Strength & Visibility In the Ordinary: Jordan Peele's Use of Black Women in Black Horror

Curator's Note

Beginning in the 1940s, Black Horror films were created to show a myriad of perspectives through Black stories created by Black people and portrayed on screen by Black actors (Means Coleman, 2011). While not always as popularized in mainstream media in their inception, the impacts on Black audiences and creatives are still felt. More recently, contemporary directors and producers like Jordan Peele began to create groundbreaking films like Get Out (2017), placing Black characters as its focus and Black life as its plot. Many individuals view Peele as the ‘renaissance man' who has and still is revolutionizing how society views horror, specifically through the lens of Black life and culture, which both consider the complex and intersecting identities of gender, sexuality, region, socioeconomic status, and much more. With this in mind, we explore how Peele, as a filmmaker, has placed Black women at the center of his Black horror and thrillers films, and argue that Peele uses the ordinary to move beyond the historical stereotypes and tropes of strength

As a writer, producer, and director, Peele’s films place Black women as leaders of their families and their own individual and collective fates. In Peele’s Us (2019) and NOPE (2022), the portrayal of Black women protagonists counter the expectations of The Strong Black Woman (SBW) ideology. The SBW ideal emphasizes emotional suppression and strength, independence, perseverance, and being a caretaker who withholds vulnerability from others (Jackson & Greene 2000). This very real and problematic image of Black women can be empowering (for some) and taxing to those who share the pressure of the unrealistic, unattainable, and expected standard of excellence pressed on Black women.

A look at Peele’s works as a producer and director reveals his care for Black women’s characterizations. First, Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide, a loving wife and mother scripted as the disciplinary parent in Peele’s 2019 film Us. Throughout the film, Adelaide tries to protect her family from the “tethered” or doppelgängers by repeatedly reminding her children to use their skills and intellect to defeat the evil tethered. Whereas in Peele’s most recent film, NOPE, the lead protagonist, Emerald, played by KeKe Palmer, co-runs a horse ranch with her brother, is cast as humorous and self-reliant. Peele developed both characters through a lens that spotlights Black women as fearless, family-oriented, protective, and ordinary while ensuring that their characterization is not hindered by historical tropes or caricatures of mammy, tragic mulatto, sapphire, or jezebel. As a producer, Peele produces series like HBO’s Lovecraft Country that places Black sister leads, Jurnee Smollet’s Leti and Oluwunmi Mosaku’s Ruby, as brave, thoughtful, resilient, communicative warriors in the face of 1950s racism while also giving an Afrofuturist gaze to naming one’s self with Aunjanue L. Ellis’ Hippolyta’s character. Hippolyta travels back in time to visit the very real Black women around the world -- whose trailblazing existence is anything but ordinary. These three women pushed audiences to see them beyond being strong and silent in the 1950s Jim Crow America to be seen, heard, and felt in their resistance to gender, sexuality, and other identity roles placed on Black women. Overall, Peele uses Black women and their connections to family, society, and themselves to deepen the image that feels familiar to the audience. 

In the end, Peele uses his creative storytelling in horror and thriller films to further discussions around American society. His characterization of Black women is always a deep and full spectrum of the human experience and emotions, including joy and fear. That characterization allows his Black women characters to see, name, and develop themselves without the pressure of historical tropes of strength and invisibility once offered to Black women in horror. 

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