Article by Marrisa Zeno
In his newest horror film, director Jordan Peele shines a fresh light on the typical home invasion thriller. What starts off as a light-hearted family vacation quickly turns into the Wilson family’s worst nightmare. Late one night the family is greeted by their murderous doppelgängers and (to avoid spoilers) a night of terror ensues. What’s more chilling though, through all of this is hearing Red’s (played by Lupita Nyong’o) voice detailing her intentions. The voice is agonizing and filled with emotion; it lures the audience in with reverence and skepticism that cannot go unexplained. Personally, I wasn’t as terrified by the voice as I was suspicious and in awe of it.
When asked about the voice at the film’s premiere Nyong’o stated that she was inspired by a rare condition known as spasmodic dysphonia, a disease caused by involuntary movements of one or more muscles of the voice box. Cases of this condition can stem from emotional or physical trauma. Nyong’o went on to say that while she worked with several vocal coaches and doctors to perfect the voice, it was not an exact replica. Days later Nyong’o faced brutal backlash from her viewers, fans, and some disability groups, such as The National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association and the non-profit group RespectAbility, because of her artistic choice. Those who suffer from the disease were offended due to feeling stigmatized by the character and that Red painted this condition as eerie and haunting.
After hearing and seeing these comments Nyong’o quickly apologized publicly on Good Morning America saying that Red’s voice was inspired by spasmodic dysphonia as well as several other influences including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. She said that after hearing him speak she found the “catalyst” to her exploration of this character. Along with a heartfelt apology, Lupita Nyong’o expounded upon the fact that with this role she wanted to bring attention and awareness to this disease and not to “vilify” or “demonize” it. As an actress, she explained that every character she crafts are done with care and passion, and it’s unfortunate that some did not take well to her execution. Even with those condemning her choice, there are also several out there supporting the decision who also suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, saying that they now feel seen and also that this was a unique way of incorporating the disease into mainstreamed content.
In our society now, it’s almost impossible to not find something that isn’t upsetting or problematic in some way or another. With films like Us sparking multiple social and cultural conversations how did we find ourselves having this one? A major high note of this piece by Jordan Peele is the unveiling of the “other” and it gives the audience the opportunity to see into their perspective. Peele’s unique take on the genre of horror is to drag the social norms we all cling to out of the closets and pour a light so bright on to them that audiences can’t help but cringe at them. With his first film Get Out and now with Us, he’s shown the demons that we all have encountered whether it be racists, classists, or any others who have prejudices, and the fear in that is that some of us fall into those very same categories. It’s understandable to be wary of the unknown but that shouldn’t ultimately stop us from having new experiences or interacting with new people.
Albeit the horrific turn of events it can be argued that Red is a sympathetic character, whether that be because of her past or her motives; so why in choosing and conducting research on this character can Lupita Nyong’o not be granted the same graces? Several other movies including award-winning Forrest Gump, I Am Sam & Radio, which all focus on main characters with disabilities, received no major kickback. All of these movies also give insight into amazing characters’ lives, where the actors took their own interpretation of the conditions.
While all those offended in the vocal choice for Red in Us, there’s so much more to be said about these characters and the film as a whole. Just as in the movie, it all depends on what mirror you’re choosing to look through.
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