Movie Review: Jordan Peele’s *US*

I finally got around to seeing Jordan Peele’s film Us. The movie is beautifully shot, and the acting is amazing throughout. It was suspenseful, terrifying, and (thankfully) barely a jump scare in sight. Highly recommended.

But I want to talk briefly about the plot, so big ass spoilers ahead (that won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the film or know the plot already).

Spoilers ahead! Don't scroll down if you don't want to see them!

There are several things that, if read at a surface level, don’t make sense about the plot. How did this government agency happen? Why just abandon the shadow people? How did this all work?

There isn’t an answer for these questions in the film itself… Because I think the entire plot is a multi-layered metaphor, and trying to dissect these “plot holes” is the key to resolving them.

First, Us is a metaphor of class and race. Plenty of digital ink has been spilled on this topic, and it’s pretty obvious. The matching uniforms and being forced to stay “backstage” (or underground) and being near voiceless are pretty explicit indicators of being part of the American lower class, and particularly being in a racial minority. [1]

The timeline of the film is very deliberate, with the Tethered program ending around 1980, a few years before the first events of the film.

Sure, in 1986 we had the first observances of Martin Luther King Jr Day. “Hands Across America” happened as well, as the film emphasizes.

More importantly, this is the time period that Ronald Reagan and the GOP start demolishing the social safety net. For them, ketchup counted as a vegetable for low income kids, the racial myth of the “welfare queen”, dismantling systems to help people, and so on.

The last is the corollary for the abandonment of the Tethered.

Since then, Red tells us that the Tethered have still been forced to do what the above-ground people do, while still being stuck in the tunnels. The logistics of this do not make sense if you think about it literally… And that’s the kind of detail Jordan Peele would not overlook. Instead, this is again a metaphor for the way that the 1% shape and dictate the lives of everyone else, sometimes without even consciously realizing it.

Wage labor under capitalism is not voluntary. Your choice is to either sell your labor or starve.

When Red makes her move, she does not want her life back…she wants herself and the Tethered to be free and have the same privilege as the people above…rather like “Hands Across America” was to raise support for the homeless.

The nonviolent aspect of the Tethered making that chain (and apparently succeeding where those above failed) is both a fulfillment of the original Hands Across America’s ambition and a metaphor for current protests like Kapernick or Black Lives Matter.

However, it’s hard to ignore that there is also violence and armed rebellion. It’s interesting, then, that little Addy would have seen the first MLK day just before her own birthday, reminding her that “by any means necessary” is not the only tool in the toolbox for social change.

Red’s story – and Addie’s success at being able to function in “normal” life – illustrate that our adult abilities have a lot to do with the resources we have as children. This works positively for Addie, as therapy and expensive extracurricular activities lead her to be able to thrive. It also works in reverse for Red, as even her speech deteriorates.

That would be enough metaphor. But there is a second – and I think more important -layer of metaphor as well, and that’s what I’ve seen a lot of other reviews and reviewers miss.

As you begin viewing the film, the violence of the Tethered comes out of seeming thin air. Your visceral reaction (like mine) might have been to fight back against these intruders. The violence seems senseless and spontaneously random.

Then it’s peeled back a bit further as Red tells the story of the Tethered. I began to feel empathy for Red and her clan, though I hated their methods. I actually thought “Why doesn’t anyone empathize with the Tethered and explain it wasn’t their fault? That they didn’t mean to cause problems, and want to make things right?”

Yes, I realize that it is sort of Addie’s fault, but that’s not the key point at this layer of metaphor. The point is that it is not enough.

Because later on, we learn that the creation of the Tethered and the whole system was deliberate. The Tethered were created, used, and when they weren’t useful enough they were ignored and left behind by the government. That the system was deliberately set up that way. That none of us are innocent for the system we created, perpetuated, and allowed to continue, and incremental change would just benefit the system and isn’t going to fix anything.

This reading also makes Addie an “Uncle Tom” by her decision to escape the tunnels (ghettos) and join the upper world. She is, from Red’s explanation, without a soul…. Yet has been able to well adapt to upper class society. This is explicitly called out in her husband’s objection that they’re all acting pretty “white” – and definitely going against racial stereotypes about how to act in a horror movie.

These revelations led me, at the end of the film, to say “Were we rooting for the bad guys?”

Because we were.

The way the film reveals the truth of the system. is like the way a lot of white people (myself included) react to the ongoing racism and classism in America as they learn more and more about what really happened.

To illustrate what I mean, when the Rodney King riots happened [2] my first reaction was horror at the violence. Then I empathized with the reason for the riots, but still did not “get” why there was such a violent reaction. As I’ve learned more and more – and yes, I’m still learning – about the privilege dropped on my head on birth, and how the whole system perpetuates privilege and inequality, my understanding – and reactions – have changed.

At the end of the film, Addie shows her own monstrous side, and that when passive neglect isn’t enough to keep things “in order”, overwhelming brutal violence will be used to ensure that the status stays quo.

And by the end of the film, you’ve not been told the history of modern structural inequality for race and class… but you’ve felt it.

I like films and stories with multiple layers of meaning and enjoyment. It is delightful that Us works so well as a straight surface horror movie (with a little suspension of disbelief).

It’s even better when you start to realize how much more there is to the film, and how it relates to the American experience of race and class.

[1] Race and class roughly correlate, but are not synonymous in US society, so addressing one inevitably ends up involving the other. Again, they are not the same, as current events have so clearly demonstrated again:

[2] Yes, I’m showing my age. Hello, fellow kids!