Essays · Movies

What Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Captures About Inequality

Jordan Peele’s new nightmare shows us that horror’s potential empathy is often under-appreciated.
Us Jordan Peele
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on March 26th, 2019

Note: The following article contains spoilers for Jordan Peele’s Us.

“Horror isn’t about extreme sadism; it’s about extreme empathy.” – Joe Hill

Immediately after watching Us the night it opened, I reserved a showing to watch it again the following morning. There was no doubt about it: I loved the movie, but I had to see it again with the ending in mind. True to its central theme of duality, Us is made to be seen at least twice. One of the remarkable things about it is the seemingly endless theories and observations the movie has already spawned, much like the rabbits that are part of its tapestry of imagery.

Us‘s opening text states that there are abandoned transit systems, tunnels, and the like all over the United States that serve no known purpose, which is based on truth. This is much like how George A. Romero and Rod Serling took truths as a jumping-off point for larger socio-political messages. But Us writer/director Jordan Peele has his own unique voice and leans into the thematic material here much in the same way he did with Get Out. The biological mechanisms of the zombie outbreak in Romero’s work or a concrete explanation of the strange phenomena in Serling’s work aren’t paramount to understanding the central message of either thing. In the ambiguity of the story is the potential for viewers to infer things for themselves.

Us begins in 1986 with Adelaide as a young girl (Madison Curry) watching a commercial about Hands Across America. The charitable stunt was real and involved the coordination of many groups to form a human chain by holding hands from the east to the west coast of the United States. The goal was to raise money for the hungry and homeless. Hands Across America raised $34 million in total, but only $15 million of it was actually donated to those in need. Five million people in total participated, one of them being President Ronald Reagan — the hypocrisy of which was not lost on activists such as Mitch Snyder who remarked, “We resent him standing there grabbing hands like he’s part of the effort to eliminate homelessness and hunger. He’s part of the problem.” There’s a difference between a performative gesture and actually enacting change. Inequality of classes is a major theme of the story.

Us transitions to the Santa Cruz pier with Adelaide accompanied by her parents Rayne (Anna Diop) and Russel (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Adelaide wanders away and ends up lost inside a “Vision Quest” maze wherein she encounters her doppelgänger, “Red.” The incident traumatizes her and sets the stage for the day of “Untethering.” Years later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) are back at Adelaide’s family beach house for a vacation. There is a peculiar feeling that Adelaide can’t seem to shake. She initially rejects Gabe’s plans to go to the beach to see their friends, the Tylers, but caves after he pleads his case.

There’s a palpable tension that builds as the Wilsons drive over to the pier. Adelaide struggles to make conversation with Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), while Gabe and Josh (Tim Heidecker) catch up with each other, and Zora and Jason are forced to interact with their daughters Becca (Cali Sheldon) and Lindsey (Noelle Sheldon). The Tylers are the embodiment of the upper class in America. This is in direct contrast with the Wilsons who are very much the embodiment of the middle class. This is reflected in their material things we see on screen; from their vehicles to their beach homes to their boats. It nags at Gabe, which we can see in the one-upmanship between him and Josh that plays as humor on the surface but carries meaning beneath it. As the Wilsons wind down that night, Adelaide shares for the first time with Gabe what happened at Santa Cruz in 1986 and that she doesn’t feel like herself. The feeling of distress over being an “imposter” resonates with me.

I grew up in the lower class bracket, my family gradually moved up to the middle-class bracket, and we crashed back down to the lower class when the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 happened. It’s hard to focus on your studies and have a social life when you have to worry about basic necessities. Society vilifies and mocks those less fortunate. I survived when I had little thanks to assistance. The very same assistance that’s ridiculed and placed on the chopping block to “cut expenses.” With help, I was able to make my way through college, find a job that paid more than minimum wage, and gradually work my way up to the middle-class bracket. But there’s still a part of me that’s terrified of falling back down. It is easy to plummet in class and incredibly hard to climb back up. Along with that fear is the thought that I’m an “imposter” and there is someone out there more deserving of what I have.

The tension boils over with the Wilsons’ beach home being invaded by their doppelgängers, Red (Nyong’o), Abraham (Duke), Umbrae (Joseph), and Pluto (Alex). They’re referred to as the “Tethered.” We learn more about the Tethered as Us progresses, but the bulk of what they are—or perhaps what Red infers they are— is revealed later. In the final confrontation between Red and Adelaide, it’s said that the Tethered were a failed experiment left to rot in the previously mentioned abandoned underground tunnels. The Tethered are like broken marionettes, discarded by those that created them, dragged through the motions of their counterparts above them. Perhaps the rabbits in the cages throughout the underground bunkers that the Tethered feed on to survive were part of prototype experiments before they moved on to humans?

The opening credits of Us begin with a close-up of rabbits inside cages and at a slow pace the shot zooms out to reveal multiple columns upon columns of rabbits in cages. The story unfolds in much of the same way. Things spiral outward until the film’s final image of the Tethered forming a human chain that extends far beyond our view. It’s a reflection of us. It’s a reflection of the barriers between socioeconomic class in America and how marginalized groups are pushed out of sight. The system is rigged to perpetuate the wealth of the wealthy and oppress the less fortunate. The greed of a few causes the suffering of many.

At the center of this spiral is a deeply personal revenge story between Adelaide and Red. The finale of Us reveals what was foreshadowed from the start: the two were switched on that fateful night in 1986. The real Adelaide was left in place of Red. “You could have taken me with you,” Red (Adelaide) says in her final moments. It’s a haunting line. The system turns us against each other time after time; tragic end after tragic end. The swap between Adelaide and Red is a crucial part of the story. It blurs the line we originally defined between the two. We empathize with both Adelaide and Red with that reveal, and that’s the point.

It’s a moment of extreme empathy. In Get Out, it’s when the flashing red and blue lights approach Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) during the film’s climax. No matter our background, we’re right there with Chris, holding our breaths and on the edge of our seats, hoping that it’s not what it appears to be. Us subverts the home invasion concept of horror much like Get Out subverts the possession concept of the same genre. Things are not what they appear to be, and it’s only with careful examination that we can reflect and do better. That human chain of Tethered is seemingly endless, perhaps to indicate that our society is doomed to keep perpetuating the same thing. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Adores storytelling and raccoons. Fought the void but the void won.