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The sins we bury are at the core of Jordan Peele's 'Us'

"We're Americans." Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright, Evan Alex, and Lupita Nyong'o in 'Us.'

Not too long ago, I went out with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while to meet some people she knew at a club. It was a cold night, like see-your-own-breath freezing cold, and as we left to pile into a car, a homeless man with a shopping cart approached the group. I pulled out the little bit of cash I had left and gave it to him. It wasn’t much money at all, but it was all I had on me. And in my mind, if it allowed the guy to stand inside a gas station and get a cup of coffee to stay warm, it was a small kindness. My friend is one of those people who throws around words like “woke,” will read self-help books about expanding one’s mind, and watches white dudes with dreads talking about the 11 dimensions of spiritual consciousness on YouTube and somehow believes she’s found the keys to the secrets of the universe. She’s also the type of person who has always rebuffed every attempt I’ve ever made to get her to care about politics on the grounds that “it’s all bullshit.”

As we sat in the car for a moment, the conversation among her and her friends turned to who was fucking whom, whose relationship was going to shit, and all of the inane gossip which fills the air at three in the morning between people slightly buzzed from drinking. It was then the homeless man approached the car, asking for a few dollars more, and started polishing the car’s wheels. But the people in that car were so far up their own asses in stupid crap, they didn’t give a shit. Maybe the homeless man was just looking for another handout. Maybe I’m forcing an expectation on her and everyone else that I couldn’t fulfill myself. But it was the way my friend dismissed someone freezing in front of her which disgusted me. For all of her spiritual, mumbo-jumbo, woke bullshit, at the end of the day, there was a side of her which is really ugly and selfish. 

There is a side which she projects to the world, and a shadow which is beneath the surface.

After the success of Key & Peele, Jordan Peele proved he could do more than just make people laugh with his directorial debut Get Out, which was both critically acclaimed and a box office success. Get Out is a “social thriller” in which the horror scenario is a way for the story to expound into a damning satire about objectification and exploitation of black people and black culture, while assailing a type of white liberal guilt that talks a good game but does nothing to change anything. With his second outing as director, Us bases its action around a family being terrorized by violent doppelgängers attempting to take their place. The film is just as full of subtext as Get Out, but this time it’s a contemplation about the nature of how we define ourselves as persons, and the ways it spirals out into the lies we want to believe about societies and countries.

The nightmare imagined in Us is an American nightmare.

Thirty-three years ago, a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is spending the evening at a Santa Cruz, California, boardwalk carnival with her parents. As her parents squabble, Adelaide wanders off into a hall of mirrors fun house which beckons her to “Find Yourself.” Things take a turn towards The Twilight Zone when she is terrified to encounter a flesh-and-blood copy of herself.

In the present day, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is happily married to Gabe (Winston Duke) and the mother of two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), all of them en route to the family’s beach house. They are meeting up with their not-so-happily married friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), who have two teen girls, and everything seems like a quaint but realistic vision of a family vacation: a little bit goofy and corny, with some smiles and happiness. But a return to the same beach from 33 years back reveals that whatever Adelaide saw has had a lasting impact. Shortly thereafter, four doppelgängers, calling themselves “The Tethered” and mirroring Adelaide’s family, arrive in the driveway wearing red jumpsuits, one brown glove, and wielding gold scissors, ready to take the family’s place.

Each of the Tethered are fun-house mirror versions of their copy, with the actors—especially Nyong’o—doing a great job of differentiating the multiple iterations. Adelaide’s doppelgänger “Red” is the only one of the Tethered who speaks. When the Tethered first sit down with Adelaide and her family, they ask an obvious question: “Who are you?” Red answers: “We’re Americans.”

Madison Curry as young Adelaide in "Us," written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele.
The title ‘Us’ has multiple meanings. It can mean “us,” as in first-person plural, audience, characters, and filmmakers alike, or “us” as in abbreviation for the United States.

If the first two acts play out like a little bit Body Snatchers and a little bit of Funny Games with a sprinkling of the songs Good Vibrations and Fuck Tha Police sprinkled on top as people are massacred, then the explanation for what’s going on in the third act cements the story as one about self-reflection and selective amnesia when it comes to national character. Various pop culture elements tie into this notion, most prominently the 1986 Hands Across America anti-poverty event.

Are the doubles meant as representations of our darker selves? Are they the pieces of our psyche we choose not to confront? Are they indicative of the bifurcated nature of modern America, and the divisions that have been created? Or are they together a collective ugly truth which builds and builds until it manifests in an apocalyptic ways our society can pull itself apart? ... Take your pick.

Jeremiah 11:11 — “Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them.”

From this point forward I’m going to get a little spoilery with things. So if you haven’t seen the film yet, intend to do so, and don’t want spoilers, you might want to stop right here.

Spoilers beyond this point!

The Tethered are revealed as clones, who share a soul with the original person and are forced to live out approximations of “real” life without any agency over their own bodies or identities, as part of some sort of abandoned government experiment. This is ripe for metaphor and allusions (e.g., underground slavery). A huge theme of the film is the tendency of people and institutions to forget their own past, whether it be the small slights of being shitty to people, or the grand ones which end in genocide. They’re things which tend to get papered over in memories and history books when looking back. 

And this tendency to forget is central to the relationship between Adelaide and Red.

The film’s biggest twist comes when it’s revealed Red is really the original Adelaide, and the Adelaide we’ve known the entire film is the copy which replaced little Adelaide 33 years ago. The moment where Adelaide kills Red is not a moment of relief or enjoyment for the audience. And in the aftermath, Adelaide does what she’s been doing over the past 33 years: She tries to forget and pretend it never happened.

Jordan Peele: "I think rabbits and scissors, they're both scary things to me, and both inane things, so I love subverting and bringing out the scariness in things you wouldn't necessarily associate with that."
  • The significance of rabbits and scissors: Peele has explained the scissors as having a “duality,” in which they are both a tool and a weapon which makes them “mundane and the absolutely terrifying.” Also, with the name of the clones being “The Tethered” the scissors represents a cutting of their ties to the originals. Also, in Greek myth, the Fates cut the thread of a person's life - what tethers them to this world - with scissors. Rabbits have a symbolic dual meaning within the movie as well, with Peele saying rabbits are both cute and scary, looking like “sociopaths.” Within the story, the rabbits are the underground food source for the Tethered, but are also lab “animals” just like the Tethered. There are also multiple theories about the rabbits having more hidden meanings, including possibly being a reference to Ōkunoshima, an island once used by the Japanese for chemical weapons testing which has been overrun by rabbits. 
  • Capitalism and socialism: If Get Out was a meditation on race in an allegedly “post-racial America,” Us concerns itself more with ideas surrounding class. To that end, many have interpreted us as a critique of capitalism. For example, some see in Us the idea of Michel de Montaigne’s 1580 essay “Le profit de l’un est dommage de l’autre” (“The Profit of One Is Harm to the Other”). If capitalism is predicated on “winners” and “losers,” what if anything is owed the losers if they’ve been affected by our actions? On the other side of things is Breitbart, where their review of the film claims Us has an “anti-socialist theme.” And if one wants to over-analyze this thing to death, their are multiple political interpretations of the Tethered. Are they an underclass rising up to overthrow the people who’ve made their existence miserable? Or are they a violent, Trump-like base lashing out at the American status-quo towards an end result which makes no sense at all? 
  • The VHS tapes: As the film opens, a television is seen with various VHS tapes of movies surrounding it. The films are significant to the plot of Us.

That isn’t chump change, but it’s a drop in the bucket of the problem of actually trying to fight hunger. Is there anything more American than thinking you’ve solved a problem by creating a gigantic spectacle that accomplishes less than you’d think? Again — something dark is covered up by something glossy, and we celebrate the glossy surface.

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