This Is “Us”: Black and Bougie

I swear these niggas under me (hey)
They hate and the devil keep jumpin’ me

Migos, “Bad and Boujee” (2017)

In 2017, Jordan Peele faced at least one big challenge: answering the question on many minds, about how a sketch comedy guy was going to make a serious film, and a (sort of) horror movie at that.  The rapturous response to Get Out put those questions to rest in short order. 

Now, the director finds himself in almost the exact opposite position: can he possibly live up to the excellence of Get Out in his next film, Us?  As the old saying goes, “you can’t win for losin’.”

I do not know if you can say one film is exactly as good as another.  Us is perhaps not as great as Get Out, but that admission doesn’t really add much to the discussion.  The new film’s plot might get a little flabby at times, but then again, few films can compare to the incredible narrative economy of Get Out. Comparisons aside, Us absolutely stands as a striking and ambitious piece of pop culture in its own right.

[Extreme spoilers follow.]

Peele’s ghastly story of doppelgängers terrorizing a family on vacation definitely hews closer to the genre of horror than its predecessor.  There is plenty of blood and violence; it features many chilling images that will likely stick in a viewers’ mind.  The basic set-up calls to mind Michael Haneke’s 1997 film Funny Games, in which an affluent family is similarly beset by intruders at their lake house.  However, that film was (in my view) primarily about sadism, and that is very much not what Peele is after in Us.

Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide Wilson, a woman on vacation with her husband and two children.  The film opens with the young Adelaide having a strange, traumatizing experience where she meets a duplicate of herself in an amusement park, but in the present she seems at least semi-happy, with a prosperous family and a comfortable lifestyle.  They vacation with two yuppie friends, played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss in an inspired casting choice. (Heidecker’s Tim & Eric loopiness contributes to the surreal and occasionally humorous feel of the film, while Moss is just her always unsettling self.) 

Soon, the Wilsons find that four people who look exactly like them are waiting ominously outside their vacation home.  They wear strange red jumpsuits and carry scissors; only one of them, Adelaide’s doppelgänger Red, has the ability to speak, albeit in halting, garbled fashion.  These people intend to terrorize and ultimately kill their doubles (the Wilsons). 

The doppelgängers are relentless killing machines, with one thing in mind.  Indeed, they evoke the same terror as the monster in 2014’s It Follows, but the menace in that horror film was unexplained, almost a spiritual or mystical force.  The killers in Us could have been much the same, perhaps a psychological manifestation of the characters (as in another favorite of mine, The Babadook), but Peele offers an explanation—of sorts.

The doppelgängers come from underground labs, where the government has created duplicates of the ordinary people living on the Earth’s surface.  In the subterranean world, they either mimic or are coordinated by the actions of their doubles above ground.  It was an experiment of some kind, and the unfortunate duplicates were left down there with lots and lots of extremely creepy rabbits.  Seemingly, the experiment has been abandoned.  In any case, the people terrorizing the Wilsons and their neighbors have broken out of their prison and intend to get their revenge. 

Horror films often have an allegorical or satirical theme, and nearly ever viewer will head into Us expecting to parse the meaning of Peele’s message.  The social commentary here, though, seems rather ambiguous, subject to multiple and even contradictory interpretations—whereas Get Out was very explicitly about the terror of white supremacy and the dehumanization and subjugation of black people. 

Yes, the Wilsons are black, but the theme here may not necessarily be race or racism.  If anything, Us appears to be part of a long tradition of films about class divides, represented by the poor and oppressed living in a dreary underground while the elite live in a sunny paradise above.  (Think of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis or Neill Blomkamp’s 2014 Elysium.)  Maybe Us is just about economic inequality, and the rage of the dispossessed who are determined to burn down the world of their betters.  In an America of ever-widening social and economic divides, this interpretation seems plausible enough.

The story could even be read as an allegory of Trumpism, where those who feel “left behind” by postindustrial capitalism lash out against elites but do so in a crazed, destructive, and nihilistic fashion, befitting of the Great Orange Menace.  The hilarious allusions to the 1986 event “Hands Across America” might support this interpretation, as the underground people seek to recreate a nostalgic and ludicrous vision of a lost past (much like the right wing in the US and many other countries).

However, I think the message is more interesting.  The Wilsons are the model of a successful black middle-class family, the aspirational image of the Huxtables or the Obamas that bolsters the myth of American meritocracy and equal opportunity, proof that the system “works.”  Yet they don’t quite attain all the trappings of affluent American living, nor the effortless insouciance of the elite—at least not to the extent as their white yuppie friends.  (A great running gag about boats nods to this persistent status gap.) 

Guess who’s coming to dinner

And perhaps the Wilsons also represent those people of color who have attained success and pulled away from their less fortunate kin, friends, and neighbors, the Black Bourgeoisie that sociologist Franklin Frazier critiqued in his 1957 book.  The bourgeoisie of Blackish.  Their doppelgängers are the poor and working-class who (literally) didn’t enjoy upward mobility and (literally) remained crushed under the thumb of a violent and abusive state. 

What makes this allegory so interesting is what it says about trauma.  Red is the version of Adelaide that didn’t enjoy the benefits of the system.  Her anger and resentment are legitimate, even if her murderous intent is (maybe) not.  Yet the twist of the film is that Red is not the duplicate—Adelaide is.  When they encountered each other in the amusement park as children, the duplicate dragged Adelaide down underground, imprisoning her there and taking her place in the happy family above.  So Red is Adelaide, and “Adelaide”—as we’ve known her as the protagonist of the film—is actually the doppelgänger who had escaped her underground prison to climb into the light.

So let’s say that Red is Adelaide 1, and “Adelaide” is Adelaide 2.  Adelaide 2’s happy life amid American capitalism necessarily came at the cost of Adelaide 1, in a zero sum that left her behind to suffer violence, privation, and trauma.  But Adelaide 1 is back and determined not only to destroy Adelaide 2, but to take her place in a revolutionary new society, orchestrated by the bloody rebellion she planned in revenge for her being cast down.

It was impossible—for me at least—to watch Us without thinking of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  The scars of the past come back, often in haunting and unnerving ways.  That is Red (or Adelaide 1).  I should add also that the film reminded me of Black Panther, where Killmonger is Red and T’challa is Adelaide. Except that in Black Panther‘s fundamentally conservative moral universe, respectability politics and the Talented Tenth triumph handily over black rage and pessimism.

In this sense, the film is not just about inequality in a blunt way—the Have-Nots going after the Haves.  Rather, it is about the shared trauma of racial capitalism, in which both the one left behind and the one who escapes share the damage of a system where only one can thrive, and even then just barely.  It is more nuanced and ambiguous than the allegory of Get Out, which admirably presented a story where there was no White Savior—but also, by extension, suggested all white people were more or less evil.  In Us, we see that no one escapes the violence of the system, even those who seem to have succeeded and “gotten out.”  Adelaide 1 and 2 share the damage, a gravity neither one can truly escape.

And of course, the film is called Us—winking and nodding to the U.S. itself  When Red is asked, “Who are you people?” she deliciously and menacingly says, “We’re Americans.”  In the same way that Dred Scott, Recy Taylor, Emmett Till, and Eric Garner were Americans, in a manner of speaking. The repressed has returned, and it wants to hold hands across America.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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