With his newest film, ‘Us,’ director Jordan Peele has terrified America once again and created what will surely become a cult classic for the horror genre. This is Peele’s second film, and it continues the theme of psychological horror which characterized “Get Out.” The film follows a family on vacation who is terrorized by their doppelgangers.
‘Us’ has received rave reviews overall, but one particular news story has marred the film’s winning streak. The star of the film, actress Lupita Nyong’o, is caught up in controversy over her choices of study for one of her characters: Red, the major antagonist of the film. In an interview with Variety at the Los Angeles premiere of ‘Us,’ Nyong’o said that she studied various vocal conditions and injuries such as vocal cord hemorrhaging in order to get the rough, scratchy voice which Peele envisioned for Red.
One of these studies was the voice of John F. Kennedy Jr. who has spasmodic dysphonia. This is a neurological condition born from emotional, physical or mental trauma which causes the vocal cords to spasm and take in air in an inconsistent, choked pattern. Nyong’o heard Kennedy speak at a fashion event and felt that his voice matched what Peele was looking for.
The National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association responded to Nyong’o’s statement, condemning her choice of inspiration for the terrifying role. They said, “Spasmodic dysphonia is not a creepy voice, it’s not a scary voice. It’s a disability that people are living with and […] shouldn’t be judged on.”
I do not believe that Nyong’o’s choice to utilize a disability was calculated, but this does not change the fact that the impact is still real and harmful. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi also spoke out against Nyongo saying, “Connecting disabilities to characters who are evil further marginalises people with disabilities, who also have significant abilities and want to contribute to their communities just like anyone else.”
The bottom line here is that this is a disability that people live with every day. Whether or not Nyong’o had any ill intent, she used that disability to characterize a villainous role in a world where disabilities are already stigmatized. It is all too commonplace for films to give an antagonist a mental illness or disability which inevitably becomes the cause of their actions or general villainy. A prime example of this is ‘Psycho,’ directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The main character, Norman Bates, possesses multiple personality disorder and it ultimately becomes the driving force of his violence in the film.
A good example of an actor who portrayed a character that is in the same boat vocally is Andy Serkis, with his role of Gollum in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies. His voice is unsettling: raspy, growling, and guttural, not unlike what Peele was looking for in the portrayal of Red. The difference here is that Serkis chose to draw on animals for inspiration. In an interview with The Guardian in 2002, Serkis said “… The way he speaks […] The way he is tortured is in his throat, it’s in this constriction in his throat… and I looked at animals like cats who have those movements.” When talking to a group of children about the role, Serkis told them that he was trying to replicate the sounds and movements a cat makes, “when [they] get a furball stuck in their throat.”
Even when concerning the multiple identities that Gollum possesses, Serkis did not study or reference individuals with multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia to use in his role. He analyzed the lines and situations closely in order to pinpoint the emotion and motivation, and he used that to characterize his vocal portrayals of Gollum’s two identities.
Nyong’o has since spoken about her actions, stating, “It’s a very marginal group of people who suffer from this … The thought that I would, in a way, offend them was not my intention.”
She continued by explaining her choice and formally apologizing. “I really wanted to ground [Red] in something that felt real. For all that, I say sorry to anyone that I may have offended.” While Nyong’o is not the first person in Hollywood to use a disability for characterization, this does not lessen her impact on perpetuating the association of disabilities with evil characters and actions in films.