Sometimes Jordan Peele wants us to hear Black Vernacular English
by Nicholas Dodig
A colorblind society assumes that the color of one’s skin does and should not affect opportunity. What about the idea of color deafness—the idea that people would turn a deaf year to way people speak (what’s called their sociolect) as to not take note of their race and class? Jordan Peele, a 42-year-old director from New York, has established himself as a comic, and one of the most prominent horror film directors of the past ten years. His first blockbuster film, Get Out, was an allegorical tale reflecting on the state of racism in the United States. His second film, Us, posted nearly identical numbers in the box office; however, Us did not tackle racism as directly as his first film, but it acts once again as an allegory of race relations in America. Peele also plays, cleverly and potently, with what is called Black Vernacular English (BVE)
One of the first examples in popular culture of color deafness stems from the end of World War II. Max Shulman writes about the occurrence of an all-black cast, unbeknownst to listeners, for a radio drama The Face which challenged the typical notions of a Black way of speaking and made strides towards racial equality and the elimination of certain societal constructs. With listeners unaware of the performer’s race, especially during a time where Jim Crow laws were still dividing black and white Americans, performers were evaluated on their acumen rather than their race. The radio show was originally supposed to show actors as artists first, and black people second because talent was often neglected during this time period due to race. Moreover, the production director for this show ensured that there would be no display of social consciousness or any sort of “black” dialect. This was intentional because of the time period where it was better to, “[deny] racial distinctions in favor of a transcendent democratic national identity.” The actors’ performances put on a display of color deafness which challenged the societal construct of a “black voice,” and accomplished its goal by demonstrating the talent of black actors.
In an interview about Us, Peele insisted that the film was not about race; however, he noted the importance of casting an all-black family as the main characters in a film. Specifically, he spoke about the importance of finding and nurturing black talent just as the radio program did at the end of the second World War.
Jordan Peele pictured with the family from Us
For a long time in film, black actors only played insignificant roles in classic films such as Mildred Pierce where the only black actor plays the role of the maid, in line with menial tasks black Americans performed for a long time in society. Today much has changed. Directors like Peele have made good on inclusion of black talent cast in major roles—an important contribution to the shift in American and International film toward colorblind casting. In Peele’s first blockbuster, there is actually a vision-impaired art collector who seems to act as a “colorblind” character. This is especially prevalent when the main character faces the art dealer in the time leading up to his expected demise as the art dealer insists that this is not because of his race.
Apart from casting an all-black family in Us, Peele explores a new strategy of making us aware of race: through speech. In a pivotal scene, the Wilson’s are approached by their doppelgängers, there is a striking instance of code-switching. Code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation. Peele often employs code-switching in the comedy skits Key & Peele, often exaggerating the effect of black characters moving between a BVE and a mainstream or “white” American English. Code-switching between different varieties of speech draws attention to what linguists call “markedness” — a deviation from what is tacitly understood to be normative speech. A striking moment of code-switching takes place at one of the most suspenseful scenes of Us. Given the nature of this scene, which is very quiet and tension-building, Peele clearly wants the audience to notice.
Although the scene may appear as comic relief—a role that the father plays throughout most of the film—Peele inserts this instance of code-switching at a moment of great tension where dialogue is key. Get Out and Us have black actors playing black characters. Peele specifically said he would never cast a white person in a lead role as a means of promoting black talent. Yet through code-switching, Peele emphasizes the appearance of BVE’s markedness to draw attention to the problem of color deafness. Color blindness may have run its course in film and television, not least because there are now increasingly movies and shows with a multiracial cast (for example in the 2018 British adaptation of Les Miserables Inspector Javert is played by David Oleyowo.) That said, Peele’s rationale for code-switching seems ambiguous. Even as black actors are now cast in significant roles, Peele seems to say: “not so fast.” His use of Black Vernacular English newly raises the issue of colorblindness.
Indeed, if Peele has taken a provocative approach toward equality in film—one that runs first through difference, including linguistic difference, some critics seem to have noticed. Some reviews referred to the film as overly “white” given that the characters rarely speak in Black Vernacular English which is likely his goal through having characters take possession of “white speak.” Instead of having actors speak in BVE all throughout the film Peele’s code-switchings prove to be more effective in asking his audiences:”Are you really colorblind and colordeaf?”—