Arts & Entertainment

Us vs. Them: Unpacking Racial Biases in Film

Stephan Browne-Blackman

In 2017, actor, comedian, and now filmmaker, Jordan Peele changed the film industry with his debut director film, Get Out. In 2019, he did it again with his hit film, Us

The movie follows the Wilsons as they go on a family vacation to Santa Cruz, California. After a seemingly normal day, they are surprised to find another family trying to break into their home. Except, the family looks exactly like them. This other family belongs to a group of people known as the “tethered”. 

This April, a series will be premiering on Amazon Prime Video called Them.

Them follows a family that moves into a neighborhood where the neighbors aren’t the kindest. Feeling threatened by their appearance, the native members of the neighborhood take it upon themselves to try and scare the new family out of the neighborhood.

Left: Poster for Amazon Prime Video’s “Them”; Right: Poster for Universal Studio’s “Us”

Both movies have some very striking similarities as well as a few differences. When comparing the posters, Them seems to be evoking a similar theme to Us. This can be seen in the composition of the poster, the main character is highlighted in a profile shot but the photo is edited with some kind of distortion that lends to the fact that the genre is horror. Them also seems to have copied a very similar font to Us, combined with the names being opposites of each other, this makes it seem as if the movies should be tied together.

But the main comparison between these two works is the element of the dark-skinned black family. It is not very often that movies are released that feature a family consisting of three or more dark-skinned members. Their race plays a role in the portrayal of dark-skinned people and their relationship to the world.

This can be seen in Us when the family attempts to call the police and are told there will be a long wait time. At this moment, the fact that the family is black is utilized to showcase a part of the black experience that is all too common, mistreatment by police officers. By pointing out an issue with current society, Peele subtly uses satire in a meaningful way, putting a spotlight on the issue. 

Throughout the rest of the film, race is not as significant a factor. The “tethered” are only killing the person they are tethered to, therefore discrimination cannot occur. Moments like these assist in blending race into the story rather than highlighting it, allowing dark-skinned people to be viewed as something more than just victims of racism.

In Them, there are two different forces present, supernatural forces within the house and malicious neighbors surrounding the family. Race is utilized as a pivotal point of the story. Their neighbors are going as far as to hang little black babydolls all over their doorstep among other racially-charged incidents. 

A still from “Them” depicting two of the main characters surrounded by racist dolls hanging from their porch.

This series is set in 1950s Los Angeles and aims to tell a story from the period of The Great Migration, a time when Black Americans were moving away from the South to escape the vicious racism only to come up North and have to deal with a different kind of it.

The striking similarities between Us and Them have set “Black Twitter” ablaze. After the release of the Winx Club series on Netflix and the colorism present in their casting, people were upset and tons of tweets were made expressing a want for more magical roles with black leads.

It seems Them could potentially be in response to that sentiment. But due to the extreme bouts of racism present in the series, it is not being well received.

A significant reason why the theme of race in Them is not coming across smoothly as it did in Us lies in the eyes of the director. Jordan Peele is a black man. Four out of five of the directors on Them are white men. This detail may seem minute but it must be noted that a director’s role is to visualize the screenplay and bring it to life.

Directors are able to accomplish this by referring to themselves and their experiences, utilizing them to create a cohesive storyline. The only issue is, the history of racism is extremely different for white people and black people. This difference in lived experience presents itself as a racial bias, whether unconscious or not.

Jordan Peele is more likely to understand the struggle and relationship between black people and society and be able to more accurately portray it as it is his own lived experience. Since white people are not treated the same way as black people in society, it is not expected that the white directors of Them would be able to accurately portray racism in a way that is palatable.

Colorism’s presence in the film industry is very apparent. When it comes to representation, dark-skinned people are not usually at the front of the conversation. When black people are needed, they are usually represented by light-skinned people, erasing dark-skinned people from the conversation, or they are completely glossed over and replaced by someone white. This can be seen in Winx Club. Since Winx Club is not original source material and is based on a previous show, there are already roles to be filled. However, Netflix’s version went on to replace an Asian character and another character of color with two white actresses.

Dark-skinned people are brought to the front of the casting call when a major plot point in the story is racism, slavery, or general mal intention. This can be seen in another Netflix original Orange Is the New Black where the main dark-skinned female characters are subject to the most violence and black trauma is utilized as a form of entertainment. This is seen in one of the most controversial moments of the show’s history when a darker-skinned character, “Poussey”, is murdered by a police officer.

The scenarios of racism present in Them are quite extreme. The fact that the people who were comfortable writing, directing, and publishing those extremes are white should say something about society’s relationship with “Black Trauma Porn” and how unfair it is to Black Americans to have to be constantly viewed this way in the media.

Combined with the fact that these bouts of racism in the film industry are not abnormal, Them’s uncanny similarities to Us shows how comfortable white people have become with inserting themselves in black spaces under the guise of good-doings. 

Racial bias in the film industry is a serious problem. Dark-skinned people are not always given opportunities to play normal fully-fleshed characters. It is not fair to expect black actors to wait for black directors to give them accurate, appropriate roles to play.

A viral tweet expressing a strong disinterest in “Them”.

Every role tied to a dark-skinned person in film these days has some connection to racism or black trauma. Hundreds of thousands of Twitter users have expressed a want for dark-skinned people to be portrayed as something other than victims of racism yet it seems in response, they’ve been given nothing but more black trauma as entertainment.

Leave a Reply