Everything that follows is going to be extremely spoilerific, because it has to be for me to properly discuss US and the rather strange reaction to Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in it. So, if you haven’t yet seen it, go and do that now, and THEN come back and read. Although, it’s not a review, strictly speaking, so don’t come back expecting that.
(I know the whole Adelaide/Red thing will get confusing because of the whole place switching thing, so I’m going to just stick with Red for the one we know as Red for the majority of the film, and likewise of Adelaide).
Right. So. Much has been made in the press of the fact Lupita Nyong’o based the voice of Red, the so-called evil antagonist of US on Spasmodic Dysphonia, the condition I suffer from. She was roundly condemned for this, although it seemed only one disability action group (which, incidentally, seemed to know very little about spasmodic dysphonia, Nyong’o’s role, or how the two related to one another) had complained, and yet the press ran with it. Why? Well, there are definitely parts of the press who will jump at any chance to denigrate anyone who is a woman, or black, and the fact that Nyong’o is both no doubt had some rubbing their hands together with glee. But I think it’s also because of a persistent, old-fashioned notion that horror only does anything to shock. That if something appears in a horror film, it’s only purpose can be to be scary, or off-putting or plain disgusting. And that’s not to say Red’s voice wasn’t chosen because it’s not a ‘normal’ voice, (and therefore I completely sympathise with any SD sufferers who were hurt by the portrayal) but to claim that all Nyong’o was doing was some chilling Tony Todd croak is to grossly oversimplify.
Firstly, Red’s voice isn’t a direct copy of an SD voice. You can hear elements of both abductor and adductor SD in her speech, but it’s clear Nyong’o has developed it into something unique. And this is completely commensurate with her own explanation – talking to people with SD was part of her creative process, she was never claiming to be doing an SD voice, and only mentioned it at all because it’s a little known condition and she wanted to use her platform to bring attention to it. Creative inspiration is an odd thing. I’ve been inspired by some serious, sad, horrifying real life events in my creative work. Does that mean I’m belittling those things when I write about them? No, not at all. Exploiting them? Perhaps, but only as far as any creative person exploits the things they encounter in the world in their work.
The press obsessed over Red’s voice, but none of them mentioned Adelaide’s (the ‘good’ version). Throughout the film, Adelaide’s voice breaks, or she struggles to speak, or she chooses silence over speech. She says something to this effect to Elisabeth Moss’s character Kitty when they first visit the beach. I forget the exact wording, but it’s something along the lines of she doesn’t like speaking unless she has to. She often seems to be concentrating hard on getting her words out. All of this happens even before the Tethered show their uncanny faces. I’ve seen people suggest that Red’s voice is due to spending so much time with the other non-verbal Tethered, or because of the trauma of switching places with Adelaide, or because Adelaide attempted to strangle her. But my interpretation of Red and Adelaide and their voices is a little different. To me, they represent treated and untreated versions of the same (fictional) vocal disorder. Because ultimately, this is a film about advantage and disadvantage rather than good versus evil. Adelaide has had the advantage of good medical care her whole life, and so her condition only flares up when she is stressed. Again, I’m not saying the condition Adelaide has is SD. (It patently isn’t, because SD is often less debilitating during very high stress situations such as needing to call for help, rather than more so.) But she has some kind of vocal issue, and because she and Red are identical, so does Red, but Red has never had any treatment, or therapy, or vocal coaching or whatever, and so her voice is far worse.
For me, this fits with the overall themes of the film, and goes some way towards explaining that ‘twist’. I’ve seen a lot of people complain about how obvious the twist is, and so did I at first, but on reflection, I’ve realised that that isn’t the point. Jordan Peele is too smart and respects his audiences too much to think we’re going to be floored by a twist like that. So if it’s not for us, who is it for? Well, Adelaide, of course. Adelaide had to realise that the only real difference between her and Red was the lives they’d lived. Adelaide’s was one where she was exposed to art and creativity, and encouraged to express herself through dance and drawing and music. Red’s was one of deprivation and depravity. Obviously, this is still a horror film, and so Red and her fellow Tethered’s reaction to their deprivation is disproportionately murderous, but it’s still a half-remembered glimpse of a TV advert that inspires Red’s uprising, and I’m fairly certain the Michael Jackson t-shirt is what’s prompted the Tethered to all adopt a single glove. I feel like the red jumpsuits are also a nod towards the incarcerated portion of the American population, but I haven’t fully worked that one through yet…
So, what separates them and us? The transformative power of art. Not bad for a horror film.