This past weekend, Jordan Peele’s second feature film Us opened to record numbers at the box office, once again proving our confidence in his talent as well as the need for more horror. His latest contribution takes another look at (North) American culture, but this time it’s a deep dive into who we see in the mirror and what we actually are.
Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family are on their summer vacation. She heads to her beach home along with her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), son Jason (Evan Alex), and handsome, good-natured husband Gabe (Winston Duke). It’s a good life, but the visit to Santa Cruz, California holds some traumatic memories for her. She is tense as they meet up with friends Josh (Tim Heidecker), Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), and their twin daughters on the beach; and frantic when she loses sight of her son Jason who is transfixed by a bloodied, jumpsuit-clad man gazing into the horizon. Later she tells Gabe about an incident that left her traumatized as child when she met her double in a creepy fun house on that very beach. She feels the double is still around and watching her. That evening, her worst fear is realized when her doppelgänger, and carbon copies of Adelaide’s family, appears at their home. They are called the Tethered from an unknown underworld, and they are set to terrorize the family for a larger purpose.
I had to collect my thoughts on Us for several days. I left the theatre feeling overwhelmed by the images flashed on the screen, like a rich meal sitting on the palate hours after consuming. I felt uncertain, wondering if this feast for the eyes was going to sit right; if I would like it and want another serving, and I’m pleased I can say yes to both. There are layers and layers of themes to be discussed, and you’ll find wonderful pieces online covering doppelgängers, the biblical passage of Jeremiah 11:11, and double consciousness, but what came to the surface for me was class and Impostor Syndrome.
First, some other thoughts: Peele’s central protagonists are members of a black family, leveling the playing field for me so I could concentrate on other aspects of the film like the narrative and subplots. I could actually relax into the experience instead of wondering in the back of my mind what it would be like to have a black performer play the role of Adelaide if Us had an all white cast. I’ve mentioned before in my review of the documentary Horror Noire that I felt a certain anxiety over black characters in horror because they fulfilled tropes and stereotypes instead of proper representation. Here, Peele provides a master class in representing black culture; normalizing it instead of mimicking stereotypes and appropriation. You can see this in his organic use of the song “I Got 5 On It” and the Howard University sweatshirt – two feasible and easily believable “black” signifiers. This middle-class black family defies Hollywood’s representation of blacks. There’s no guns, gangs or prostitutes, just family trauma. He also normalizes the fact that young Adelaide’s mother is concerned with her well-being enough to take her to a therapist instead of asking her to pray for guidance, an interesting secular aspect even though there is a larger biblical theme of doom and gloom connecting the plot of the film.
The performances were fantastic, and just what you would expect from Peele as a director. The film itself was funnier than I anticipated, with Duke’s endearing and heroically bumbling Gabe and the great chemistry between Joseph and Alex as siblings. All eyes, however, are on Nyong’o. Her skill at becoming two completely different people is boundless. From facial and body tics to genuine menace, she clearly shows her attention to detail and the love of her craft. Her duality is, of course, central to the film and affected me the most.
Spoilers from this point on!
If you’ve seen the film, you know that Adelaide was once a Tethered, and switched places with the real Adelaide, now called Red, when they were children. America is the land of opportunity where the fittest will survive, and Adelaide’s switch is a great allegory for the opportunistic mentality of people’s drive to get what they want. She got herself out of the tunnels and into the real world. As a result, Adelaide is constantly looking over her shoulder because she knows she isn’t in her rightful place, and she is truly an impostor. I’ve had that same feeling because Impostor Syndrome started early for me. Growing up in a white neighbourhood, I was faced with the guilt of not living in the community housing with the other black kids, and the perpetual knowledge that my family was treated like we weren’t supposed to be in the white neighbourhood. I felt clumsy in my portrayal of a black girl, not knowing the right way to finally be accepted because the black kids were suspicious of me, and the white kids said I really wasn’t black because I didn’t fit their white supremacist rules of blackness or class. I was playing a role in each arena and not getting it quite right, like Adelaide trying to snap in time to music.
To add to this feeling of a fraudulent existence, my mother told me to keep my head down and behave because if something went wrong, black children would be blamed first. She did this to protect her black daughters in an unforgiving world, but it was a cardinal rule that boxed me in with expectations and dread. Like Adelaide, I had to keep myself in check, worried that my carefully constructed world of avoidance wasn’t enough to protect my fraudulent roles, and wondering whether I would ever show my true self; if I even knew who I really was. I understood Adelaide protecting her status, identity and American Dream; to deal with her secret plus the weight of heading a successful black family.
Adelaide escaped the Tethered, a forgotten people, left to fend for themselves once the government experiment they were a part of went awry. They mimicked the upside world, every move warped, with no hope of escape. This hidden society, this powerless class found a leader in Red, who saw her opportunity to rise up and revolt by planning her own revolution based on one of the few things she remembered from her childhood, Hands Across America. This charity event to help the homeless meant well but was a bust in the end. She planned to make her version a success for her fellow Tethered and regain her identity from Adelaide, driven by her entitlement to her real life. I sympathized with Red too, since her rightful place was taken from her. This jockeying for a prime position created the ultimate showdown between a woman and her double, in a world full of hidden meanings, our darkest fears and deepest secrets.
The scope of Us is vast, and whether you see it as a battle between our worst selves, our fears, classes, or a biblical reckoning, it’s a literal rabbit hole of self-reflection everyone should fall down and get lost in over and over again.
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