6:10am PT by Richard Newby
Looking at 'Us' Through Black Identity and Trump's America
[This story contains spoilers for Us]
We can’t escape us. They’re positioned around the fireplace, flickering light and shadow obscuring their faces ever so slightly, but not enough to mask the fact that these four figures, clad in red bodysuits, are doppelgangers of the Wilson family. “Who are you?” Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) asks. “We’re Americans,” her duplicate, Red (Lupita Nyong’o), responds in a voice that sounds like a struggle against death.
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his hit 2017 film, Get Out, offers a complex look at the duality of humanity, particularly that which exists within ourselves (us) and the United States (U.S.). Us is more ambitious and more difficult to analyze than Peele’s first film, though no less of a tremendous work. As a result, there are a myriad of valid theories that can emerge from the film. This feels by design, and surely Peele wants his audience to leave with questions that lead to their own answers. Us, like so much of horror, is political. How we as individuals see our contemporary politics reflected in the film is the question, but I think that it may be the first horror film of its kind to truly dismantle Trump’s America and how we as people, especially black people, fit into it.
While Peele has stated that this film is not about race in a direct sense like Get Out, as a black viewer, I can’t help but see that social horror reflected through my own blackness and that of the Wilson family. It is important, as Peele has said during the press circuit for the film, to position black people as leads in a film simply for the sake of recognizing their humanity and not because of how they can be utilized to break down race relations. But our existence as black people, and the fact that we are never the default when it comes to film, specifically genre films, adds an additional layer of subtext, whether intentional or not, to the characterization and directorial impetus of Us. Together, the twin concerns of Trump’s America and black survival are reflected back at each other in Us.
Hands Across America and the Great U.S. Fairy Tale
After the film’s intro, which reminds us about the miles of abandoned subway systems and tunnels underneath America, we see an ad for Hands Across America. This 1986 publicity event organized 6.5 million Americans, who donated $10 and held hands in a chain, in an effort to combat poverty, hunger and homelessness in America. It sounds great, right? It’s a reminder of a simpler time when people could just get along. But of course, that notion is a fairy tale. Hands Across America was met with controversy over the chosen route, which excluded New England, the upper Midwest and Hawaii. Politicians and citizens held protests against the movement, forming their own separate hand-holding movements in an effort to make their point about being Americans too. It’s key that this effort to alleviate American suffering was, at least partly, overshadowed by this desire to be seen and considered a part of American exceptionalism.
Hands Across America and the ensuing controversy it created is referenced in Red’s plan. We see the event reflected not only in her movement to organize the underground doppelgangers, the Tethered, above ground, but in her reference to the American fairy tale, too. When Red tells Adelaide the story of her life, she begins with “Once upon a time…,” obscuring the normalcy of the Wilsons’ lives with the fact their “fairy tale” has left a family, a population, entirely in the shadows. That has always been the story of modern America, a desire to be better or “Make America Great Again,” while ignoring the fact that it never was and that the country was built on the backs of suffering and slaughtered people. But we like to think in terms of American innocence and heroism all the same. Red preys upon the notion of American innocence, of how even our best attempts to live lives without conflict or in service of some subjective greater good position us above others. Was the purpose for Hands Across America truly to show our goodness combat poverty without changing policy, or was it an attempt to be seen and reflected as good Americans? Either answer speaks to an identity fashioned within the notion of separate but equal, regardless of what any law says.
Rabbits and the Breeding Ground
The title card for Us is superimposed over cages filled with rabbits. These rabbits run loose in the underground tunnel systems where the Tethered have watched and waited. There are a couple of ways to consider these rabbits, beyond Peele’s own admitted fear of the animals. The first being that they are the initial test results of whatever means was used to create copies of people. This is the narrative answer, for which the lack of a concrete explanation, either scientific or supernatural, only adds to film’s general eeriness. But the second answer is a thematic one. One of the first things we think of when we consider rabbits is their breeding method. They breed rapidly, and if uncontrolled, give way to overpopulation that can devastate an environment.
Red explains in the film that the Tethered were a failed attempt to control the humans above, like puppets. One of the most efficient ways of creating control among humans is through breeding. It’s the overrepresentation of a certain lineage, or overexpression of a shared ideal, that allows one group of people to supplant the other. “Where did all these people come from?” is a question asked in response to the latest news of MAGA supporters. The truth is that they’ve always been here, marinating in their united state of unrest and hatred of the other. America has created a breeding ground, through race, through class and through ideals built in fear, that has long housed a population driven by their darker impulses. For the most part, these impulses have been kept under the surface and repressed. But they’ve never gone away. Now, under the organization of leaders like Trump and his political supporters, this population has become uncaged. They vote.
Peele has refrained from providing too many concrete answers about the nature of his film. But on the subject of the darker doppelgangers, he told The Hollywood Reporter this week, “think about this as sort of the collective dark side of all of us and, that way, if you’re looking at the problems of the world and pointing your finger out, then ask yourself: 'What’s my part in it?'"
Our part in Trump’s election and the vocal MAGA supporters is an uncomfortable topic because most well-intentioned and liberal-minded folks don’t want to think they share a blame in the America we’re looking at now. We’ve found moral security in an “us versus them” mentality. But, I think it’s important to recognize that Trump’s base doesn’t just comprise white supremacists or soulless individuals like the Tethered believe themselves to be. It comprises people who, like the truth of the Tethered, are the products of their environment, and feel that America has abandoned them. They are a base made up of individuals who feel that America has taken away their blue-collar jobs in factories and mines, and that the social rights that Democratic leaders and liberal voters have focused on have done nothing to help their cause in putting food on the table. This isn’t to say that one social justice is more important than the other, but rather an examination of human concerns that always results in one demographic being buried by the other.
Something to consider when it comes to the Tethered or job-concerned MAGA supporters is that they are a dying class, not in size but in very real terms of survival, whose concerns are being used by a leader who sees them as a means to an end. For Trump, it’s ego and status. In the case of Red, she’s trying to get back to a position she once had. Her organization of the Tethered is ultimately a selfish goal, making her more akin to the leader of an army than the leader of a movement.
White Affluence and Double-Consciousness
Peele’s decision to make the Wilson family middle-class is purposeful. From the start, we see Gabe (Winston Duke) struggling with his own affluence. His measure of success is in relation to white success. He owns his blackness, sporting a sweatshirt proudly boasting Howard University, but he also wants to fit into the white sphere of influence. He buys a boat to show up his wealthy white friend Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), who find ways to subtly jab at the Wilsons in a scene that mirrors the Armitage's party in Get Out. The argument could easily be made that the Tylers aren’t really friends of the Wilsons, and they use the Wilsons’ middle-class blackness as a way to other themselves and relish in their upper-class whiteness. This is reflected in a later scene in which Kitty tells her husband that she sees someone outside. Josh jokes that it’s O.J. Simpson. That joke points to a larger social issue, one in which a once-successful black man can be made into a black boogeyman, and a drain on white safety and peace of mind.
As a black man in America, Gabe is certainly aware that he is one shadow removed from being seen as the boogeyman, and may even hate the fact. His son, Jason’s (Evan Alex) mask is a reflection of the fact that black men learn that lesson at an early age. But Gabe knows that playing a role in the white success story by attempting to mirror it is how he survives, and gains the necessary acceptance that allows him to move freely in America above ground, without the threat of having to retreat back to traveling secretly by Underground Railroad like his ancestors. Now more than ever, within the confines of Trump’s America, blackness is allowed to exist if we comply with white rules, if we make it clear that we have the same goals — the same American Dream, that while so often unattainable for us, lessens our otherness in white eyes.
Gabe’s desire to impress Josh alludes to W.E.B. Du Bois’ discussion of double-consciousness, highlighted in his collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folks (1903). In his essay titled “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Du Bois says,
“[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Beyond Gabe’s need to impress his white “friends,” double-consciousness is also a powerful tool in Adelaide’s case, a means to steel herself and her children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason from the racism they will experience. She can brace her family for the pain of being looked at in contempt, and while it doesn’t lessen the blow, it at least doesn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps this is why she fares better at combatting her family’s doppelgangers than her husband. Adelaide succeeds through calculated skill and an awareness of how she’s being seen, rather than Gabe’s method of survival through chance. Adelaide is more adept at facing the duality of her own nature, and not simply because of a repressed childhood memory revealed in the film’s end. As Du Bois said, “one ever feels his twoness, an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” That dogged strength so fittingly describes Adelaide and Red.
The double-consciousness of the Wilsons isn’t just internal, but external and manifested in the form of their doppelgangers. While everyone in Santa Cruz has a double, Red and her family, comprising Abraham, Umbrae and Pluto, lead the charge. Their blackness is their source of strength. In fact, Red’s entire plot to take back the surface world reflects Du Bois’ remark on his own boyhood and fascination with his own position of otherness that kept him separate from the white world, “I remember well when the shadow swept across me…I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through. I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.” Red doesn’t want equality, because she knows that the Tethered will always be separate, and separate but equal is a reality she’d rather not exist in. Rather, she wants to use her strength to supplant her oppressor and take her place, much in the same way that the doppelgangers in Peele’s reference point, The Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image” do. The film leaves it open-ended as to whether or not the Tethered can succeed in this supplication without a leader. But whatever was uncaged cannot be recontained in its entirety, and despite Adelaide’s insistence, things can’t go back to normal.
Us is the reflection of the breeding grounds for civil unrest that we’ve created that gave rise to the bleak reality of Trump’s presidency. It’s a reality in which the double consciousness of black folks is both a curse and powerful means of survival that provides an intimate understanding that people are always at war with themselves, as a result of striving to climb to the top and witness those blue skies. But even if we reach it, the simple fact remains that our identities are fixed to this place and there’s no fairy-tale scenario where we can look out at this country and its history and see greatness instead of a shadow. We can’t escape U.S.