Breaking Down The Political Elements In Jordan Peele's 'Us'
Peele's stunning horror keeps its finger on the pulse of current American social and political commentary.
Jordan Peele's 2017 Oscar-winning film Get Out combined eye-popping horror with thoughtful, provocative commentary on performative wokeness and race relations in America. In Us, Peele's new nightmarish film, the Sunken Place is traded in for the beaches of Santa Cruz — and a haunting horror of a different kind. Brimming at the doppelgänger's red-jumpsuit seams with symbolism and deeper meaning, Us posits a nightmare in which we are our own worst enemies. The Wilson's summer vacation to Santa Cruz turns deadly when their doppelgängers begin to hunt them down. Us is broad in scope and absolutely terrifying. But what makes the film positively shocking is the deft politically commentary hidden beneath the surface. Here, we take a dive into the political themes in Us.
Class: Living Above, Existing Below
One of the most fleshed-out themes in Us is the separation of class. In the United States capitalist society, class is segregated by neighborhoods and distinguished by material wealth. The impoverished lower class lives forgotten and unseen. Peele bolsters this notion through the relationship between the middle and upper-class people who "live above" and the Tethered, who live below.
When Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) confronts Red, her doppelgänger, in the tunnels of the Tethered after Red kidnaps her son, Red uses the tense moment to reveal the origins of The Tethered. The Tethered and their above counterparts exist, but they don't live in the same way.
On one level, Adelaide and her family live a comfortable middle-class life, but the pressures of a capitalist, class-based system are ever present. This is demonstrated in the Wilson's relationship with the Tyler family. When Adelaide's husband Gabe (Winston Duke) reveals to the wealthy Josh Tyler that he is the recent proud owner of a boat named "Craw Daddy," Josh grills Gabe on the facts of the boat, whether the boat comes with flares, and so on. Gabe and Josh, both boat owners, are disconnected by economic ability. The Tylers' boat is sleek, clean, and comes with more luxury amenities. The engine of Gabe's boat doesn't even function smoothly and lacks the luxuries that Josh's boat has. Like the old adage "Keeping up with the Joneses," Gabe is trying to keep up with the Tylers.
But when the Tethered first visit the Wilsons and the Tylers, class is irrelevant to survival. Despite being able to afford a backup generator, and having all the money and access they need to buy their safety, the Tylers meet their end at the hands of the doppelgängers. At the Wilsons' home, fear launches them into survival mode. They fight to stay alive. Us comments on the middle class's fight for survival, and the ways in which the upper echelon of our society remains ignorant.
Then there is the Tethered community who live below in tunnels across the United States. The Tethered exist but are never recognized — much like the lowest classes of American society. In Us, there exists a very literal upstairs/downstairs. Those upstairs live a full life, unencumbered by the actions of anyone below them. The Tethered are forced to live vicariously through their counterparts above, mimicking their actions. However, they never get to enjoy the material fruits of the above's consumption-based, capitalist society.
Protest: Violence for Peace
On May 25, 1986, roughly 6.5 million people held hands across America for fifteen minutes. It was an effort to fight hunger and homelessness and aid impoverished communities throughout the United States. Today, Hands Across America is remembered as a hypocritical stunt that produced little change, if any at all. The event raised roughly $34 million but only $15 million after deductions to organize and promote the peaceful protest.
Behind the failure of the event was the naive notion that such a stunt could aid the disenfranchised and oppressed. In reality, the demonstration of unity could never solve the problems it set out to tackle, and ultimately delivered far less than what it set out to do. The opening scene of Us reminds us of this event, and begins with young Adelaide watching the news bulletin about Hands Across America.
Peele uses Hands Across America to comment on the hypocrisy of America. The peaceful protest didn't yield any effective results, which the people above were Ok with. In the end, the Tethered carry out their mission and meet their goal, and ultimately stand united as Americans who have made a better world for themselves and rectified the justice they were never afforded.
Gender Roles: The Girl and Her Shadow
Adelaide and Red, both played brilliantly by Nyong'o, are not just tethered to one another, they are the core of the film. But what those two roles represent is what makes Us such a fascinating political watch. Red and Adelaide are both trying to survive. They are the leaders of their families. When Gabe recommends they remain at the Tyler household, Adelaide reminds him, "We need to move and keep moving," and so they do. Red is also a leader who is exulted by the Tethered. She plans their escape, leads the attack, and instructs her faction to hunt down their above counterparts. Both Adelaide and Red are more than the horror genre's "Final Girls." They are the leaders, fighters, and arbitrators of the film. When asked if he intentionally put two Black women at the forefront of his film given the Black women are at the "forefront of many of our current movements," Peele revealed: "....I think more of the focus, for me, in how I was approaching a Black woman, in this film was to tap into the idea of the Black superwoman trope. There are several tropes or boxes that the media has put Black female characters in and one of them is the superwoman."
With Get Out, Jordan Peele entered the film arena with a provocative, challenging reflection of our culture. In Us, Peele solidifies himself as an original filmmaker who has his finger firmly on the pulse of current American social and political commentary.