Lupita Nyong’o has never starred in a horror movie before Us, the Jordan Peele second horror feature since Get Out that, last week, passed $100 million worldwide at the box office. Nyong’o doesn’t just star in the film; it’s her first lead role which luxuriates in the dynamic that could have only been possible with Peele at the helm.
”I feel this dark cloud hanging over me,” Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson says to her husband Gabe, played by Winston Duke. Her voice breaks, choked with emotion and foreboding. The Wilsons, along with their children, are on a family vacation and that night, their house is invaded by their scissors-wielding doppelgängers in red jumpsuits. Now meet Red, who is the self-appointed leader, the one whose vengeance against Adelaide has been incubating for years since they first met as children.
To understand Adelaide’s taciturn personality is to delve into the scarring incident that came upon young Adelaide early in the film. At a Santa Cruz beach, she wandered off from her parents and into a maze of mirrors wherein she sees her replica – a girl in a slouchy Thriller t-shirt just like the one she’s wearing and it’s the first intriguing element the movie throws at us. Nyong’o, who plays Red and Adelaide, supremely keeps both characters apart in tone and motive. Adelaide, once relying on Gabe’s patriarchal assignment to be a protector, energetically shifts into the role herself, shepherding her terrorised family towards safety while Red is manic with eyes glazed with malevolence a la The Shining‘s Jack Torrance, a tortured character brought to life by Jack Nicholson.
More to the point, and in this Golden Age of horror, Red’s projection of black female villainy through Nyong’o is canonizing, kinetically satisfying and worthy of recognition. Although black women as villains in horror movies are still rare, the forthcoming Blumhouse movie Ma has Octavia Spencer gleefully terrorizing white teens, much as what Tony Todd did in the 1992 slasher film Candyman.
A marked difference in the shared phenotype between Red and Adelaide is Red’s voice — strained, throaty, a device that carves more depth to her villainy. When she speaks, it’s as if her words are being funnelled through a rusty pipe. Nyong’o visceral portrayal of Red draws from a real-life vocal disability. “I was inspired by the condition spasmodic dysphonia, which is a condition that comes about from a trauma—sometimes emotional, sometimes physical—and it creates this spasming in your vocal cords that leads to an irregular flow of air,” Nyong’o told Variety at the Los Angeles premiere of Us. “So I studied that, I worked with an ear, nose, and throat doctor, a vocal therapist, and my dialect coach to try and make sure I could do it and do it safely. ’Cause I had two roles to play, I couldn’t afford to damage my voice.”
Unfortunately, it has drawn criticism from those with the disability, who already face stigma. The scenes of Red and Adelaide were shot on different days, and seamlessly edited into a cohesive whole. The dualism of both characters is fraught with a complicated and painful history, which I won’t spoil, an even how Red originated too. That said, Nyong’o imbues the personality of Red with such urgent gravitas and dangerous composure that blends with the film’s intoxicating music score.
The film’s closing minutes features a face-off between Adelaide and Red, delicately framed by history and trauma. Nyong’o won for her first Oscar for the Steve McQueen 2013 vehicle 12 Years a Slave, and although the Academy routinely turn their nose down on horror movies, Nyong’o racks up an Oscar-worthy performance we will continue to talk about for years.