Jordan Peel’s Us is a psychological thriller starring award-winning actress, Lupita Nyong'o and her Yale School of Drama counterpart, Winston Duke. The film, with an eerily shadow of doom throughout, intertwines the genre of horror with real-life messages regarding classism, xenophobia, religion, and animalistic human tendencies.
Nyong'o plays Adelaide Wilson, a wife and mother of two who returns to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for a family trip, despite going through a traumatic event that occurred in the same place during her childhood. Peele begins the opening credits of the film with a story about several secret underground tunnels that run through the United States. He then projects a flashback where young Adelaide is viewing a “Hands Across America” commercial— a campaign in 1986 which promoted a fundraising event where 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the contiguous United States in order to help fight poverty and homelessness.
After all was said and done however, not even half of the money raised was used to combat poverty. These chains/tunnel-like references re-emerge when the “Tethered” come back in an attempt to seek revenge on humankind. Here Peele is jogging audiences to think about what if oppressed people (poor, disabled, mentally ill, minorities, etc.) did revolt against those privileged and in power?
Besides issues of class, audiences also immediately see biblical references during Adelaide’s adolescent flashback. After seeing a scruffy looking man with long, greasy hair holding a Jeremiah 11:11 sign, Adelaide is confronted with her shadow self— “Tethered”— in a room full of mirrors. When Adelaide and her family return several years after the incident, the first thing she sees is the same man’s dead body being loaded into an ambulance. He is still holding the sign.
What does this reference mean? The verse alludes to the inescapable evils revolving around humanity. Jeremiah was a prophet who warned Jews who were in exile in Babylon that God was not happy of their worship of false idols. In this case, not only does 11:11 numerically mimic the idea of doubles, like the doppelgangers, but also alludes to Adelaide’s prophetic roles both in her “Tethered” and human form. Her “Tethered” form revolts and attempts to lead her people to power over those above them, while her human form takes the leadership/protective role of her family.
While her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) plays a witty, joke-cracking black dad, Adelaide is the glue, holding down her family. Gabe initially tries to make comedic light of the several strange events that begin to occur, such as a family of doppelgangers who invade the family’s home he tries to offer up money and even the family’s janky boat for them to leave. However, after being attacked with a metal bat, he quickly realizes that it is not a laughing matter, and steps up to protect his family.
We can see the doppelgangers as their human forms but stripped down to their most animalistic selves. Each Wilson family member’s clone mimics a somewhat primordial/ “lesser than” identity. For example, while Adelaide wears her hair in twists, her clone wears her hair natural and nappy. Gabe’s clone howls like a monkey and sports an unkempt beard and their son Jason’s clone hops around on all fours and howls like a dog.
So who are these doppelgangers? Adorned in red jumpsuits, sandals, and scissors, “The Tethered” resemble humans, but are slightly off. Their bodies are slightly grotesque, manipulated into odd shapes and spaces. None of them speak except for Adelaide’s tether named Red, and even then she speaks winded and choppy with barely any bass in her voice. The “Tethered” people endure extreme levels of pain and suffering that their human counterparts do, similar to slaves or even lower-class people in comparison to upper-class individuals.
Adelaide and Red face off after recalling the chimerical event that brought the two together. Red (who audiences think is the cloned version of Adelaide but is revealed otherwise later) rehashes the unfair pain and suffering her people endured. Her and Adelaide swiftly battle each other in a ballet dance, ending with Adelaide choking Red and literally taking her voice away. Adelaide grunts and moans like an animal, once again showing that humans at their core are savages regardless of their socialization and upbringing. While her death was horrific in itself, the stakes are only raised when it is revealed that Jason, her son, has been watching the entire time. He is scared of his mother, seeing the evil and animalistic capabilities within her.
The film concludes with an aerial shot of thousands of “Tethered” people holding hands spanning the U.S., much like the “Hands Across America” event. Jason seems weary of his mother, noticing something different about her since the killing of Red. He puts his mask down to cover his face as “I Got 5 on It” by Luniz plays as the Wilson family drives into this disjointed dystopian future.
Who do audiences root for? Those who have been oppressed by society and forced to be silenced, pained, and starved who have now found their voices, or the few left from the top seeking to maintain their status in the world?