For Your Consideration: Winston Duke’s Howard Sweatshirt in Us

Photo: Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

There’s an argument to be made that in Us, Gabe Wilson is the movie’s [quickly Googles, “What’s the opposite of an MVP, again?”] most helpless character. When a shadowy family shows up at the top of his beach-house driveway, he dismisses any sign of danger at first, before trotting out with nothing but a baseball bat to confront them. When he’s finally face to face with the guests — in all their, Looks just like us, glory — he rather politely offers his wife’s evil doppelgänger his wallet. (So she can do what, exactly? Make a midnight run to Target?) Later, when he’s struggling in the bow of a boat with his own tethered double, he fires off a flare gun, a move that does absolutely … nothing. Winston’s Duke’s thighs were working overtime (bless them) but Winston Duke’s character? Thank you, next.

That is, except for one important detail: As early as Us’s first trailer, Duke’s character introduces audiences to the movie’s most noticeable shorthand. The geeky father wears a Howard University sweatshirt throughout the movie, a constant reminder of exactly what kind of guy he is: smart, honorable, probably a little bougie. Through all the horror (i.e., Gabe’s fights with his tethered twin and Tim Heidecker’s tethered twin) this sweatshirt clings to Winston Duke’s thicc body. You are meant to notice this particular piece of clothing’s performance.

According to Us costume-designer Kym Barrett, the sweatshirt isn’t actually a real Howard University pullover available for purchase, but a design based on real Howard merch that was replicated for the movie’s needs. “In the end we tweaked it a little bit, but it was basically chosen for its simplicity,” she said. “We just did little things like change the colors, and aged it down.”

Nonetheless, the altered sweatshirt does its job. When it appeared onscreen at an #UsFirst screening in New York City — for black writers and influencers only — people took notice. “Man you went to Howard, you should know better,” someone whispered urgently when Gabe’s dumb decisions started to pile up. A Howard University student who saw the movie at an advance screening two days before the movie’s release (with Duke, Jordan Peele, and Lupita Nyong’o in attendance) observed similar reactions: “A lot of the Howard people, especially the men in the audience were yelling, ‘Don’t do that, shoot them!’”  film student Skylar Anthony told Vulture. “They all pretty much had the same mindset of how to keep themselves alive … [they] were yelling complete opposite to what [Gabe] was doing.”

Some Howard students were split on whether or not the sweatshirt communicated anything more specific about Gabe’s character: “I wouldn’t say there’s a set depiction of how someone would act if they went to Howard,” second-semester freshman Scyler Wolfe said. “Yes, the character is your wannabe American Dream dad, but I feel like it doesn’t mean anything about his attendance at Howard, per se. He was a quite gullible character at times but he also was a loveable and caring character. The character digs deeper than just where he went to school.”

Kyndall Flowers, meanwhile, had sweatshirt-wearing Gabe pegged as a student of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. “This is like the school you go to when you’re not a business major, or you’re not trying to be a doctor, basically,” she said. “I would say, personally, that he’s an English major. Because there are like 13 of us, and we’re all just like, trying our best out here. We’re English majors so obviously not all of our decisions would have been, um, as productive as they could have been.”

Ask Winston Duke himself, and he’ll go long on the Howard University sweatshirt and what exactly it means to his character. “It goes to show their connection to community and identity, and that even that identity does not free them or absolve them from consequence,” Duke explained. “They are attached to the American Dream, a construct that has oppressed them, and they’ve been on the bottom half of that in their lives. Once you attach yourself to that construct you then become responsible for its sins. And when Judgment Day comes, you have to pay for it.”

“Any of us who don’t consider our position, and what our position is in cultures of power — as long as we participate directly or indirectly, we then become responsible for the thing that we attach ourselves to,” he concluded. “I think [the sweatshirt] just further highlights that idea.”

With that endorsement, it becomes clear that Gabe’s Howard University sweatshirt is Us’s greatest unbilled star. So much so that all three Howard students reported that their entire theater quoted the sweatshirt’s (well, Gabe’s) most hilarious line from the trailer when it finally played on the big screen: “If you want to get crazy, we can get crazy.”

Nate Jones contributed reporting.

The Significance of Winston Duke’s Howard Sweatshirt in Us