Jordan Peele’s 2019 film makes a political statement with an unnerving horror, but the audience remains at a safe distance.
A film, by definition, is a medium used to simulate experiences that communicate ideas, stories, perceptions, feelings, beauty, or atmosphere. What a film cannot do is reflect life as precisely as it is. A film will always alter the reality it is trying to portray. In 2019, the film Us, directed by Jordan Peele, swept theaters with its unnerving plot, and eerie soundtrack. The gripping horror explores various representations of injustice which left its audience members with plenty to mull over. Us was a hard pill to swallow, mostly due to how unrecognizable the events in the movie were to the audience. The film highlights some of the most prominent issues in our society yet the audience fails to recognize and acknowledge them. James Baldwin explores the idea of visual safety in “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist.” He suggests that American movies keep the audience at a safe remove from the experience which films are not really prepared to convey. When applied to Peele’s movie, one can definitely say the audience had a safe experience with the film.
Us starts in 1986, when young Adelaide Thomas goes on vacation with her parents to Santa Cruz. She wanders off at a beach while her father is playing a carnival game and enters a funhouse, where she encounters a doppelgänger of herself. When she is eventually found, she cannot speak. Fast-forward to the present day, the adult Adelaide, who has since recovered her speech, heads back to Santa Cruz to vacation with her husband and two children. When a last minute trip to the boardwalk is set into action, she is quick to object. She is very anxious about the trip, but Gabe, her husband, brushes her off due to his eagerness to impress their rich white friends.
At night, a family of four, dressed in red, appear in their driveway, breaking into their home and attacking them. Adelaide’s family very quickly realize the four intruders are their doppelgängers, led by Adelaide’s double, Red. Red, being the only one who can speak, explains that the doppelgängers are called the Tethered, that they share a soul with their counterparts, and that they have come to “untether” themselves.1 The Tethered are identical versions of the people above ground, but they do not have a soul of their own. They are tied to the actions of their “regular selves.” An example of this would be when a person above ground gets married or has children, their tethered selves would also have to reproduce. Or if the person above ground were eating a warm delicious meal, their tethered self would instead, in the words of Red, be eating rabbit “raw and bloody,”2 whether they want to or not. The outfits of the tethered are all matching, reinforcing the idea that they do not have individual choices or opinions, and resemble prison outfits. The Tethered are prisoners of those above ground, who can be interpreted as the higher class, and are forced to be the second-class individuals.
At the post-premiere Q&A at South by Southwest, an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, and music festivals, Jordan Peele, the director, said the film is about America’s misplaced fear of outsiders:
This movie is about this country. We’re in a time where we fear the other, whether it’s the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us and take our jobs, or the faction we don’t live near, who voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger. And I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil, it’s us.3
The film is about classism and marginalization. The Tethered are mirroring our own classism. They’re trapped and forgotten. This metaphor is taken quite literally, as Adelaide and her family face identical versions of themselves. Themes of inequality are seen throughout the plot in which the movie highlights how people can be ignorant to their own privilege. Adelaide, her family, and their friends, have more than they could possibly need; they live abundantly and have the freedom to worry about trivial things like whether Jacob, Adelaide’s son, can get a magic trick to work, or whether her husband’s new boat is big enough for the family. They’re oblivious to the suffering of people whom, despite how they were brought into the world, are outright identical to them.
The film takes a drastic turn in terms of how it conveys its underlying themes of fear and privilege when Adelaide asks the Tethered what they are, and they answer, with a spine-chilling grin, “We’re Americans.”4 This line was striking to see and hear in the movie. It signaled to the audience that it was not going to be another horror film. The “we’re Americans” line represents the duality of American society. It brings to light the alarming reality that some citizens can afford to live on top of the class system, while others are stuck in poverty.
While rewatching this film, I began to find echoes of James Baldwin’s ideas. Us is a complex film that tackles a plethora of race and class issues, but revisiting this film in the context of Baldwin brought me directly to the film I Am Not Your Negro (2016), directed by Raoul Peck. In the movie Us, Red explains that the Tethered were a failed government experiment to clone humans above ground. The movie doesn’t provide too much background or detail on the origin or original purpose of the Tethered, but the fact that the Tethered are in fact manmade resonates with what Baldwin’s claim that “We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him.”5 This concept of the racialized other is not something the “other” brought onto themselves, nor is it something that they came into the world with intrinsically. This label that was falsely placed onto them is now tethered to their identity.
This movie resonates deeply with Baldwin’s thinking and writing. In “The White Man’s Guilt” Baldwin establishes that color “seems to operate as the most disagreeable mirror.” 6 Us replicates this in the literal sense, since the Tethered are identical to their counterparts above ground. The movie does not have any themes of guilt—the characters are fully occupied with their fight for survival—but there are various instances were Baldwin’s thoughts on white guilt can be applied. Baldwin writes,
The American curtain is color. Color. White men have used this word, this concept, to justify unspeakable crimes, not only in the past, but in the present. One can measure very neatly the White American’s distance from his conscience—from himself—by observing the distance between White America and Black America. One has only to ask oneself who established this distance, who is this distance designed to offer protection.7
The curtain separating the Tethered and the people above ground, is not color but class. The Tethered are hardly even considered second class individuals. They can’t speak, so they communicate through grunts, and even Red’s son walks on all fours, which makes him very dog like. The Tethered have animalistic tendencies because they were forced underground to live secondhand lives. Their identities were created by humans, but that same identity is the excuse that the family in the movie used to defend themselves and kill the Tethered. Adelaide’s children, both of whom are quite young, participate in killing their Tethered, in very brutal manners. Those above ground wish to protect themselves from the ones they have othered and distanced themselves from.
Last, but certainly not least, the untethering that the Tethered speak of is the process by which they sever the link between them and their human selves. This example is not faithful to our reality; untethering is not a simple link that needs to be cut. The relationship between blacks and whites is not one like a string, but once again Baldwin is very useful to understanding this situation. By the end of the movie, we’ve learned in a plot twist that “human” Adelaide has been switched with “tethered” Adelaide. This explains why when young Adelaide returns to her family she couldn’t speak, but she slowly learned. This also explains why Red knew how to speak, even though her speech was fragmented. Looking back at the film with this knowledge and further analyzing Adelaide’s actions, it’s clear that she was a lot more terrified of the Tethered, almost like she already knew what they were after, while the rest of her family was more puzzled. When applied to Adelaide’s relationship with her Tethered, of particular resonance is Baldwin’s claim that white people carry in them a carefully muffled fear that black people long to do to others what has been done to them.”8 This muffled fear can clearly be seen in “Adelaide.” In the case of both Adelaide and white people, they are both aware of the monstrosity in their actions and have projected that fear onto the “other.”
Us was released in late March 2019, and I saw this movie in theaters opening week; it has been seven months since I first saw the movie, and this was my first time thinking about it critically. Being less educated at the time of the first viewing, I could recognize that the film tackled many social issues, but I was too focused on the cinematic experience to really absorb any of the director’s commentary on these issues. This, I now know, is due to the visual security that James Baldwin talks about in “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist.” In this essay, he writes, “These movies are designed not to trouble, but to reassure; they do not reflect reality, they merely rearrange its elements into something we can bear”9 The experience of watching a film is itself security. To be able to turn around and whisper to the person sitting next to you, tell a joke, check your phone, do anything that takes your attention away from the screen, and remove you from the space of discomfort you may have entered while watching, that is security. Knowing that what is on your screen is not real and that you are not a part of it is enough to negate the truth in the stories that are being told. Baldwin explains this when he says “We do not seem to want to know that we are in the world, that we are subject to the same catastrophes.”10
How does this film give us security? Well, for starters, it’s fiction. We do not have doppelgängers. In relation to Us specifically, that fact alone was enough to reassure me that those events have never and will never happen. The events that make up the film’s plot are not realistic, so audiences can’t really apply it to their lives and empathize with it. Looking at the film now, I do see some similarities. Living in New York City, you see a lot of homeless men and women who are forced to spend their nights and most of their time in the subway—coincidentally enough, below ground. Those people are often not treated as such and are often ignored, even when they blatantly ask for help. We as Americans do have a group of second class individuals that are day after day being mistreated and ignored by the vast majority because we have othered them and that label we have tethered to their identity gives us an excuse for how we treat them. This is a similarity I failed to see while watching the movie. The reality that I experience and partake in daily was quickly forgotten and unrecognizable when shown to me in the film. The artistic decisions that were made in conveying and reshaping our reality into the cinematic art form allows the viewers visual security by not realizing that the things they see on screen are representative of the reality that they live in.
One of the most impactful parts of a film is the soundtrack. The soundtrack can be very manipulative since it even tells you what to feel and when to feel it. Without knowing much about music, I’ve nonetheless noticed that string instruments are played slowly when you need to be sad, quicker when you need to feel like your right there running with the characters on the screen. Percussion instruments make you feel anxious, and let’s not forget the jarring jump scares. The images and the sounds work flawlessly to manipulate your feelings, and those same feelings are the ones that dictate how you take in what’s presented to you. For example, when the Tethered breaks into Adelaide’s house, her clueless husband offers them their boat, and the daughter replies with “nobody wants the boat, Dad,” that takes the audience out of their trance with comedy.11 Bringing in comedy during such a life-threatening situation is a mockery of real life. It’s almost like saying, such unimaginable things happen in movies, and they’re laughable, the real world couldn’t possibly be as terrifying.
Us makes a political statement with an unnerving horror. It brilliantly exemplifies relationships of inequality and othering in our society. The themes of this film were compromised by its form. Rather than addressing these issues through direct dialogue in real life, exploring them through a movie rearranges the reality in a way which was more palatable for the audience. James Baldwin explains this to be a “safe remove,” and this safety is what buffers the impact of this film.
- Us, directed by Jordan Peele (Universal Pictures, 2019).
- Us, directed by Jordan Peele.
- Ramin Setoodeh, “Jordan Peele, Lupita Nyong’o Terrify SXSW with ‘Us’,” Variety, March 8, 2019.
- Us, directed by Jordan Peele.
- I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck (Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios, 2016).
- James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” James Baldwin: Collected Essays (Library of America, 1998),
- James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt.”
- James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt.”
- James Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings(Vintage, 2011), 5-6.
- Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist,” 6.
- Us, directed by Jordan Peele.