Yes, black films can be successful. Why is everyone surprised about Us?

There is nothing surprising about the success of Us (Picture: Monkeypaw Productions)

Jordan Peele’s doppelganger horror movie Us dominated the box office over its opening weekend.

You only have to look at box office trends over the last few years to realise there is nothing surprising about the success of Us. The precedent has been well established and the landscape of popular cinema has actually been steadily shifting for some time.

In the US, Peele’s second film grossed an estimated $70.3 million (£53.3m) – more than tripling its production budget, exceeding all industry expectations and more than doubling the opening weekend figures for his directorial debut Get Out.

It’s the biggest ever opening for an original horror movie, and the second-biggest opening for a live-action film of any genre – just falling short of James Cameron’s $77 million (£58.4m) opening weekend for Avatar in 2009.

It is an unequivocal, record-smashing success. It is fantastic, it is historic and it is certainly a cause for celebration – but what it definitely isn’t, is surprising.

Why then, are the headlines determined to label Peele’s movie as a ‘shock’ success?

CNN wrote, ‘Jordan Peele surprises Hollywood again’, and the Hollywood Reporter said, ‘Jordan Peele’s “Us” opens to shocking $70.3M’. But what is everyone so shocked about?

Black audiences have been starved of varied, nuanced narratives that reflect their own experiences (Picture: Universal)

The reality is that black-led cinema is more than having a moment.

Last year, Marvel’s Black Panther triggered global hype and racked up record ticket sales. In 2017 Girls Trip became the first film produced by, written by and starring African-Americans to break the $100 million (£75.9m) mark. Get Out earned $255 million (£193.6m) in total, making it the second-biggest R-rated horror movie ever in North America.

And it isn’t just the box office proving that black-led cinema can have monumental success – the critics are on-side too. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight won Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars, and Daniel Kaluuya was nominated for his lead role in Get Out, with Peele winning Best Original Screenplay.

Historically, black success is often met with suspicion. And these headlines are the Hollywood equivalent of the police pulling over a black man because he’s driving a nice car.

This year, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was nominated for Best Picture and won Best Adapted Screenplay. Black Panther was also in the running for Best Picture – which is an astounding feat for a mainstream superhero blockbuster.

And it goes beyond the last few years. Waiting to Exhale was a breakout success when it was released more than 20 years ago, earning $81.5 million (£61m) internationally. Reginald Hudlin’s 1992 romcom Boomerang also did some serious box office numbers.

Directors and filmmakers have proved time and time again that black-led narratives are undeniably commercially viable.

There is a hungry and engaged audience of black and minority consumers who have been starved of varied, nuanced and positive narratives that reflect their own experiences – and we now know that if these stories are allowed to be told, these audiences will come out to support them in their droves.

And it isn’t only black and minority audiences that are willing to engage with black-led cinema – the appeal of movies like Get Out and Black Panther are wide-ranging and their reach is global.

Us isn’t about race. It just happens to star a black family as the protagonists. So the resounding success of Peele’s latest movie proves that audiences don’t only want to engage with black-led movies that are about ‘blackness’.

Saying Peele’s success is a ‘surprise’ has underlying negative connotations (Picture: Universal)

The black experience on screen is slowly but surely pivoting away from struggle and suffering to allow black protagonists to be heroes, scientists, love interests – anything that white protagonists can be.

So this dogged determination to be perpetually shocked when black movies succeed is undermining this progress.

Nobody should be surprised that Us had a spectacular opening weekend, and framing Peele as an underdog director rather than a someone whose very name is becoming a franchise in its own right, is lazy at best and smacks of implicit bias.

Just as Tarantino’s and Spielberg’s names sit above the title of the movie, Peele has already proved that his name has the poster-power to draw in the big crowds.

Assuming that Peele’s success is unexpected does nothing but highlight a personal opinion that black-led narratives are of lesser value – because the figures have categorically disproved this.

Disbelief needn’t be the go-to response.

‘Amazing’, ‘incredible’, ‘historic’ are all equally appropriate adjectives to describe a record-breaking result, without any of the underlying negative connotations of ‘surprised’.

Historically, black success is often met with suspicion. And these headlines are the Hollywood equivalent of the police pulling over a black man because he’s driving a nice car.

There has to come a point when we can collectively agree that black-led cinema isn’t a fad, it isn’t a trend and it isn’t going anywhere. So we don’t need to treat Us, Black Panther, Get Out et al. as anomalies.

Black-led movies have been killing it for more than a minute now and it’s time that critics and the media start recognising and respecting the consistency of that success.

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