us

Courtesy of Monkeypaw Productions

March 25, 2019

Jordan Peele’s Us Demands Confrontation and Thought

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Opening weekend has passed and the results are in — Jordan Peele has done it again. Following the release of his 2017 debut film Get Out, which garnered praise from reviewers and the general public, the cinematic world waited with anticipation for the release of his second film, Us.

The film centers around Adelaide Wilson, portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o and her family who spend a summer at their Santa Cruz beach house. The family of four suddenly encounter their doppelgängers, a small fraction of a larger group known as The Tethered. Alternating between 1986 and the present day, the film centers around the Wilson family’s struggle with their doppelgängers and the larger Tethered group.

Us is beautifully shot and features an eerie, seat-gripping score. Perhaps most striking is the numerous themes, allusions and symbols that force viewers to think not just about the scenes before them but the relation of these scenes to a broader context.

This is the force that Peele has. His ability to relate societal problems that are uncomfortable to talk about or are blatantly ignored is unmatched. He transcends this relation across a scope of viewers, reeling them in regardless of race, class or background. That is his power, and it is unmistakably dominant in Us.

The film has already garnered significant praise for the numerous messages that can be drawn from its ending. For one, the question of self-demonization is raised as Adelaide’s worst enemy is essentially a harrowed, deprived version of herself. Perhaps this message draws upon the “you are your worst enemy” notion and calls for self-reflection. However, the lack of visibility of The Tethered denotes a different kind of message, one that is more poignant yet undeniably realistic in our current political and societal state. Countless groups such as those who are impoverished, homeless, and hungry go unforeseen and forgotten.

Peele’s symbolic focus on visibility forces viewers to confront the reality that there are groups of people who are severely marginalized, underrepresented and underprivileged. The world of The Tethered is concealed, hidden from Adelaide’s own, which can be interpreted to be the world which we — “the privileged” — inhabit. The story of The Tethered is bleak yet not unfamiliar to the history of the United States. Created by the U.S. government in hopes of gaining the ability to control people, The Tethered were cloned bodies but lacked souls, and therefore they could not be controlled. As a result, the experiment was abandoned, yet The Tethered remained, uncared for, disregarded and driven to insanity. Unethical experiments dot the history of the U.S. with remarkable frequency, both in the marginalized groups that tend to be victims and their experiences which often go ignored. Experiments and conditions such as Tuskegee and the treatment of undocumented and homeless persons within the United States denote this exact dehumanization. Peele calls for recognition and justice for these invisible groups.

Privilege is another dominant theme of the work, in which Peele seems to ask viewers to compare Adelaide with her doppelgänger, Red. Are they truly different? What marks The Tethered as “Others” besides treatment, visibility and privilege? Adelaide, the real Tethered, was able to take Red’s, the real Adelaide’s, place. She was able to strip off her marker as a Tethered, learn to speak and thrive as a functional “human being.” The only difference between them is the privilege of growing up above the underground, experiencing the sun, wealth, and all other advantages The Tethered were deprived of. It’s a sad tale of a forgotten, neglected, and abused group who were marked as less than by hands that were supposed to upraise them.

When asked “what” they are as opposed to “who,” Red responds by saying, “We are Americans.” It is a chilling line and one that is not easy to forget. History often repeats itself, and the sins of the father always seem to be passed down. In the closing scene of Adelaide and her son, the young boy seems to have uncovered the truth just as Adelaide has and is now left with the question of what to do with that truth — cover it up or expose it. “Whether Us is supposed to be regarded as a cautionary tale or is simply meant to spark conversation and awareness is up for debate. However, it would be foolish to ignore the significance of the messages Peele has incorporated into the film. The names of the characters themselves hold important value.

From the Thriller tee-shirt, to the presence of rabbits, the “Hands Across America Sign” and numerous more underlying symbols, Us is a force to be reckoned with and thought upon, as we reflect on ourselves and the world in which we live.

 

Isabelle Philippe is a Senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at ip93@cornell.edu