It’s been over a year since I’ve updated this website with anything new.
This past Tuesday, I saw a screening of Jordan Peele’s new Horror film Us, and was utterly blown away. Not only did I know my year long dry-spell of film analysis had come to an end, but I also returned to the theater that night to see it again.
Two things right up top: first, this is not a review. I’m not walking through why you should or shouldn’t see this movie, I’m simply offering my analysis of what I believe Us is trying to say.
Second, because I’ll be talking about what this film had to say, I intend for this to be a conversation piece. I’m operating under the assumption that you’ve also seen this film. Meaning full spoilers below.
Finally, before we get into my thoughts on this modern masterpiece of filmmaking, I want to call something out. I come from a very particular background and life circumstance. I was raised in an extremely affluent part of Oregon. I’m white, and so were the vast majority of those I interacted with growing up. I’m straight and cis-gendered, and have had little-to-no exposure with either of those communities.
I say all this to highlight the fact that my thoughts on this movie are mine. They come from a person with a specific up-brining and socioeconomic background. Your views on this movie will be different, as so they should be. Jordan Peele, the film’s writer-director, is clearly leaving elements of the plot and larger universe intentionally ambiguous.
When I watch those ambiguous elements, I fill them with my thoughts, theories, and ideas, and you’ll fill them with yours. Each influenced by our particular histories and experiences in this country. Mine is not the definitive interpretation of this film, simply one of them.
Now, enough of my waxing poetic, let’s get into it.
In the final act of Us, Red (the doppelgänger of Adelaide, both masterfully portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o) reveals that The Tethered, the red jumpsuit clad copies, terrorizing Santa Cruz are the result of a government mind control experiment gone wrong.
“Generations” ago, according to Red, the government went underground and cloned every citizen of the United States in secret tunnels throughout the country, in an attempt to gain control over the populace at large. But the experiment backfired, leaving the clones “Tethered” to their surface-world counterparts. Trapped forever, living a similar yet hollow life just beneath the surface.
All that changes when Red leads a revolution of the Tethered. Literally rising up from below, violently killing and replacing their surface-world selves.
Why is Red able to do this? Because she’s actually from the surface. In 1986 the real Adelaide wandered into a hall of mirrors and was replaced by her Underground counterpart. The Adelaide we’ve been following the entire course of the film was secretly one of the Tethered, living a fantastic lie, her whole life.
There is A LOT going on a the end of this movie, almost none of which is explained. If you’re still confused, so am I, and I encourage you to seek out many of the thorough explainer videos/articles. I’m less concerned with what’s happening in this movie, and more with what it’s creator is trying to say.
Now, Peele has been on the record saying that he didn’t want this film to be a direct allegory for a political message. His first film, Get Out, is a clear examination at the subtle yet undying racism in a “post-racial” America. With Us, he wanted to focus more on a straightforward horror flick, so as to avoid being labeled as purely a political story-teller.
But you’re out of your mind if you think this movie has nothing to say.
In the home-invasion sequence, when asked who the Tethered family is, Red responds, “We are Americans.” Leading me to believe that this Is Jordan Peele’s interpretation of the lie that is “The American Dream.”
Due to the effects of Late-Capitalism, the lines between the rich and poor are becoming more clear, and the gap between the two further and further apart. Us takes that dynamic to its ultimate conclusion, a class of people above, and a class below. The ultimate personifications of the Have’s and the Have Not’s.
Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide represents the worst of the upper crust of society. She is someone who knowingly and brutally took advantage of someone else, just like her (Red), in order to give herself the upper leg in life.
Think how this country was literally built by aristocrats on the backs of slave labor. How there are countless examples of individuals willing to screw others over in order to give themselves the opportunity of an easier and better life.
Now, Adelaide seems to be aware of her privilege. She’s haunted by her past in the early parts of the film, and quickly accepts her circumstance as justice for her sins. Her husband, Gabe (played to goofy-dad perfection by Winston Duke) is another story.
The Wilsons enjoy a cushy, comfortable life. They have a vacation home, a nice car, and even a boat. But Gabe isn’t satisfied by this, it isn’t enough.
He wants a nicer car, he buys a boat to compete with his more-successful friend Josh. He’s made to feel inferior by what he doesn’t have, rather than grateful for what he does.
Little does Gabe know how well off he truly is. He doesn’t know that there is an entire society of people, born under a different circumstance, who would (and ultimately do) kill to have a life as comfortable as his.
Abraham (Gabe’s Tether) is uniquely trapped by, and understandably jealous of, Gabe. Where as Gabe might long for a nicer set of wheels, Abraham hasn’t been able to see his entire life due to the lack of access to the glasses Gabe so carelessly wears.
Gabe, and the majority of the surface world, are completely unaware that there is someone else, just like them, trapped and hurting simply because of the circumstances of their birth.
Gabe represents me, and the millions like me, who are afforded a life of luxury without even knowing it. I didn’t choose to be born a white male to an affluent family, but I was. And I will never know the unsurmountable privileges that I have been afforded by a system rigged to benefit those like me.
I have a job that pays me well, a new car that runs great, I’ve never once been unsure about where my next meal would come from. Even when things did get tight, I had a family and support system ready and able to assist.
Yet, I still want.
I want a promotion to a better job. I want a nicer car to let everyone know I have a better job. I want a bigger apartment full of expensive things.
All the while I am completely oblivious to how my actions have played into a system to keep people like me in privilege, and hold everyone else down.
Look, by societies standards, I’m a pretty ok guy. I’ve never knowingly taken advantage of others for my personal gain, I try to be grateful for what I have, and I try to lift everyone else in my life up, regardless of class, gender, etc.
But that doesn’t make me clean in this world, it just makes me like Gabe. Blissfully unaware of the full picture that is socioeconomics in modern America. Unaware that I am where I am largely because of the circumstances surrounding my birth.
The reveal that Surface and Tethered Adelaide switched places in 1986 is key to this idea. When Adelaide escapes The Underground as a young girl, she seems to integrate perfectly into surface society, and thrives. She becomes a successful dancer, meets the love of her life, and has a family that would make even the best of us envious.
Peele is making the case that any one can thrive, that it’s not about being Tethered or not, it’s about our access to opportunity.
Adelaide, surrounded by opportunity, flourishes. Red, walled off from any opportunities, is trapped with nothing. And what is privilege if not being surrounded by opportunity.
The final, poignant coda of Peele’s thesis is how these two classes are separated. not by a staircase or by a ladder, but an escalator headed down.
With this, Peele is dismantling the idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “climbing the ladder of success,” and exposing the truth behind those lies.
The escalator traps the Tethered in The Underground. Ensuring that those at the literal bottom remain there. We can talk about “self-made success stories” all we want, but the truth of the matter is that the system is broken. Trying to climb the ranks of the socioeconomic ladder is like trying to climb a staircase that never ends.
The final image of the film is that of hundreds of thousands of Tethered, all presumably fresh off their killing spree, lined up hand-in-hand across mountains and forests. This is evocative of Hands Across America, the charity event referenced frequently throughout.
Peele has talked about his fascination with Hands Across America in various interviews. The event was famous for uniting people in an attempt to end hunger. But after marketing and overhead costs, less than half of the $34 million raised was actually donated to any worthwhile cause.
The idea behind it is beautiful, “we’re all going to hold hands, and that will end hunger.” But the idea of “holding hands” making any impactful social change seems like a problematic Pepsi commercial.
It was an empty gesture. People with money to spend acknowledging there’s a problem. Yet ultimately not making any actual effort to combat that problem.
The film ends with that sentiment reversed. The Tethered, the lowest class, those most disenfranchised by their society, take violent and deplorable actions to combat that which keeps them down.
Then, after they have taken action, not before, they unite as one, forming an unbroken line across the country they threw into anarchy.
Again, this is all just my interpretation of the film. I’ve seen other takes equating The Underground to the internet, or that The Tethered are a metaphor for the modern day Republican Party (a symbolic wall across America, cloaked in red, is certainly a supporting piece of evidence).
Regardless, in both the film and interviews surrounding it, Peele seems clear about the moral of this story. America has become a country of “Us vs. Them.”
Men vs. Women
Democrat vs. Republican
Heteronormative vs. LGBTQ+
So much of who we are is now defined by who we are not. Peele is calling that mindset out, saying the blame cannot be shifted. We all have a part to play in where the country is at now, and how we’re to move forward.
We are all complicit in a system that oppresses people. We all have violent urges. We all collectively share the blame, and are all simultaneously victims, of injustice in this country. After all…
“We Are Americans.”