Finding The Prophet We Need

Finding The Prophet We Need

Early in Quentin Tarantino’s career it was hard to tell what type of film-maker he’d turn out to be. His early films were so soaked in pop culture references, sly allusions and dialogue about comic book characters and the like, that the task of decoding what, if anything his films were about was a largely fruitless one. It could be argued that we still don’t know; we do know that he needs a more ruthless editor, but there seems to be little (if any) thematic consistency. Two films in to Jordan Peele’s career, we know rather more. His films so far seem equally replete with pop cultural references; there’s little sign of the ill discipline that has come to define Tarantino (though in Quentin’s defence, Pulp Fiction was just the right side of baggy. Just.); and whilst we can see the fingerprints of Tarantino in, for instance, Peele’s use of music, we can also see the larger themes he’s reaching for. It helps that Peele is sticking to the horror genre; but taking Peele’s calling card of Get Out and his second film Us together, it’s apparent that he may well be one of the key film-makers of the era. He may also, it seems, be the prophet our times need.

Whereas Get Out was clearly and obviously about race, Us could be about any number of things. Peele has been articulate about how this is in itself a breakthrough – a major film by a black film-maker with black leads that isn’t about race shows, he says, a development in the conversation. The way Us appears to light up like a forcefield whichever of a number of themes you bring near it could be a weakness, and lead to a game of decoding that causes viewers to lose the power of the film’s concerns; for me, that would be a mistake from the viewer rather than Peele, but I can see why it may be a problem.

Us movie

Let’s be clear; Us is scary, funny, technically brilliant, stuffed with standout performances, and profound. Is it better than Get Out? Who knows. That seems a daft game to play. Like Get Out, you can decode any number of cultural and genre reference points; I’ll throw one in to the ring I haven’t seen mentioned (yet) – HG Wells’s ‘The Time Machine‘, the science-fiction book that more or less created the time travel sub-genre. The influence here isn’t in time travel; but rather, to me, in something hinted at in the film’s opening shot that becomes a central part of the film’s plot. I’ll say no more on that for fear of spoilers.

It’s an adrenaline ride, for sure. A home invasion movie, a doppelgänger movie, a family in crisis drama, a slyly satirical/comic take on and deconstruction of the American dream, consumerism, capitalism, celebrity charity drives (prefiguring the Insta-charity brigade); it touches too on animal testing. Like many horror movies it looks at the consequences of early trauma on later life, throwing in a dose of imposter syndrome for good measure.

For me it says most about privilege. During apartheid in South Africa, the governing party banned any art that would be deemed to subvert their rule. Sometimes they missed the point. Bright Blue’s song ‘Weeping’ snuck through, because it appeared to be a song about a man with noisy neighbours. It was, of course, a parable; a parable about the way white South Africa kept the rest of the country at bay. In the words of the song, in the quest for peace and order, the threat of the angry underclass was stifled. The mistake made was that what they thought was anger, wasn’t; it was weeping. But if the weeping remained unheard for too long, it may well turn to anger.

That’s the thematic territory that Us seems to me to tread. As the moneyed classes bury themselves in consumption and comfort, an underclass is increasingly alienated, and increasingly desperate. The underclass might be seen as angry; in fact they are weeping. But when the weeping is unheard, and instead patronised and then forced to continue to pay the price of the privileged’s comfortable life, we watch it eventually turn to blood-soaked, murderous anger.

It should go without saying that, controversies about accents notwithstanding, Lupita Nyong’o’s central performance is remarkable; each cast member who’s asked to play two versions of the same character is similarly terrific. Elisabeth Moss is superb in her supporting role, which does not give her enough to do (but in fairness, no film gives an actress of her remarkable talents enough to do). There are jump scares to rival most, but it’s the chilling, creeping dread and the final, head-scrambling twist that lives in your (sub) conscious for days after. It has what may be the bleakest final shot since Frank Darabont’s The Mist, made bearable by the film’s well-judged wit and laugh out loud tension-breaking.

As with Get Out, Peele is tackling one of our era’s most urgent issues, calling us to listen and act before it’s too late. Whilst churches squabble, politicians drown in self-interest and celebrity culture demands its tribute, Jordan Peele may well be the prophet our times urgently need. Maybe many won’t give credence to that, soaked as his horror stories are in blood and fear; but therein lies the challenge. Prophets rarely invite us to comfort.

Have we ears to hear?


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Fear and love, Or How Horror Movies Help Me Worship

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The Bible, Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8

How many times have I heard that verse? So many.

Quoted so often, so many times, sometimes in relation to so many things that I’m doing that people think I shouldn’t be doing.

You see, there are certain types of shows and films and books that certain types of Christians think I shouldn’t be seeing or watching. Maybe it’s the language in them; maybe it’s the fact that some of them could be classified as ‘horror’. Some examples of titles I’ve enjoyed …  The PassageThe Walking DeadParanormal ActivityPenny DreadfulThe Blair Witch Project; Pan’s Labyrinth; Alien; 28 Days Later. There are plenty of others. If you’ve never heard of those, Google is (in this case) your friend.

I’ve had that verse used on me a few times. I’ve also thought more than once about if I should even write this post, admit to these interests in such a public way. Will it cause people to stumble’? Well, if it causes you to stumble then don’t read it on your phone whilst walking along a busy street.

Those titles don’t fit with that verse, I’m often told.

I’m not so sure.

Fear is true and real. I get scared, sometimes. I’m scared of bees, wasps, certain people and a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur. I know perfect love drives out fear. But that verse (the one about perfect love driving out fear) is about how we relate to God and His judgement, not movies and books (or even drone warfare or terrorism or cancer or drunk drivers or a lot of other things I’ve heard this verse misused in relation to).

Sometimes  – well, once or twice – people stop and ask me why I watch or read these things. Because I enjoy them, and they’re true. Fear is part of life; I find I know the sort of films and books I’ll enjoy and the sort I won’t. I find it helps me, makes me feel more alive – and yes, somehow more in awe of the God who holds me in His palm – if I get on a roller-coaster like the ones I’ve named. I know the roller-coaster can’t hurt me, really. I know that in watching a show about a virus outbreak (for example, about which I used to have nightmares), I know it can’t hurt me so I’m less likely to actually be fearful of it even if the show itself makes me jump and sweat and maybe even say something naughty out loud.

I find that when people use that verse on me about these shows and books and films, they usually follow it up with ideas of what I should watch or which they enjoy (and they rarely do it in a way that I would call ‘lovely’). Often I find that what they suggest to be dull, or just not very good. I have a ‘good’ degree in English literature. I read and watch ‘good’ stuff, too, by that measure. But I also know that Macbeth is about witchcraft and child murder; Hamlet is a ghost story; King Lear features an eye-gouging; I’m not even going to start on Titus Andronicus (that’s all Shakespeare, by the way). You should see some of the images John Donne uses about God. People who know about these things probably won’t be surprised to learn I have a love for the work of Shakespearean influencers/influencees John Webster and Christopher Marlowe. Have you even heard of those two? They’re two of the greater English writers. Ever. You may not have heard of them; they’re utterly brilliant, and contain some ‘fearful’ stuff. Actually, have you even read the Old Testament – properly? Some of the stuff in there doesn’t fit my definition of ‘pure and lovely’, so please leave off me a bit.

I find this stuff cleansing, cathartic, life-enhancing. I feel more alive and more thankful to my creator for it afterwards. Yes, I sleep better for it. I may still be able to physically feel the shock and fear of the season finale of The Walking Dead this year, but thinking about it helps me sleep.

I’m not expecting you to feel the same. I have no problem if you only watch things rated 13 or below. If that’s what helps you, that’s great. But I’ve arrived where I am before God, in relationship with people (especially my wife who really gets me and tells me if I’m out of line or wrong or watching something I shouldn’t). And actually there are a few Christians out there who enjoy this stuff too and could do with talking about it in church as well as out of church.

None of it defines me; none of it changes my worldview. But sometimes it makes me just a bit happier, a bit more grateful to be alive. And yes, even a bit more worshipful of the one I’m told I should love and fear at the same time.