Brettney and I. Us.

"I was so worried you had changed. You didn't call me 'kid' when you walked in." She was the most fragile I'd ever seen anyone. Tremor in her voice, uncertain about her grip on her glass. We drank coffee and talked about Rachel. She'd been sleeping in Rachel's bedroom and 'talking' to her through tarot cards. Rachel had died a few weeks ago and Brettney had come down for the service. Her medications had interacted with her body chemistry in such a way that she looked like a different person completely from the last time I'd seen her in person. But her eyes were the same. They were intense and hard and narrow but they were hers. She died yesterday. In two days it will be her birthday. I can't feel her heartbeat when I close my eyes. 

I don't know what happened to her yet. I want to know and I don't. When we learned about Rachel it didn't make it easier. Brett had been struck harder with depression and feelings of unworthiness than just anyone I'd ever known. It was a hard change from the person I met in Boston in 2010. Back then she was effervescent, bouncing across whatever room she was in to joke with whoever would get the joke she was stuck on. She was irresistible company and I didn't know anyone with a bad word to say about her. I met her through Tim Earle and Jay Lewis and I knew right away she was going to be one of my artistic soul mates. I asked her to be in movies as often as I was making them but only got her in one. She's in my cannibal film Diana and she plays a victim of Alexandra Maiorino's character. The character also suffers from feeling alienated from everything and unworthy of human connection. She can't find a way to just be with someone as obviously lovely and approachable and talkative as the character Brettney plays. That's how bad things are. And that's how bad things would get. Brettney Young lights the film like a 50,000 watt par can. She's what I see when I think of the movie.


I tell her about our mutual friend Tucker Johnson who has a girlfriend with children and she looks stunned. "That doesn't sound like him." "Well he's exactly the same. We text literally every day." "Ok, good. You made him sit in a bathtub with me and film me covered in blood. Feel like I looked into his soul that night, it'd kill me if he changed." Too much around her had changed. She no longer lived in Boston but in Canada with a boyfriend who did his best trying to keep her together. I get the feeling a lot of us tried but you can't quite beat the part of someone that urges them to hate the space they occupy. John if you're reading this I know you did your best and I thank you for that. She was riddled with feelings of unease and separation, texted me all the time in the months after Rachel's death telling me how much people were winding her up. She hated white men's opinion on art and culture, I don't know how she tolerated mine. She tells me she not so secretly hopes for the day when we're both single so we can get married. I blush and roll my eyes. She laughs at me. I'd give anything to be able to relive that morning now. She tells me she was surprised she and Rachel never slept together. I was, too. They loved each other so much.

We text and message each other on Facebook and call. "Things are alright. They weren't for a bit but now it's trending up...existential drag is real. You're too much like me, stretching yourself thin all over the place(s) haha...I think somehow we are the same person." That's from our last text message conversation. I say I'm glad things are looking up. She says after rock bottom they have to. She stole and crashed a car, she says. I joke that at least it's a good story. I don't know what else to say. I want to help her but she lives in some Canadian backwater. She delights in telling me that her town has a monument dedicated to "The Victims of Communism." I can't just go get her. None of us can. None of us do. And now we'll never be able to.

At breakfast that morning she tells me she wants to be a film critic. I tell her it's a terrible idea but if she starts writing I'd find her pieces a home. She wanted to write about Adam Sandler. I told her there was absolutely a market for that kind of thing and her eyes lit up. As practice we started up a conversation in messenger about Jordan Peele's Us, which we both loved. We'd done this once before when talking about Django Unchained and it was one of the most fun conversations I'd ever had. I knew things would be different we'd just both suffered an incredible loss and movies were now about the only thing in common we could use to get over it. We couldn't hang out, but we could see the same movies. We always talked about movies. And for a time I called her kid. I stopped calling anyone kid because I did it once too often to someone who won't talk to me ever again and the word makes me sick to my stomach now. I didn't want to get sick when I thought about Brettney. I wanted to just see her on the set of Diana, in a towel covered in fake blood just giggling and brightening the room. She glowed. She was unlike anyone I ever met. 

Me: What do you think about the state of black film art right now and why did you enjoy Us? I can answer the latter but I feel like our answer to that question is going to be informed by the first question. Do you see yourself reflected in North American media? If so: who captures you?

Brettney: Firstly, I definitely want to acknowledge that I am mixed race, and was raised by a non-black woman. I'd also like to say that she showed me the movie Bamboozled when I was around 10 years old and it changed my life forever. I was steeped mildly in black culture as a child, and I am looking to find my place and my way back to it in any way I can. I do not, and will not, speak for all black people and their ideas of how they are being reflected in the media. I can only speak to my own experience, and I feel that my journey specifically has been tied largely to North American film and music. As a very young child, spending time with my abusive father helped me deeply relate to movies like Boyz n the Hood, Hardball, and Friday because it was so close to the life I lived, and the lives my father and brothers lived. So I would say that's definitely the foundation to my experience as a black person living in North America and seeing my life represented in film. At the same time, I completely respect and love specifically the movie Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, because the for me, the Wayans brothers were the first Black writers to address the fact that in Hollywood, all "black movies" are the same. White audiences love to pornographically exploit the death and hardship of black folx because that is what white supremacy dictates. But for the Wayans brothers to write a movie specifically for black people who want to laugh and want to take pride and joy in themselves and their lives was definitely a pivotal point for me, and I think for people of color in the film industry who had been catering to white audiences since they were forcibly brought to the Americas in chains. Bamboozled explores this very dichotomy and I'm glad to have seen it when I did. And to understand the difference of the performance of being black and the reality of living black.

Me: Racial performance is something white people at best can get a superficial understanding of - in the same way we know what racism looks like but we’ll never truly experience it. You can’t be fully excluded if you feel and have reinforced a centuries old cultural dominance. Racist rhetoric is a helpful reminder that what white people imagine to be discrimination is actually a perfectly logical squaring of accounts. A yearning for equality or at most, a tipping of the scales in favor of a group as large as white People but less economically and politically powerful becomes, in the hands of the imaginarily aggrieved, an issue of replacement. Tells you everything you need to know about the depth of understanding. Of course that’s #notallWhitePeople but no culture that thinks it can meaningfully state the ideology and have it be picked up by cable news (whoops) can fully grip what someone else goes through. We just can’t.

Part of the reason that I for so long went out of my way to make a big deal of my indigenous heritage is because I wanted to try to understand what it was like not to be me as the world sees me. My 'performance' of another culture will never, however, erase my whiteness, which is something I learned just as quickly as I started talking up my ‘diverse’ background. Which finally brings us back to the film industry and my role as a consumer and critic of it. I might imagine that my understanding of another person’s life can help me know what it means to see black art on movie screens but all I can is project. Well that’s not true - I can know that it is always important for non-white voices to make it to the audiences that Jordan Peele makes it to. And then once I’ve celebrated because it is not nothing that Jordan Peele in ten years went from more marginal indie comedian a la Jason Mantzoukis or Paul Scheer to household name to Oscar-heralded writer/director of horror films. It is in fact, a huge deal. Once I’ve celebrated that, then I can celebrate that this man given this platform made a film that plays for audiences who know who Marcus Garvey is and those who don’t, if I’m not being too glib.

The astonishment I experienced watching Us for the first time was both at the swiftness and sureness with which Peele develops the notion of performance, and then Doubling back to make sure that even without digging too deep beneath the gorgeous surface the film is still a suitable carnival ride. Us, I feel confident saying, has to appeal to some part of your brain. Don’t like what it says, surely you can dig the atmosphere of dread, the frightening choreography, the tone of deep, unforgiving red that dominates the color scheme, the beautifully mannered performance of normality given by the four adult leads, or even the top 40 needle drops. Peele has played a risky game making a movie whose true thematic significance was bound to sail over a ton of heads in the audience and it looks like it paid off. Whether that’s more because the film is as smart as it looks or because he’s just so good at the nuts and bolts of horror filmmaking is irrelevant: the film took all the money in the world. I think that’s a heartening sign but I’m willing to admit I’m overeager for black directors to take horror away from pretentious white boys with criterion channel subscriptions. They’ve forgotten how to scare people.

Brettney: Hehe, "white boys with criterion channel subscriptions who've forgotten how to scare people." Wink wink. Anyways, I think what you said about the "issue of replacement" is a truly magically realist existence that Jordan Peele, among other black actors and directors (Ava Duvernay, DeRon Horton, Lupita Nyong'o, etc) where blackness itself is at the center of the movie, and therefore the center of the universe as created by X black storyteller or director. Jordan Peele really seems to be exploring in Us - and in a totally curiosity based way - what black supremacy looks like. We see the rolling of the eyes at the white neighbors, we see the murder of "innocent whites" at the hand of "innocent blacks" and we can literally feel the idea of a white supremacy slowly ceasing to exist in the duration of this film. From the moment Nyong'o corrects her son's beat drop during a heartwarming black classic, to the moment they sit there and converse with their Other or Mirrored selves in the living room - Portrait of (a) Black Family/ies suffering- we feel that there is no dichotomy. There is no differed suffering. There is only Us. And even at the end, as the family "defeats" (most) their other half out of pure self preservation we're left to wonder "Is this the correct mother? Does it matter? Do we all not need love in a specific familial way?." I mean, that's what I was left to wonder.

And though I do address issues of a glimpse of toying with black supremacy, we can't deny that the boat is a status symbol, the white rabbits are clones, and the families beneath the Santa Cruz boardwalk (a place I immediately recognized and have been going to since childhood) are the disenfranchised and unlucky souls who now belong to this "tethered" world. Black magical Realism will not save us all. Black Supremacy will not save us all. And if I hear the word "ratchet" come out of another black persons mouth one more time...So looking deeper, yes we are seeing a struggle. Is it between black and white as the movie would topographically suggest? Is it between Black have and have-nots? I had to think about this for weeks before realizing that Jordan Peele, dark  comedic genius that he is, has duped us all, and Us all. We are all human beings susceptible to oppression (in a Black Imagined world) who all subscribe to a hierarchy of Suffering and Trauma which, as Peele gently reminds us, does not truly exist. And I think maybe that is the scariest part of the film. 

Re: ratchet *non-black

Me: I want to clarify: when you talk about the imaginary hierarchy do you mean “my pain is more important than yours” logic?

Brettney: Yes. Or what society classifies as "traumatic" vs "Traumatic" If you've heard the 'Big T little t' rhetoric.

Me: I have not but I think I get that

Brettney: Do you want me to go further into it (for the sake of the gravity of it's place in the film)? Or would you rather have the underlying understanding of what that means?

Me: Oh go on! I want all your thoughts! I’ll respond to everything in order

Brettney: Hahaha awesome! There is no denying that this film, while dealing with oppression, also deals with it's physical and mental repercussions. We feel anxiety when Nyung'o's character feels her moments of anxiety. We feel irrational thinking/action when Peele's character performs it on the screen. We feel scared during this movie because so many of us (North Americans) have been diagnosed with one mental illness or another, or ten, or just have a great deal of empathy. And so on the medical field currently, something I disagree with wholly is the idea of BIG T trauma and little t trauma. This means, my therapist will ask me "...but was it reasonable to have a panic attack when no one passed you the butter?" Is this a little t or a Big T or just an overreaction? And I believe it ignores the fact that for so many North Americans, and specifically Black North Americans, life itself is traumatic. And yes, maybe it is irrational to hang on to "small grievances," but what happens when you have 500 or 1000 small grievances in a day? Can you be held accountable for the pile of trash taking up your physical brain space? How can we look at traumatizing moments - of fear, of dissent, of loss of emotional understanding - and treat them as the heap they are when we create a hierarchy around them. A stranger felt me up on the subway, "so what, worse has happened." I was abandoned by my parents, "that was a long time, let it go." I was held hostage while someone I thought I loved brutally abused me, "now we're listening." It makes no sense to compartmentalize pain, just as it makes no sense to compete for which story is the worst. Who can cry more. Who has felt more pain. Because we've all felt deep pain and it comes with the difficult task of living. Trauma is trauma and I believe that's the end of it.

Me: I like your introduction to this hierarchical talk because the film has a fascinating take on the way we now react to horror. I was laughing to myself the other day about Winston Duke recounting his body count with utter boredom to the rest of the family. The threat nullified he can only say, humorlessly, “no, I killed my self,” before rattling off the names of the close friends and colleagues whose doppelgängers he murdered. Peele proved in his sketch/character work on Key and Peele that he’s thoroughly digested the way we talk and live now, but Us is the first horror film to get an existential nagging now at the edge of our trauma now. It’s not simply that we all suffer (though that’s in there - even our manufactured negative images have existential crisis) it’s that the suffering has the quality of white noise. It’s everywhere all the time. When the tethered finally show up they’re confirmation that a lifetime of expecting things to get worse was justified because they can always get worse, which gets back to your point. Things can get worse so why worry about how bad they’ve been? 

Few directors of genre have the character of millennial depression, the moral vacuity foisted on us by the destruction of the natural world and the erosion of morays when there was a chance to renew American morality after Jim Crow. The movie putting so much importance on the banal feelgoodery of Hands across America is not accidental. In the middle of the republican party sculpting American social politics and domestic policy into a perfect system for disenfranchising black people (among others obviously). A computer programmed to keep the lower classes predominantly non-white (and the whites in that bracket fearful of blacks, Asians and Latinos - as well as sewing discord among those groups (LA Riots)) couldn’t have done a more mathematically perfect job of it than Republicans did in the 80s. Clinton’s Presidency was a brief reprieve at best, but I digress. The point is in the middle of that are absolutely meaningless gestures (Sun City, Hands Across America) that tried to tie us together even as we killed each other with policy. Us is most directly about the rift opened up in possibility. America could have become something else. Instead it became the hideous shadow of its past. Slavery? abolished, except not. Segregation? over, except not. Redlining and Gerrymandering? Whoops. And on and on and on. Us pulls up the things we pretend don’t exist out of politeness (Elisabeth Moss’ callous fake truth telling shtick putting the kind of nonsensical truths we tell in the interest of being our true selves.) and give them the fullness of being but an emptiness of purpose. Because you can’t fight a concept, you have to kill it in yourself. It’s the fallacy of a concept like the “war on terror” given human form. How do you kill the bad parts of the human condition? You can’t. You can kill your worst self but there you are, so where did it go, really? White allies can claim to be above the intangible hatreds that plague the rest of white people, but there always is the tethered self. You can say you’ve killed it but what have you done? Where is that self now?  I notice I’m driving in several different directions now but that’s part of why I love this movie: it’s brimming like a ramen pot with subtextual maybes.

Brettney: Did I mention I love you? Lol

Me: What do you make of him starting the film with Janelle and ending with Minnie Ripperton?

Brettney: I don't think I exactly noticed that, but now that you mention it I feel like that juxtaposition really sets the tone, in a lot of ways, but specifically about blackness in all of it's best and worst iterations. Minnie Ripperton was wayyy before her time, and so is Monae. And both of these artists venture in their own ways, outside of the box marked "black"

And there’s a sense of undoing the past (which Minnie Ripperton represents and transcends) in the film. And also by sort of using tropes from 70s French horror like Night of the Hunter and Fascination, rather than American horror. Picking touchstones we didn’t appreciate in their time. The minute I picked up on the Frenchness of the atmosphere I settled in a little more, stopped looking for total narrative cohesion. This is a film about atmosphere and ideas, and I didn’t care if little things were out of place. Like the colors! My god the pallet of this film. Delicious. You could reach out and touch the reds!

That was it. That was on Sunday. Her family announced her death on her facebook page this morning. The world is killing us a little at a time. I just want my illusions back, I want to believe I'll have my people forever but I won't. So many of them are already gone. I have her words. I have my version of her and I have these windows into how her incredible brain worked. I'll need them because they'll have to last me forever now. 

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