family hugging, frightened look. Boy has a mask on top of his head.
Photo courtesy of Monkeypaw Productions / IMDb

Jordan Peele Exposes the True Horrors of America in 'Us'

Jordan Peele’s newest film Us opens with a television playing a commercial for the Reagan-Era initiative “Hands Across America,” a benefit event created to fight poverty but was ultimately a failure. Less than half of the proceeds went to the intended goal.

However, the larger issue rested in the administration orchestrating the campaign. Reagan was holding hands for the photo-op while simultaneously enacting policies and perpetuating cultural values which deepened divisions between socio-economic classes in the US. His attempt to mask the fundamental issues surrounding poverty with a PR campaign instead of presenting a tangible solution was deeply emblematic of the superficial ways the U.S. has generally attempted to address financial inequality. This initial image reflects one of the main messages Peele attempts to drive forward throughout his film: real problems demand real solutions.

The plot follows the Wilson family made up of two parents, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), and Gabe (Winston Duke), as well as their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). On the car ride to the family’s beach house (in a sedan), Gabe lectures his children on a classic hip-hop song (“I Got 5 On It” by Luniz), Zora and Jason argue in the backseat, and Adelaide tries to diffuse any rising tensions. Altogether, their actions create an image of a seemingly stereotypical American family.

Tension builds as Adelaide is reluctant to return to her family’s beach house due to a traumatic event that occurred there when she was a young girl. She is constantly on edge and becomes visibly distressed when she momentarily loses Jason while meeting family friends at the pier.

Shaken by being back at the house, Adelaide tells Gabe what had happened to her as a child. After becoming separated from her parents, she found herself in a house of mirrors and came face to face with another young girl who looked exactly like her. Just as she shares this, Jason encounters another family, dressed in identical red jumpsuits who force their way into the home. This break-in fulfills the inherently upsetting home invasion horror trope, but the film becomes chilling in the next scene after the violence has settled. Adelaide and her family sit on the couch and discover that the people that have broken into their home is, in fact, them. Adelaide, Gabe, Zora, and Jason are directly mirrored by their doppelgangers Red, Abraham, Umbrae, and Pluto.

Red, who is the same girl Adelaide saw as a child, explains that she is Adelaide’s shadow. She is “tethered” to Adelaide, forced to crudely mirror every move she makes in the underground tunnel system in which she lives. For example, Red gave birth at the same time Adelaide did. However, while Adelaide was in a hospital bed, surrounded by amenities to make her comfortable, Red described having to tear the children from her womb herself due to the lack of underground resources. Red has a skeleton of the life Adelaide lives. Adelaide asks who they are and Red speaks for her and her family when she replies, “We are Americans.”

This home invasion is not only jarring due to the obvious terror associated with being attacked in your own home, but also in that a vision of the American family we find too comforting has been intruded upon. The image of the educated upper  nuclear family is lauded within American culture and is rarely criticized in the same way as the exorbitantly wealthy. For every family shuttling between its two homes, there is another, such as this doppelgänger family, which struggles.

We are willing to accept a nation filled with financially underprivileged individuals but are reluctant to admit that we are directly or indirectly tied to the deficiency that another person is experiencing. Red and her family are just as much a part of the fabric of American culture as Adelaide and hers.

Over the course of the movie, Red reveals she has come to “untether” herself from Adelaide and break free from being her shadow. Within the larger context of the cycle of poverty, Red is trying to break free from the system which has oppressed her.

At its core, Us is a commentary of a system of duality on which America operates. For every person who is thriving, there is another who is suffering. Peele closes his film by pointing out that we can’t simply suppress our problems; they need to be directly addressed and reconciled with, or else they will always live amongst us.