Profiles in Communication: Jordan Peele

In our continuing series of Profiles in Communication, we look for masters of visual storytelling and crafting messages.  So far, we’ve looked at creators whose work spanned decades, and whose output created a clear roadmap of their style and design preferences over time.  Some directors, however, don’t need forty years to create a unique, individual style that’s quickly recognizable as their own.  Jordan Peele has, with just two films, defined himself as a principled, focused filmmaker with a truly personal style.  Let’s take a look at the message and the visual storytelling in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us.  

In Get Out, we follow Chris Washington, a black man meeting his white girlfriend Rose’s family for the first time.  Though they appear accepting and ‘nice’ at first, the family’s entire worldview is a racist nightmare. It’s one that Chris must fight his way through to survive.  Masterfully, the film blends reality, scares, and comedy into a single strong message: racism exists in all walks of life, and some of the worst offenders are those we think we can trust to be better.

Peele’s second film, Us, took a more bizarre premise to express a different kind of message.  It follows the story of Adelaide Wilson’s attempt to protect her family from a family of bizarre doppelgängers. It takes viewers through themes of family, overcoming past trauma, identity, and more.  In the end, Peele’s message echoes off the screen: How do we handle a confrontation with ourselves?  What does it mean to be the ‘real’ version of yourself?

Engaging and Unique Stories

Articulating these messages is a great start to examining the design principles of Jordan Peele’s visual storytelling.  The principles of story, voice, color, and surprise reveal a clarity of purpose and intent in Peele’s work. Many directors lack this even though their careers are far lengthier.

Looking first at story, Peele’s narratives reinforce their message through relatable protagonists with goals that make sense.  Chris wants Rose’s parents to like him; when that goal becomes clearly impossible, it shifts to survival, and finally justice.  Adelaide wants her family to survive the night, so her goal of protecting her children and husband flows naturally.  

Yet both of these stories are more surface-level than they seem—they’re real for the characters, but metaphors for the audience.  Chris doesn’t win just because he survives; he wins for now, but racism is too large of a problem to disappear after a single conflict.  Adelaide, similarly, might achieve her goal, but the questions raised by her surreal encounters remain.

These open-ended stories reveal that both films might actually share an overarching message. The biggest problems in our society are, well, societal. The magnitude of the personal or familial victory doesn’t matter. We need the concern and action of the world at large to achieve lasting change.

Peele’s Characters all Speak with Purpose

Peele is also a master of the principle of voice.  Peele is meticulous not only in his casting, but in his writing of dialogue. He is Dedicated to finding the exact right vocal delivery for his scripts. In Get Out, we see actor Daniel Kaluuya change his tone and word choice when talking to Rose’s parents. He sounds very different than he does when he talks to his friend Rod.  The white characters are either uncomfortable or condescending around Chris, and he changes his voice and vernacular to avoid unpleasant and awkward exchanges.

In Us, Adelaide’s double, Red, speaks in an intensely idiosyncratic meter. It’s staggered, gritty, rasping, and punctuated with deep inhales and vocal pops.  Since she looks like Adelaide (and both are played by the brilliant Lupita Nyong’o), Red’s voice is an unmissable signpost that says “This one’s the dangerous one”.  The rest of the family have similar vocal distortion. Her husband Gabe’s double can only roar, and her children’s doubles are silent.

Color Works on Many Levels

Then, there’s Peele’s use of color.  In Get Out, he uses colors that match his message by coding elements of the frame as black and white.  The contrast is ever-present, just as difference is at the forefront of the characters’ minds.  With Us, Peele went closer to using color in the principled way we do at TruScribe; he chose an accent color.

The red jumpsuits worn by the doppelgängers (called ‘the Tethered’ in the movie) grab the eye and focus the viewer’s attention immediately.  And we need to focus when we see red. The Tethered are far too threatening to miss.

Peele’s use of red also reflects his message, albeit darkly. The red-clothed Tethered have a unified look, purpose, and plan, while the Wilson family are highly individualized.  Whatever the Tethered want, they’ve got a better chance of getting it.  They’re taking collective action, addressing their grievances together, and that means they might just pull it off. Whatever ‘it’ is (don’t worry, no spoilers).  Oh, and remember Adelaide’s double?  Let’s just say her name is no accident.

What’s a Horror Movie without Surprise?

Finally, the principle of surprise is foundational to Peele’s work.  It not only triggers curiosity-boosting dopamine and increases engagement, it’s the most common emotion in his stories.  In Get Out, it’s not just surprising that Rose’s parents are racist; it’s much more of a surprise when we learn the extent of their prejudice.  

Us functions like a parade of surprises. We’re stunned at the impossible existence of the Tethered, surprised by their wild and aggressive behavior, and shocked by the turns of the last act (again, no spoilers).  Peele keeps his audience fully engaged by guaranteeing that they’ll never know what’s coming next.

Working Together with Design Principles

At TruScribe, we believe that every element of your project should serve your message, above all else.  Jordan Peele seems to feel the same way about his films.  With just two pictures, he’s created a unifying message that works differently when worked into each one’s carefully crafted story.  Moreover, he’s reinforced that message with the principled use of color and voice. He’s also packed his films with surprise to maintain audience engagement with that message.

It doesn’t take a decades-long career in visual storytelling to develop a distinctive, powerful approach to content creation.  In just two films, Jordan Peele has become one of the premiere filmmakers to watch as he continues his career.  From writing the new Candyman that’s debuting this year, to executive producing the upcoming show Lovecraft Country, you can be sure we’ll see more of Peele’s distinctive messaging and delivery very soon.

“They mean well, but… they have no idea what real people will go through,” says a particularly self-aware villain in Get Out.  It perfectly sums up the conflict in the film, and it subtly implies the solution. Those “real people” are the ones Peele cares about.  When we address our problems as a whole, we can make real change. Hopefully, Peele will continue to spread this message in his art for years to come.