get Out, Us is absolutely jam-packed with symbolism, easter eggs and recurring themes. Did you understand all of it right away, or did some of it take time?

I would say I understood a lot of it right off the bat, and I was like ‘oh man, I want to have these conversations about masculinity and the normality of the nuclear family and how perilous these cultures of privilege actually are, that they don’t really protect us’, you know? And then, they evolved as we shot.

So the idea that the beautiful house with all the windows and glass that makes for a good selfie and a good view, is actually quite insecure. And that for me, I understood after seeing the house. And being in it, and acting through the thing. And I was like, ‘oh my god, that’s powerful’.

And as we went along, a lot of the things kind of flushed themselves out, and I hired a dramaturge [adviser/editor] to go through the script with me, and research things like the bunnies and the scissors and the colour red, these things that are big sharp bright statements.

Was there anything that only really jumped out at you once you saw the film?

Uh, I would say the bunnies. I did not know how impactful the imagery of them would be until I watched the film, and then I was like ‘oh, wow, woah. Oooh’.

The scissors, I knew about already, I had done so much research on them, but also brass as a metal and why brass could be a thing, I did research on the history of dopplegängers and all these different things, so, I had a good idea, but I never ever thought of the bunnies, you know? And how they’d be depicted. That literally just slapped me on the face on the first viewing.

Rabbits are seen on screen throughout Us

People who watched and loved Get Out, are going to be going into Us hoping for more social commentary. Do you think those expectations are going to be met?

And some. In the sense that you get probably seven or eight layers of retrospection and cultural introspection and interrogation.

I think the power of this film is that it doesn’t let anyone off the hook. So, where Get Out, whether you are black, an immigrant, a woman, LGBTQ, people were able to say ‘I understand that dynamic, I understand what gentrification of my culture looks like, I understand being blocked from the beauty and being in The Sunken Place of my culture’. But this movie doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

As long as you can see Us, as long as you have access to even getting to watch that movie, you fall into the culture of privilege. And it begs you to wonder who you render invisible, and who you render speechless, and who bears the weight of your actions. 

Without spoiling too much, what would you say was the main underlying message of the film?

Really, as long as you buy into the culture of privilege, you also bear its sins. And in the bearing of those sins, are you prepared for those sins to have your face? To have your footprint? What legacy are you ready to have with your actions? And are you prepared to deal with that? Are you prepared if they look like you? And how are you going to survive, if you had to face them?

Us is in UK cinemas now. Watch the trailer below:

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