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Us (2019): America's Selective Memory

Jordan Peele's Us is a film intentionally titled, because it is a critique of us. It is gluttonous with its imagery and commentary, overflowing with context, history, and scoldings. The Ghouls do their best to unpack the many themes addressed in this fun horror film from classism, identity, Hands Across America, dance, and access to care.

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Us (2019)

A family's serene beach vacation turns to chaos when their doppelgängers appear and begin to terrorize them.

Director: Jordan Peele


America's Knack for Erasure in Us

by gabe castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


Adelaide is a young girl at the fair with her parents in 1986. We get a glimpse into a tumultuous relationship, her parents are on the outs and this outing is an attempt to keep things together. Adelaide is a curious and quiet child who after her father wins her a Thriller t-shirt (a questionable prize since as the mother shares, the video gave her nightmares), walks off as children do. She finds herself at an Indigenous People’s themed Mirror Maze which instructs her to “find herself” within the spooky rooms. Here, Adelaide encounters a young girl, who very much like the mirrors around her, looks exactly like her. Only this girl is very real. 

We are then brought to the present. Adelaide is now an adult, married to her boisterous husband, Gabe, and mother to her two very different kids, Zora and Jason. They are on a trip to the beach house she inherited from her mother. We start with a mostly charming, family film. Adelaide is still as reserved as ever, if not a bit standoffish. She interacts with others minimally and plays at the social expectations. She is also quite overprotective of her youngest, Jason. Gabe has a big personality and an obsession with status. The family appears well-off enough, middle class and comfortable but he is often comparing himself and their lives to their “friends” lives. Friends who have a yacht and get plastic surgery, (just a little to keep things interesting). Zora is a reserved teen who is over it and glued to her phone, classic. And Jason is a quiet boy who keeps to himself and comes across a bit odd. (On the spectrum perhaps?). 

Throughout the day, Adelaide has been picking up on these strange coincidences. Catching the clock at 11:11, a real spider walking beside a fake spider, etc. She has become increasingly uneasy and despite her protestations at going to the beach, has begrudgingly participated in the typical family things. However, once night hits her feelings of uneasiness hit a peak. A peak that has her confiding in her husband about her childhood trauma of seeing that girl like herself and how it affected her so greatly she couldn’t even talk for months. Gabe tries to joke it away, as is his nature before she demands to leave. It's then that the power goes out and little Jason informs them, “There’s a family in our driveway.” 

The rest of the film is a fun horror movie of doppelgangers and gore. I highly recommend this film and if you somehow don’t know the twist, go ahead and watch then make your way back here.

Here there be spoilers: The family in the driveway, donned in red jumpsuits, stand hand in hand. After an attempt from Gabe to scare the family away, the encounter becomes violent. Gabe is assaulted and left limping, the rest of the family is round up and forced to listen to storytime from the invaders. However, this isn’t your typical home invasion film because these intruders aren’t just any ‘ol people, they’re us. (See what Peele did there?) Just as Adelaide had seen in her childhood, before her is herself, the young girl now an adult too with her own family.

The intruders are clones or what Red (Adelaide’s dupe) calls them, Tethers. Red lays down some exposition heavy. She tells us that Tethers are a failed military experiment which was intended to control those above. It fails and so the Tethers were abandoned, however they are still connected to us up here, and they are cursed to forever imitate, like puppets on strings, the acts that appear up here. Only with significantly less information or understanding. Red explains the parallels, where Adelaide found her charming prince in Gabe, Red was forced to be with the brutish Abraham (Gabe’s Tether). While Adelaide had Jason by way of c-section, in the care of a hospital, Red was left alone to cut her boy, Pluto, from herself. While we above feast on delicacies or hell, even McDonald’s, the Tethers eat only rabbit (a reliable, fast, self-renewable food resource.) Red has led a revolution of the Tethers, bringing them topside to kill or maim their doppelgangers and to form a Hands Across America chain, for …reasons?? 

The Wilsons (Adelaide’s fam) fight slowly against the Tether-thems until Adelaide eventually finds herself in the underground tunnels that housed the Tethers. Here she fights Red and they relive the moments of childhood where Adelaide had learned to dance to communicate after the traumatizing experience of meeting herself. While Red learned to dance, she broke free of their link which allowed her to make this revolution possible. 

Adelaide fights Red alongside the dance sequences of their past and eventually, Adelaide wins. She rescues Jason and they go on to the surface, ready to live their lives again.

Only, we soon find there’s one more little twist which makes a second watch really fun. All those years ago when Adelaide met Red, Red attacked Adelaide and swapped places with her. Our Adelaide has been a Tether all along. Jason is very sus of his mother and has seen, on more than one occasion, her acting quite Tether-like. Though, I guess both he and Zora are half-tethers so it may explain away their oddities. 

Now Let’s Talk Tethers (What do they mean?): Now, there’s SO much we can talk about for this film. It is gluttonous with its imagery and commentary, overflowing with context, history, and scoldings. But here’s a quick glance over some of the themes/topics worth mentioning.

Military Experiments: It's not a far-fetched idea that the government is conducting experiments on its citizens as we’ve uncovered many real instances of this occurring (MK Ultra). And though this film wasn’t intended to be commentary on racism in America, there’s no ignoring the history of using Black bodies for experiments in America. When asked who they are, Red remarks, “We’re Americans,” which felt too real. What’s more American than experimenting on your own people in an effort to control them? Many people are dissatisfied with the throw away mention of military experiments but the way it was unexplained and abandoned didn’t feel unrealistic to me. 

American History/Erasure: 

In 1986, we saw Adelaide go into a Hall of Mirrors themed after Native Peoples, it asks for people to find themselves. And its existence in the 80’s is completely expected of the “colorblind” era of America. When it’s renovated to get with the times, it’s been painted over roughly to become Merlin’s Hall of Mirrors. As was done with the Tether experiment, we’ve glossed over a history, a tasteless moment. America is so very talented when it comes to ignoring our history, especially that of the Indigenous Peoples and our Black and Brown communities. In the end, when Adelaide is comforting her son, she reassures him they’ll be safe and that everything will be normal. Blatantly ignoring the massacre outside and the miles long protest. For Adelaide the American, moving past and erasing monumental pain and trauma is a skill learned.

In an article on Vox titled, Jordan Peele’s Us: the big plot twist, explained, writer Aja Romano shows us the many instances of this selective American memory in the film and designates it a core theme. “The movie constantly reminds its audience that America’s story is one of history perpetually being forgotten or overwritten, like the genocide of Native Americans, whose iconography gets briefly appropriated and then hastily remodeled for the maze that starts the story. Characters frequently speak of forgetting things; Adelaide’s entire character is rooted in forgetting. The ones who don’t have the luxury of losing their memories are the ones who remain Underground. (“I never forgot you,” Red tells Adelaide.) That’s because not only are they forced to live out approximations of “real” life without any agency over their own bodies or identities, but they are the only witnesses to their own misery and enslavement. In Red’s world, a good memory is the key to escape.”

Hands Across America: Hands Across America was a benefit campaign, sponsored by USA for Africa (the organization that produced the 1985 charity track "We Are the World"), in which people within the continental United States joined hands in a human chain for 15 minutes. While USA for Africa planned to raise between $50 and $100 million, Hands Across America raised $34 million; only $15 million was distributed to charity after deducting the costs to produce the event. 6.5 million people joined hands in various locations across the country at events that also boasted celebrity participants.

What’s it got to do with Us? Underneath Adelaide’s new Thriller tee which Tether-Adelaide steals is a Hands Across America t-shirt. Given the trauma she experiences, it's not hard to imagine her little mind holding on to it. She hopes to create a big movement that speaks to the disenfranchisement of her people. If we’re to look at the Tethers as a representation of American classism, then this is even further ironic given that the original event was designed to raise awareness about homelessness and hunger across the world. Issues we often focus on without looking at our own country first.  “In the final shot of Us, Jordan Peele reframes the awareness campaign to show that Americans often turn a blind eye to the social ills that exists—quite literally—just below our country's surface.” Why Hands Across America Is So Vital to Jordan Peele's Us - Esquire

Classism: Aye, there’s the rub. This is the heart of the film, imo. There are so many moments that express this idea of the upper classes' effects on lower classes, the impact their choices have on the rest of America. One of my favorite moments was seeing the senseless scars on Kitty’s Tether. Imagine having your face sliced into without any rhyme or reason, all because someone up top wanted to look younger? We see this effect again when Pluto reveals his burn scars. Throughout the film, Jason has been playing with his lighter-toy, in an attempt at some magic trick though the device never ignites. However, for Pluto it must’ve lit more than enough times, one enough to harm him greatly. Jason’s obsession with magic is twisted into a pyromania for Pluto who otherwise has no explanation for constantly being assaulted by fire. 

We can see it in the ways Red and Adelaide’s trauma are shaped by their environments and access to resources. How one had, through understanding and care regarding mental health, was able to find her voice (with words she never had before) while the other was silenced so traumatically that her voice was irreparably damaged (more on that in a bit). Or how in an interview with the cast of the film on the Hollywood Reporter, ‘Us’ Movie Explained: Is Jordan Peele Creating a ‘Get Out’ Trilogy? – The Hollywood Reporter, actor Winston Duke explains his “no-hard-feelings” approach towards Abraham. “I never, ever judged Abraham. I never said he was a bad guy…he was just a guy finally getting a chance to live in the light. Gabe gets to have health care. Which manifests in his glasses. He gets to see. He gets to talk, he gets to express himself. Abraham doesn’t. He’s squinting and is very tactile.”

Free Will/Individuality: Due to the puppetry nature of the Tether’s existence and Peele’s intentional zombie motifs (shown through the glitchy movements of the Tethers below in the flashback as well as the reference to Thriller), we can see the theme of individuality, or rather our lack thereof. Ghouls have covered zombies in many episodes (live and pre-recorded) and one of the core themes behind those brainless creatures is individuality and how capitalism strips us of that. Dawn of the Dead was a direct commentary on our obsession with things, the mall being both a safe haven and a natural place for shuffling mindless drones. Though the Tethers are obviously controlled and powerless, having no input on the trajectory of their lives, I can’t help but also feel that Gabe is a zombie too. His obsession with having what the Tyler’s have was performative, even he didn’t know why he needed the boat or the back up generator. 

Race: The power of having a Black family as the lead, wearing Howard sweatshirts and being lovably them is powerful in itself. They represent the quintessential nuclear family but a version of such we never get to see on screen. Not only is this family Black, they’re all dark-skinned. Peele has always had a talent for lighting and showing dark skin on screen and so it was beautiful to see. Also all the art and music in the film is incredibly intentional and I love it!

Further, in that Vox article I mentioned earlier, Jordan Peele’s Us: the ending, explained. Beware spoilers!, the write goes on to point out instances where the film can’t help but be commentary on race in America. 

“I think it's pretty easy to look at the gentrification of Santa Cruz, the political correctness washing of the carnival, and the irony of "Fuck the Police" blasting in a white person's house while they're being attacked and to understand Peele is addressing contemporary race relations in the United States. It's about how we, as a country, try just to rename, reclaim, and wash out the stains of the past, as if that will just make everything better.”

Filming Things That Blew My Mind:

The Dance that Healed Adelaide and Set Red Free- Kat shared a phenomenal article on the Brooklyn Rail by Luke Williams that had me geeking out even harder for this film. I am not a dancer. Neither is Kat. And we’ve both talked about why not in our previous episode about dance where we had to invite a guest on to actually talk about dance because we aren’t it. All that to say that I hope Allie (our guest from that ep) is watching this and can expand on the dances further, perhaps even get satisfaction from watching the film as someone in the know. But thanks to this article, I now look at the film with renewed interest and admiration. The attention to detail by Peele and his team is amazing and I am grateful for it. The article titled, “It's Our Time Now”: The Aesthetics of Horror in Jordan Peele’s Us explains the power of the dance performances in the film. The dance recital shown in the third act comes about when Adelaide, too traumatized to communicate, finds a new way to communicate through dance. Her dance and Red’s mirror of it below gives Red the power to untether herself from Adelaide. The two dances, though started as a mirror break away into two distinct and powerful pieces that represent the two girls and solidify their individuality from each other. Williams explains, 

“Danced by Ashley McKoy, young Adelaide’s conventional Balanchine solo directly contrasts young Red’s distorted version choreographed by Hollander. The result is a hybridized, but recognizable, Nutcracker duet that sets the young dancers in supportive opposition. Young Adelaide’s movement is elongated, stretching through her arms and legs to provide a sense of weightlessness and elevation. Young Red, however, never elevates on her toes; her arms and legs bent, she remains grounded through her feet. While young Adelaide’s  jetés and battements elegantly slice into the air, gravity anchors Red’s body to the earth, where she contorts against the wall and crawls along the ground. Her movement originates from her core and lower back, providing a more internal orientation. What’s more, the pas de deux emphasizes the embodied aesthetics through the use of the stage space. Young Adelaide’s movement takes place for the most part in centerstage. Illuminated by the spotlight, young Adelaide moves through an abundance of space, articulating an unfettered transcendence, perhaps even a soul. Young Red, by contrast, makes use primarily of the floor and wall, straining against surfaces that resist her expansion. In the final fight scene, the rapid contrast between the young dueling, yet partnering, ballerinas comments on movement with, and without, a “soul.” 

The Voice: The last film admiration thing I’ll note is something Kat found. (Thanks Kat!). When watching, you’ll notice Red’s voice is quite crispy, underused and nervous. My initial interpretation was simply that Red never had to use her voice for this language down there. I also want to note that Adelaide, formerly Tether, is often at a loss for words and even tells Kitty that she’s not very good with them. Knowing Red is actually OG Adelaide solidified the idea for me, she can speak English which is more than any of the other Tethers can do but because they don’t speak with words, only grunts and other sounds, she’s been out of practice. But in an interview with the The Hollywood Reporter, ‘Us’ Movie Explained: Is Jordan Peele Creating a ‘Get Out’ Trilogy?, Nyong’o explains how she discovered the voice for Red and worked to make it, as well as all the other Red mannerisms, distinct from Adelaide. She based it on a real-life medical condition called spasmodic dysphonia, which can be caused by emotional or physical trauma.

“Your vocal cords involuntarily spasm, creating this odd airflow,” says Nyong’o, who was inspired after hearing someone with that condition speak. “I worked with my ENT and a vocal therapist to be able to do it but keep my voice safe, because it’s quite dangerous for a healthy vocal box to do that kind of thing. Then I built off of that.”

Little Blurb About Peele and Palestine Because I Need to. I admire Jordan Peele and his work. I appreciate his impact on horror cinema greatly. I try not to idolize or even like any creators too hard but I’ll admit I’ve placed Peele on a pedestal in the past. However, it’s moments like this, in the midst of an un-publicized and propaganda ridden genocide, that I am reminded precisely why we don’t idolize other humans, lest they let you down. Peele signed a letter, alongside many other celebrities that make us sad now, in support of Biden and confirming lies bred by the Israeli government. The letter ultimately asked for the release of hostages by the Hamas terrorists but is another example of people ignoring the crux of the issue at heart. His silence since this speaks volumes. It makes it really hard to look at this film in all its meaning and not be confused by him missing the entire point. Put perfectly by TikToker joris_explains where they ask, 

“How do you make the movie, Us, which is one of the most scathing criticisms of a society that is built upon the dehumanization of an underclass. A piercing analysis of the process of demonizing a group of people and how they end up taking on the traits that you force upon them and inevitably end up committing barbaric acts of terror as their only resort to force society to reckon with their existence and reclaim a glimpse of their freedom. To have the foresight to represent what is happening in Gaza right now, and still sign a letter in support of Israel committing genocide?” 


Us: Classism, Racism, and Access to Care

by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Trigger Warning: Racism, Oppression, Genocide

Classism, Racism and Access to Care: 

“Us” as a film is intentionally titled, because it is a critique of us. The main conflict of the film could be interpreted in countless ways, and has through an array of analysis articles. So what I’m going to say is not necessarily new, but rather a connecting of dots. In analyzing “Us”, it positions itself as a critique of American society and our need to “other” people to justify and rationalize the atrocities that convenience capitalism causes without us seeing. The damage of our daily comforts concealed from us as if hidden in an underground bunker. Social media acts as a gateway to that bunker, but still at a distance. To those who live in comfort, the privileged, the pain of those tethered to that comfort and their actions is not of their concern. This is not exclusive to the class issues in America but also through how America and other Western countries destroy other nations for their benefit. Now there are so many examples of this, it would take the entire episode to outline them all…but to name two that are current - Thinking about the genocide and exploitation taking place in the Congo right now, so that we can have cell phones, vapes and other technologies. Or the current American funded genocide taking place in Palestine to steal their natural resources of fresh water, oil and gas. It all ties together as a critique on how people, and especially people who look like me, are unwilling to sacrifice their day to day comforts, as well as their ingrained biases to work as a collective. There was a video that covered this nicely on tiktok from the user @SaraTalksArt that unpacks a characteristic of white supremacist culture called “right to comfort”, about how people who look like me feel very strongly that they have a right to their comforts even if it comes at the cost and exploitation of others. That many people are not willing to give up their vapes, or their Starbucks to save literal human lives, and will choose to look away to maintain their own sense of safety, and their own view of the world. Additionally, many feel that they are entitled to that without any guilt or consequence. This film critiques the willingness to not look, to not empathize, to save ourselves at the expense of others. 

Something that also stood out to me in relating this to American classism, is the duality of Red and Adelaide. That they actually aren’t different. When understanding how trauma impacts the brain, this makes a lot of sense. The theory that the tethers do not have souls, I think is incorrect. We see this in Adelaide, who is a tether, but was given love and support and had their needs met. Who was able to live a relatively normal life. She shows a great capacity for love and all the makings of a soul. Adelaide’s existence makes it impossible to argue that the tethers are soulless. Ultimately saying that all people have the capacity for good, as much as they have the capacity to cause harm. The only difference between “us” and the “tethered” is the tethered were denied care their entire lives. Their needs, their autonomy were disregarded their entire lives. If given the same opportunity every tether could have been like Adelaide. If they would have grown up in the same safety and care, then they could have turned out the same as their doubles above. There is also the understanding that the tethers have spent the entirety of their existence in survival mode, never given the opportunity to use the other areas of their brain. Villainizing the tether’s is not Peele’s intent here in my opinion. In a review from High on Film’s Contextualizing Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ by Mukulika Batabya they outline a similar way of thinking, stating “The shocking reveal towards the end makes the character of Red and Adelaide interchangeable. The twist works only if we accept our own brutality and our role in allowing the market to dehumanize and silence our desires so far so that we even forget our language. We thus become choked in expression and are pulled down to bestiality. Even though the events that ensue in the movie highlight a fight for survival, the ease with which the children, Jason and Zora, embrace their killer identity and then casually argue on their kill count to win a chance to drive the car in the face of a possible apocalypse only confirms how we are intrinsically tethered to our other.” 

The reveal in the movie, making Red and Adelaide interchangeable, is seen as working only if viewers acknowledge their own brutality and complicity in allowing the dehumanization and silencing of desires by the market. That all humanity has the capacity to be monstrous under horrific circumstances. When we dehumanize another population, the harm done to them feels lighter to carry to those enacting said harm…but it shouldn’t. We see this in Adelaide’s reaction to the tethered children dying, because she knows that they could have been given the same life she had, and that if given, may have turned out differently. May still be alive. Even the actors did not view their alternate selves as villains, understanding the nuance of what the tethered versions of themselves represented, as Gabe mentioned in their section on Winston’s Duke’s view of Abraham. 

The tethers are not the villains of this story, but rather the system that created and left them in that bunker. The villains are “Us”. In an article titled Jordan Peele’s 'Us' Is Not-so-Secretly About Class by Noel Ransome they outline how the enemy in this film is our own dismissive neglect to problems that persist. “In Us, the Tethered are effigies of this same situational classism. They’re trapped—mentally and physically—and ignored. While the Wilson family and others bicker on about rocking the fancier tugboat, those with the capacity to be as happy grow darker from fucked up circumstances. “...“For the functions of classism and marginalization traps to work, the presence of it must never be explicitly seen or acknowledged for what it is. The powerful must do as Ronald Reagan did in Jordan Peele’s reference to the Hands Across America (1986) fund: take the credit for every victory, regardless of contradictory attitudes towards the poor. Potential horrors must be presented with a positive dualities—a pair of scissors, a black family in America, and a horror film.” 

The concept that we are inherently individualistic, selfish, and out for ourselves only benefits the oppressors. We unpacked this when we covered disaster utopias and the film The Mist. The idea that humans will immediately turn against each other in crisis, that we will always prioritize ourselves over others on instinct only benefits the oppressors. “For the functions of classism and marginalization traps to work, the presence of it must never be explicitly seen or acknowledged for what it is.” If that statement is true, that shines a more positive light on the natural instincts of humanity. With that statement we would only be able to accept atrocities if we didn’t know they were there, if we didn’t realize the real weight of what was taking place. So the film is a message that we need to educate ourselves, we need to see what is happening, we need to unlearn that taught behavior to look away from what is hard. 

The tethered population in “Us” also showcases that collectivism is the key to revolution. The tethered population that rises up in “Us”, is far more united than the people who live up top, and largely succeed in their revolution. They are not bogged down by the material individualistic teachings of capitalism. What they wanted was basic human rights, something that material items will not solve. They work together and refuse to exist in inhumane living conditions, they refuse to be denied autonomy and sunlight anymore, so they rise up. A line that still stands out to me that shows Red’s motivation and view that a collective could have existed, was when they said they didn’t understand why Adelaide didn’t take them with them when they escaped. Why did her freedom have to come at the cost of Red’s? And that is where the divide is clear, that the tethered humans and the topside humans do not view each other as safe. To Adelaide, Red was her oppressor, so why would she take her with her. They are the group that had been exploiting them unknowingly this whole time. So that line hits a little more once you know the twist and on second / third watch throughs. 

When looking at the horrors of the world it is easy to become cynical, it is much easier to look away from what is happening around us but there are many people who do not have that luxury. It’s also been ingrained in us by capitalism to do so. The hopeful piece though is there are so many people who are fighting against the issues present, we just can’t see them sometimes. Imagine what the world could be like if we acted more as a collective than as individuals. If more people looked, even though it’s hard. I saw a great video where Mikaela Loach talks about how activism is like a mycelium network, basically mushrooms and plants have these underground mycelium networks, root systems essentially that connect to each other but are out of sight. And how when we see mushrooms form, that is a result of those networks working. They say activism is like that network, underground doing the work, and the wins are like the mushrooms. Not all actions taken can form a whole mushroom, but collectively the actions combine to make future mushrooms possible. So while it may feel like these things aren’t working as individual actions, that we might feel powerless, but the mushroom is coming - we just can’t see it yet. Any failures are just signals and groundwork for future success. So acting in opposition even though it feels like it won’t make an impact, just cause we can’t see it right away, does not mean the mushroom isn’t coming. Trying is better than complacency. 


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