Midway through Us, there is a moment when you may think you have Jordan Peele’s latest horror-satire all figured out. Starring Black Panther’s Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, the film depicts a family beach vacation gone horribly wrong in Santa Cruz, California. This is a trip made with some trepidation for Nyong’o’s character Adelaide Wilson. Early in the film, we learn that Adelaide had a traumatic experience in a house of mirrors on the Santa Cruz boardwalk as a child in 1986. Neglected by her father, she disappeared for 15 minutes and encountered not merely her reflection, but her living, breathing doppelgänger. When she returns in 2019, Santa Cruz plays the redwood-embraced, supposedly liberal utopia that it is, albeit with conspicuously better beach weather.
Things do seem fine, on the surface. Any viewer who has seen Get Out will be vigilant to observe whether or not Adelaide, her husband Gabe (Duke), and their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), turn out to be the only people of color on the beach (they are not). Yet Gabe, who sports a Howard University sweatshirt throughout most of the film, probably works in tech in the Bay Area, and he seems more concerned with consumer status than he is with any obvious racial trauma. The Wilsons relax on the beach with Gabe’s co-worker Josh (Tim Heidecker) and his family. For a moment, Peele dares us to wonder if the shallow white family will emerge as the film’s antagonists, making this film a Get Out redux. There are glimpses of some slight simmering tension. But generally speaking, during the opening gambit of Us, the weather in Santa Cruz is post-racial, without a cloud in the sky.
“Peele is the most brilliantly manipulative director at work today. He makes you feel comfortable, and then too comfortable with your genre expectations.”
But this is a Jordan Peele horror film. As fans of Get Out know all too well, Peele is the most brilliantly manipulative director at work today. He makes you feel comfortable and then too comfortable with your genre expectations. He makes you trust characters you shouldn’t trust. He cross- and meta-casts actors into unexpected roles. He sets up plots that play into your cultural assumptions and stereotypes, especially about race. Then he radically subverts expectations to teach you — or, rather, us — a lesson.
Watching Us, we know something must be wrong beyond whatever is going to go wrong in the film’s horror plot. Right?
The Wilsons go home from their day at the beach. Inevitably, the actual doubles of the entire Wilson family arrive at their house in the middle of the night, and they are not here to play nice. Not just Adelaide but everyone in the family must confront the poor, unfortunate other halves of their souls, who have lived underground in a “tethered” alternate reality, but who adamantly insist that they are still Americans, a point underscored by the title (Us = U.S. = United States). The doppelgängers play disturbing, animalistic versions of themselves. In a technically astonishing horror sequence, the doubles wreak havoc on “themselves” as well as others. White people seem to die more easily than black people. Somehow, as the bodies pile up in Santa Cruz, the Wilsons remain miraculously intact. But the inexplicably delayed police, whom the trusting Wilsons called at the first sign of danger, are still supposed to be on their way.
And this is where you will think you know where Peele might be going. By now, surely other reports of the doppelgangers’ wild crimes have been pouring in. In a pivotal scene, someone yells, “Call the police!” and an “Ophelia” (i.e., Alexa) speaker accidentally starts playing NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” What will happen when the police show up, hear the music, and encounter the Wilsons as bloodied, hysterical black people who fit the exact descriptions of their violent other halves?
Yet — brilliantly — this isn’t Peele’s plot. Instead, it’s a profound test about our assumptions about race and criminality, and for that matter, DuBoisian double-consciousness. It’s also a plot foreshadowed by the ending of Get Out, where Chris’s TSA officer friend shows up and the audience is prompted to entertain a similar worry. The educational effect of Get Out, however, was largely entangled in the fun of rollicking horror-satire. Us, on the other hand, which also deals with memory, trauma, and gender, has a more serious undercurrent, which is what has left audiences more conflicted about its troubling and important political message.
Part of this comes from the casting decisions. The presence of Duke and the exceptional Nyong’o, both of whom play major characters in Black Panther, is significant. Black Panther proved that a Marvel action film could feature a predominately African-American cast, and African-American narratives, and yet speak to a diverse, mainstream audience. Us is less explicitly about racial or ethnic experience on the surface, and it is in the first place a horror film, but its psychological undercurrents speak volumes.
“Us grips emotionally as well as intellectually. It’s a horror film with the gravitas of a profound allegory for our troubled cultural moment.”
Us is also highly allusive. It manages to touch on myriad outside references in culture, literature, and film. An epigraph about American underground tunnel-systems evoke the underground railroad as well as Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, who, at the end of his novel about racial trauma, goes underground “to lurk and to wait.” The “tethered” seek to form a human chain across the country in a satirical re-rendering of the 1986 “Hands Across America” campaign. Adelaide as a little girl wears a Michael Jackson Thriller shirt, which her father just won for her at the amusement park when she first meets her double. Finally, there is the setting of Santa Cruz itself. The choice seems arbitrary — why not Santa Monica or Coney Island? — except when one remembers that the adjacent town of Capitola was named for the protagonist of E.D.E.N. Southworth’s sensational 1859 serial novel The Hidden Hand, a story about shifting, mistaken identity, and its aftermath. It was one of the most popular novels of the 19th century, and, recalling its plot (Google it), it’s hard to imagine that Peele wouldn’t have been aware of this.
Us grips emotionally as well as intellectually. It’s a horror film with the gravitas of a profound allegory for our troubled cultural moment. Next to Get Out, it may be the superior work of art because it is at once urgently entertaining and it yields more and more to those willing to reflect on it.U