Shadows of Jordan Peele’s Us

(Written for a theme show on shadows, lo these many months ago. If you haven’t seen Us, this will ruin at least part of the movie for you, so I recommend you come back after you’ve watched it.)

For the love of art, watch it!

Let’s start with the obvious. Shadows and mirrors and twins are all over this film. Scissors (bilaterally symmetrical weapons, unlike knives), actual shadows, the time 11:11, a frisbee landing perfectly on a circle of the twister-like beach blanket, the spider that crawls out from under a larger spider figurine, the Black Flag t-shirt one of the twins wears, the twins themselves. I could keep this up, but that would be dull. Us is all about shadows and what it means to be an incomplete version of a fully realized thing. Twins help reinforce the theme, but they aren’t the same thing. Twins are equivalent identities, while neither mirror images nor shadows are real, independent, or literally fleshed out. The person in each of the latter pairs is human, articulate, capable of making decisions and forming relationships and moving freely, and the mirror or shadow is forced to follow the movements of the other; intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically stunted. Until the revolution that kicks off the events in this movie. In case we didn’t get it, Red (Adelaide’s counterself) tells us a monstrous fairy tale: There once was a girl, and the girl had a shadow, condemned to a nightmarish imitation of all the pleasures the “human” enjoys.

At its best, horror is a genre of deep metaphor. And Jordan Peele is Its Best. Us explores dual identities, what is recognized and what is hidden, what is acceptable and what is not, citizens and second-class citizens, the human and sub-human. It is about segregation, inequity, and identity. As such, Us is absolutely about Race in America without ever explicitly naming race in America. (Though if you grew up in the US and didn’t think “slavery” when you heard “tethered,” that is remarkable.) If this were a book, there would be dozens of references to Critical Race Theorists and quotes from many, many Black intellectuals who have explored the idea of the African-American Self over the last hundred years. But in the interest of wordcount, I’ll just feed you some relevant samples. This one from W.E.B. Du Bois was the first, I think, to really explore the idea of dual identities in Black Americans.

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,— a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The Souls of Black Folk (Of Our Spiritual Strivings) W.E.B. Du Bois

To oversimplify, much of the dual identity discussed by Critical Race Theorists comes from the difficulty of reconciling one’s experience of one’s own unique self in one’s own culture and community with the othering of African-Americans in a White Supremacist culture which says that anything that does not look like and act like Whites and prioritize what White people revere is wrong, aberrant, or simply worthless, and that the only way for BIPOC to prove their value as non-Whites is to abandon their true selves and become like White people – a Catch-22 made in America.

What is so brilliant – excuse me, one of the many, many things that is so brilliant – about Jordan Peele, is that he paints a metaphor of the oppressive, racist structures in the US and the dual consciousness of Black people in America with a pointedly colorblind palette. The explicit mentions of race in the film are limited to one moment, when Gabe, in response to Red finding the hide-a-key on their stoop, growls “what kind of White shit…?” But if you pay attention, you see how the Wilson family walks, if with ease, between Black culture when they’re alone together, and the ubiquitous White culture on the outside.

With Kitty and Josh Tyler, there is rosé and beach lounging and talk of boats and capitalist one-upsmanship and plastic surgery. (The boat is the whitest thing they own, and after killing Josh’s shadow, Gabe is finally “through with boats.”) In the Tyler house, the makeshift weapons are a golf club and a decorative crystal. The Wilsons are clearly living in a White-dominant world, as Adelaide also was, at least on the Boardwalk, as a kid. But the Wilsons, when alone, listen to rap and have a home filled with African art and Gabe wears a Howard sweatshirt; their weapons are a baseball bat and a fire poker.

Another clue that Peele has something to say about race is that there are no discernible Black people in the entire film other than Adelaide, her families, and their shadows. Likewise, there is one, lone representative black rabbit in the wall of cages in the opening image. The Wilsons are superficially othered, even if that othering doesn’t seem to have a social or economic impact on them. Adelaide and her family are exceptional, even if we don’t know where that exceptionalism originates until the end.

While we think that Adelaide is simply fitting in with White people to get along, it turns out she is literally “passing.” Not for White, which Lupita N-yongo is too stunningly dark to do, but for one of the untethered, the privileged, the first-class citizens; because this movie is not about individual racism. (We see no evidence of the Wilsons being personally treated differently due to skin color.) Us is about structural racism in the U.S. Here, literally structural: the tethered are cut off from a life of opportunity by their underground structure and physical separation from a life of freedom.

The oppression in this movie is not the result of race, but of an inferior society crafted by “Americans.” Of course, the oppression of African-Americans was not the result of race either. The idea of race was created to elevate White Western culture and phenotypes and justify the behavior of slavery profiteers and other oppressors. Since many “Black” people are easy to spot by the color of their skin, it made it easy for America to exclude them – from freedom and citizenship, then from basic civil rights, and currently from equal opportunity. Race isn’t a necessary marker in the world of Us because the tethered are physically separated from the “real” humans it serves beautifully as analogue.

Life underground is a metaphor for the inferior living conditions forced on African-Americans, in particular, in the US. Unable to thrive in their segregated community due to their barely livable conditions, they can only imitate the lives of the people they are bound to. It’s an exaggeration, of course, but the basic deprivations are comparable – inadequate schooling, nutrition, health care, an unhealthy physical environment, no expectation of success or a better life, and the abuse and neglect that comes from living among people likewise deprived for generations. Unable to create their own lives, culture, history, goals, they can only act out a mocking, joyless imitation of the actions and culture of the people above ground. White culture, represented as aboveground culture in Us, is the only option available to anyone – the American Dream or nothing. Not convinced? I’ll get you there.

In their living room, when Gabe asks Red, What are you people? Red answers, We’re Americans. Othered, ignored, hidden away from polite society, Red is claiming their humanity, their right to full citizenship. Even though they are not in America voluntarily and had their existence forced upon them, just as slaves were not voluntary immigrants, but were essential to the literal construction of this country. That one line is the most explicit political commentary in the film. The very citizenship of Black people has always been contentious and was not resolved in White minds by either the 14th Amendment or the Civil Rights Act. As Dr. Ibram Kendi has said, the reason POC are labeled disloyal or unamerican when they criticize the US is because they are not recognized as full citizens. Homeowners have a right to bitch about their own house – the floors are slanted, the moldings are ugly – but if you come into my house and criticize it, that’s offensive. Since Black people are not considered citizens, they are not allowed to criticize the US. Why wouldn’t people born in this country, with roots in this country longer and deeper than most, be recognized as citizens? Because those who believe that don’t actually accept African-Americans as fully human, an idea fortified by the historical saturation of White culture which makes it so that being “American” means being White. The tethered are a symbol not only of Black people in the US, but the desperation of all Americans deprived of the dream: they know they deserve something more, even when they don’t know exactly what that is.

The tethered are the product of their surroundings. Trapped in a world without agency, with nothing to strive for, literally cut off from the light of day, from comfort, from nutrition, from joy in life, and distinct only as other, they are verbally, intellectually, psychologically, and otherwise stunted. Even Red, gifted with speech, talent, and drive, can only imagine one alternative to the life the shadows are living: that of Hands Across America, the ad which opens the film, and the t-shirt Adelaide wears as a child (the hope of unity soon covered by the Thriller t-shirt of horror and hidden threats).

Hands Across America was certainly created with good intent, but was ultimately a spectacle, stuffed with sap and celebrities, to raise money to fight poverty and homelessness, with limited success. The limits were determined by the mistakes that tend to happen in quick fundraising schemes like this one, but are also inevitable because they are a balm for the result, instead of addressing the root causes. Let’s not ignore the typical pattern of addressing racial inequities in the US: ignore structures that make and keep poor people poor, focus on the “good individuals” working to “change” that, and pretend our foundational and contemporary racist beliefs have nothing to do with the disparities, because now Black people and White people can hold hands! But the ads … check out the longform ad if you can stomach it. And the song; oh, the song. This #65 on the Billboard Hot 100 list 1986 may be the inspiration for the film itself. Get this:

See that man over there? He’s my brother.

When he laughs, I laugh.

When he cries, I cry.

And when he needs me, I’ll be right there by his side.

Creepy, right? Literally, it’s like being controlled by someone else. The ridiculousness of imitation, fitting in, instead of finding one’s own identity is shown in the attempts at flirtatiousness, affection, fun in the people underground. Imitation is not flattery, but oppression, and shows the imposition and mandated imitation of the dominant culture for how grotesque it truly is.

That nightmare scenario in the lyrics is played out in Us – being condemned to be the shadow of someone else. The tethered aren’t partners, but voodoo dolls. As with Peele, the hands across America images stuck with Adelaide. How do you help people? Like this. White the ending is both triumphant and frightening, it’s also sad. Red was made the leader of the tethered because of her exceptional talent, the ability to create something beautiful in a place without beauty (and, likely, her ability to speak), but her education is limited to primary school, her intellectual and emotional development is stunted, thus her only way out of deprivation is the childish idea of Hands Across America. So that’s what she creates. it’s unlikely to be much more successful than the actual event was, but at least the tethered are out in the world, feeling the sun and the wind (and reaching across water, unlike the original handholders), and no longer enslaved to the people they’ve killed.

Red is special because she knows what she is missing. She is the only one among the tethered who has been in the world above and

he saw himself,—darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that, to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another. For the first time he sought to analyze the burden he bore upon his back, that dead-weight of social degradation partially masked behind a half-named Negro problem.

TSOBF – WEB Du Bois

Get Out was a metaphor for colonization. In Get Out, literal colonization of the Black body, in which what one favors – the beauty, talent, strength, virility – is kept, and everything else (culture, etc.) is pushed out. In Us, the damage is done from the outside in: forced to imitate the people they are tethered to, the shadows cannot live lives of their own. Colonization is moving into a Black space and making it White. America created a White space (through theft and genocide) and makes everyone else imitate it or cram themselves into it to be considered full citizens. The imposition of Whiteness (in this case depicted as the aboveground culture) and the isolation of the other into an inferior … everything makes them appear subhuman and incapable of living meaningful lives. When their behavior reflects their deprivation, that justifies the deprivation itself. Red tries to convince us that they are human, “We’re human too, you know. Eyes, teeth, hands, blood. Exactly like you.” But we don’t quite believe her. There is clearly something wrong with them, something innately off: the same belief that many White Americans hold about Black Americans – ignorant of or resistant to the facts of systemic racism, they think there must be something wrong with a group that has disproportionately high imprisonment, poverty, etc. We hold that belief about the tethered until the last moment of the film, when we see who Adelaide really is, and are finally forced to recognize the limitless potential of the Other.

I think the reason Peele’s metaphor for structural racism is not obvious to more woke people who watch Us is because Adelaide’s true identity is not revealed until the last few minutes of the film. We’re so gobsmacked (I was, anyway) and our brains are so feverishly trying to recontextualize everything that was said and done in the movie, that looking for metaphors seems excessive and unnecessary. We don’t see that Adelaide is an example of a long-running character in American history: the exceptional Negro, the member of the talented tenth, the person who we “forget is black.” But what she actually represents is absolute proof that her people are fully human, given a decent environment to grow up in. Likewise, Red represents what happens when you deprive anyone of a decent life: barbarism, brutality, desperation. Her childhood in the air gave her the ability to speak and dance and the idea of the Hands Across America, but little else. Her parents didn’t create a loving environment from which she could have found a foundation to build something better below. Even through she is fully “human,” her development is severely stunted. We aren’t even sure if she knows that she lived in the real world as a child. She seems to recognize that she is somehow special – she and Adelaide both – when the only thing special about them is Adelaide going up that escalator and trading places. Everything else is the inevitable consequence of their environment.

Adelaide (Red) is passing as fully human in the real world. And she is 100% successful. She is the Exceptional Negro who proves the lie of the inherent inferiority of the tethered, who are inferior only because they are tethered, not the reverse. Red is no cheerleader for the tethered, freely pointing out the inadequacies of her own foursome, but she is confident in their full humanity, and advocates for them on that basis, like Black people trying to convince Whites they’re fully human.

As they drive away at the end, the Wilsons have all managed to eliminate their own shadows. Except Adelaide, of course, who is her shadow. Peele makes a quick shift from this revelation to another perennial metaphor for African-Americans: the mask. (See Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s We wear the Mask/ that grins & lies) Jason, who at the very least has seen his mother joyfully, brutally murder two people, stares at her as her true history wraps up onscreen, then ominously pulls his werewolf mask over his face. Adelaide is liberated when she destroys the threat that has been haunting her since childhood, but Jason has only begun his life of performativity. Probably the most astute of them all – the first to recognize the intruders as “us,” the only one to utilize his shadow’s weakness to instigate it’s own destruction – Jason inherits the curse of understanding what he has inherited and thus of passing, wearing the mask to hide his knowledge of the truth from not only the outside world, but also from his sister and father.

The movie ends much as it began, with the family in the car. But the context has changed completely. Power has shifted, no one is innocent, and despite the Wilsons’ apparent triumphs, the tethered Hands Across America continues unabated outside. It’s a Pyrrhic victory in a brutal and unjust US, if they are victors at all.

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