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Film Critic

The Fantastic Terror of Lupita Nyong’o in “Us”

Women have depth. We are multidimensional and valuable for more than just what we look like. But you wouldn’t know that from watching TV or movies today. If life was like film and TV, we’d all mostly be straight white cis ladies who all wear a size zero and are only allowed to talk about the men in our lives who coincidentally are also straight and white.

In Jordan Peele’s Us, Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o gives a masterclass performance while breaking all the stereotypes of what it means to be a woman, especially a black woman in film. The characters she plays not only have their own agency, but the duality of those roles show the depth and expanse of Nyong’o’s talent. It’s not a coincidence that a man of color, Peele created this world for Nyong’o to thrive, giving her the space to develop characters that are rarely shown in film. Us proves that when women and people of color get to tell their own stories, they are simply better.

From 12 Years a Slave to Black Panther, Nyong’o’s talent is undeniable. Which makes it even harder to believe that Us is the first major film where Nyong’o has the lead role. And it’s already breaking records. Us not only had the largest debut for an original horror film, with $70.3 million at the box office, it also had the largest opening weekend for a film headlined by a Black woman.

Us is about a family’s vacation gone wrong — with the family’s “evil” doppelgängers finding and terrorizing them. Winston Duke plays the lovable and slightly dorky dad Gabe, and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex playing the daughter and son, Zora and Jason. Nyong’o plays the mother, Adelaide, who is determined to keep her family safe. And in a surprising twist, Adelaide’s double, Red, who shares one of her earliest and most traumatizing childhood memories.

What’s so impressive about Nyong’o’s performance is the distinct character she creates for both Adelaide and Red. Too often horror movies only give women sexy-scream-run-die roles. These are the roles that mostly involve being scared, making stupid decisions, dying almost always a gruesome death — all the while highlighting the woman’s sexuality. We all know there are many films that spend more camera time on a woman’s cleavage than on actually developing her character. In horror films misogyny is even more terrifying, when oftentimes female characters experience violence and brutality at the hands of male antagonists creating a cultural narrative that conflates sex with violence. And in old horror slasher movies, it’s even worse for black women who often die first if they’re present at all. (Spoiler: white people die first in this movie)

In Us, Nyong’o breaks gender and racial stereotypes, giving us characters with full narratives that Hollywood has historically denied Black women the opportunity to create. Nyong’o depicts Adelaide as a woman with a history of fear and darkness she has kept from her family. This background gives Adelaide the room to build a narrative distinct from her role as a mother and wife. I mean how many times have we seen mothers in movies that are given the freedom to have meaningful, separate life experiences from marriage and children? Adelaide is the leader of her family and guides them through the darkness as they become dependent on her for survival. Then there’s Red, Adelaide’s double that Nyong’o creates as a twitching-unsettling figure with wide enveloping eyes who was previously relegated to Adelaide’s nightmares. Red’s voice, ticks, and eyes look as if they were constructed by Adelaide’s subconscious to show the scariest version of herself.

How Nyong’o builds the relationship between Red and Adelaide is most impressive. Building off childhood memories and flashbacks, the audience is slowly able to connect the dots between the two characters as Nyong’o uses facial cues to bring the audience with her. Nyong’o transforms a character who might be a terrifying zombie-like-figure looking for revenge into something more terrifying — a deep look into one’s self and subconscious. Together, Red and Adelaide show us that sometimes the greatest thing we should fear is looking in the mirror.

Us is a masterpiece thanks to Nyong’o filling the canvas — she leaves you haunted by the depth and nuance of the characters she portrays. She’s the rare woman on screen who’s scared and terrifying, strong and weak, emotional and stoic — unable to fit in any of the boxes society has tried to put her in. These are the characters women, especially women of color, deserve to play. Through Nyong’o, we are taken on a journey of one women’s life, one that doesn’t start at marriage or when she becomes a mother, but is rooted in her personhood. It’s a terrifying journey, and one that will not only make the audience look inward, but also ask why we waited so long for a woman-centered film like this. In Us, Lupita Nyong’o gives women, on screen and off, permission to be scary. Because if there’s one thing I know about women: “If you want to get crazy. We can get crazy.”

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Why Viola Davis in “Widows” is Everything We Need

Newsflash: Women are complicated! Hollywood may forget (or more likely ignore) our whole personhood but the reality is that women can inhabit the full range of human experience. We can be selfish, we can be caring mothers, we can be fiercely strong, we can make mistakes. We can do all of those things or none of them. Widows shows this range of women hood and I am HERE for it.

The star of Widows, Viola Davis is no stranger to the complex female role. From How to Get Away with Murder to Fences, (her performances earning an Emmy and Oscar respectively), Davis has shown she is amazing, an actress with a penchant for expanding narratives around what it means to be a woman and a woman of color. Her leadership on screen and off prepped her perfectly to play the grief-stricken Veronica in Widows. As Veronica, Davis is left to not only deal with her husband’s death but to settle a debt left behind by her spouse’s criminal activities (aka Liam Neeson of Taken fame). Without other options, Veronica (Davis) leads a group of women played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo to pull off a heist for their lives.

 

 

 

Unlike the other woman-led heist film released this year, Ocean’s 8, Widows is dramatic, gripping and somewhat terrifying. It’s disappointing yet predictable that the first female-driven Ocean’s movie would include the most stereotypical lady crime plot ever: Ocean’s 8 is held at the Met Gala and involves stealing a necklace from Anne Hathaway. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, am I right? No? K. Ocean’s 8 is just not comparable to the gritty, tension-filled narrative of Widows or any serious, male-driven action film. And while there are some comedic parts in Widows, the laughs don’t make up a significant part of the movie’s emotional pull. What I love about this choice is how the women and their actions are taken completely seriously. While their world might underestimate them, Veronica and her team are more than up to the task, using their intellect as well as physical strength to execute the heist.

 

 

The competent, complicated, multifaceted women of Widows provide a therapeutic narrative, especially for its female audiences that so rarely get a chance to see themselves on screen. This is particularly true when you contrast the women of Widows to the men. It’s nice to see the XY chromosomes be the silly, overly emotional, and corruptible characters for once. Because to be honest, if I see one more film where a woman trips during an action running scene it will be too soon. Don’t get me wrong the male characters and actors are fantastic. From Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya who plays the mob enforcer, to Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry as a crime boss and politician, to Robert Duvall as a racist old mayor, the men in this film are fantastic and fun to watch.

They also portray the worst components of toxic masculinity. The male characters are quick to violence whether physical or verbal and get into trouble that the women in their lives have to get them out of. In contrast, the women in this film are the rational ones, staying calm under pressure no matter how intense things get.

As a woman who grew up loving heist action films like Ocean’s, Taken, and The Italian Job, this film shows women as the directors of their own destiny and just as dangerous as the men in this film. For too long in action films women served as the sexy sidekick at best, the object to be rescued at worst. These women characters just followed a predetermined plan set out by a male “heist mastermind” character. While Veronica does follow a plan her husband set out for her, in the end she proves she is smarter and more capable than he ever was.

 

 

Now, *SPOILER* I cannot talk about the success of the film without spoiling the final plot twist. In the end, Viola Davis’ Veronica finds out her husband was never dead to begin with – he killed his team in order to keep all the money for himself. In fact, he’s manipulating Veronica so she would plan the heist, bring him the money, and he would then leave rich to start a new life. In the final scene together, she refuses to give him the money, he hits her, and then tries to kill her. But Veronica is a badass bitch (as is her dog Olivia) and she pulls the trigger and kills him first.

To have a Black woman triumph over a series of men clearly out to get her (one of which is played by arguably one of the most notorious action stars of all time Liam Neeson) quite frankly feels amazing. Veronica gives women of color a place in the action film genre that we’ve never had before (and it comes with the best dog ever!). And if a studio out there is looking for the next star of the Taken franchise I think you found your star. Sorry, not sorry Liam Neeson.

 

 

 

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