[Trevor] Taking Exception to American Exceptionalism: Duality, Shared Trauma, and the Other in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019)

Author’s Note: What follows is a thorough analysis of Jordan Peele’s latest sociological horror film, so there are spoilers ahead. If you have not seen the movie yet but plan to, bookmark the page, go watch, and come back to read. You’ve been warned.

Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” -Jeremiah 11:11, KJV.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.  So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” -Romans 7:15-17, ESV.

Halfway through Us (2019) audiences discover that the horror that has befallen the Wilson family has escalated into a global terror; what began as a tale of individualized trauma has become one of shared trauma. In Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort, doubling is more than just thematic, but it is metacommentary on the cinematic coup he has achieved in that it is not just doppelgängers that are overthrowing the system; Peele has revolutionized a genre. Further, he has matched the genius of his first movie through aesthetic symmetry, complex social subtext, and stimulating ideas about identity, but, do not be fooled, his latest work is no clone. Innovative, subversive, hypnotic, and traveling at breakneck speed, Us is groundbreaking in the insights it has into shared trauma and positions itself among the upper echelon of horror films along the way.

Us is about identity–both personal and collective. Following the first frame of a commercial about the 1986 benefit event known as Hands Across America, the opening shots are of a young Adelaide Wilson, who wanders off into a funhouse at a carnival in Santa Cruz. Just before getting lost though, she sees a homeless man holding up a cardboard sign with, “Jeremiah 11:11” scrawled in red on it. Such a Biblical reference both invokes the exile of the Jews by the Babylonians (a subject we will return to later) and the recurring doubling motif that is prevalent throughout the film. In fact, we see a group of teenagers playing, “Paper, Rock, Scissors” and they keep coming up with scissors, which is ironically both an image of an eleven and a copy which results in a “draw.”

While inside the metaphorically named maze, “Vision Quest: Find Yourself”, Adelaide confronts several replications of herself as she walks through a hall of mirrors. Eventually though, she stops at one reflection, and, as the camera takes an extreme close-up, we learn from the girl’s changing expression that this is not an image but an actual duplicate. Although we are not shown the alternate at this stage, Peele strongly implies through the use of a muted scream and an elevated score. Subtle storytelling is indeed more effective.

The camera immediately cuts to a close-up of a white rabbit, and our mind-bending escapade begins. Rabbits are prolific in Us, and its presence here is an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In that novel, the protagonist follows a white rabbit and the narrative conveys clear themes of growing up and mistaken identity. After falling through the hole, Alice has doubts about her own identity and tests her knowledge to determine whether she has become another girl, a parallelism to the film that will become all the more resonant with the final reveal. Even the White Rabbit confuses Alice for his maid Mary Ann. When the Caterpillar asks the girl who she is, she is reluctant to answer as she feels she has changed several times since that morning. Instability about personal identity goes beyond the physical though as the Cheshire Cat addresses the issue of her sanity, a question the viewer may well be asking about Adelaide well into the film as well as whether or not we are dealing with an unreliable narrator.

Nevertheless, it does not seem coincidental that the following scenes are of a young girl (who we are told was missing for fifteen minutes), overhearing her parents talk to a psychiatrist about their daughter suffering from PTSD. Artfully shot, the point-of-view is from Adelaide looking at her mother and father’s reflection in a mirror. The story never seems to miss an opportunity to remind you of the pliability and elusiveness of the sense of self. In addition, this vignette within the larger tale is one of the most realistic and powerful depictions of mental illness in cinema, showing that it is not only war veterans and abuse survivors who suffer from PTSD, in spite of Adelaide’s father’s confusion (“She didn’t go to Vietnam”).

Time moves to the present day, and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is an adult and is riding along with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children, Jason (Evan Alex) and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). Barreling down the road amid family banter, the Wilsons are headed to their summer home in Santa Cruz. Turning on what is now the earworm of America (“I Got 5 on It” by Luniz), Gabe is the trope of the carefree father figure just wanting to have vacation with his wife and kids, and my only criticism is that he remains that throughout the duration of the movie. But this is Adelaide’s journey and so while her husband recedes into the background, it is to bring larger thematic concerns into relief.

After arriving at their vacation property, we see the outworking of a black, American family, something that tragically has been absent from most of our films. It is in these moments, in the mundane and commonplace exchanges between the characters, that the movie has some of its richest material, and I worry it might get overlooked in the carnage that comes later. Looking carefully though, we see Adelaide, who wants her daughter to pursue track, pushing platitudes on the girl, telling her, “She can be whatever she sets her mind to.” We do not even know if the protagonist believes this though. Clearly though, Zora does not as, in the throes of adolescence, she counters, “Can I drive the car? Because that’s what I set my mind to.”

Before long, Gabe will arrange to rendezvous with the Tylers at the Santa Cruz beach, returning to the scene of distress for Adelaide, but, in the interim, we get to witness him tinkering with a boat on the lake, a clunker that he got for cheap. It is not the yacht of white privilege, and later Gabe will bemoan his Caucasian friend Josh’s purchase of a new car, a move that Gabe even wonders if his buddy did just to aggravate him. Throughout these moments, we see a middle class black family grappling with the American Dream and its unattainability. If being American is intrinsic to our identity, then how can you claim that if the narrative that comes with it is that hard work leads to wealth. Worse than experiencing the promise of fortune as a prize that is so remote is the fact that it ever seems within reach for the Wilsons.

Attempting to alter the plans to return to the place where she went missing, Adelaide confides in her husband about the experience she had as a child and explains in a moment of foreshadowing, “I don’t feel like myself.” Omens abound and the leitmotif emerges again as the time, “11:11” is seen on more than one occasion, and the protagonist hears a baseball score as tied, “11-11.” Her husband, though, can provide little comfort and in a gesture without empathy says, “You look like yourself,” and, when learning that Adelaide saw a double and fears it is coming after her, misfires with a line to the effect of, “This person is you? I can beat you up. So we should be good, right?”

Protest though she will, Adelaide is vetoed and the family ends up at the same beach with her son Jason roaming next to an almost same funhouse (the name differs slightly). Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elizabeth Moss) are a white couple with twin girls Becca (Cali Sheldon) and Lindsey (Noelle Sheldon), the twins another reference to the theme of doubling and duality. The Tylers’ whiteness serves as an effective dichotomy with the Wilsons’ blackness, a juxtaposition that augments the idea that historically people of color have been like shadows of the majority (depicted here visually and advanced narratively when the doppelgängers arrive), marginalized and disregarded for too long. Rambling on and on, Kitty seems nonchalant when Adelaide says, “I’m not that good at talking.” Such a statement is a reference both to the character’s traumatized past when she could not speak and evocative of the entire black experience when a whole people group has not been given a voice but instead silenced. A ball falls with exactness on a dot on the beach towel and she realizes Jason is missing.

False alarms are a trope of the horror genre and such is the case here as the tension is resolved soon as mother and son are reunited. The incident is enough to upset Adelaide though and the entire family departs for the summer house. Before long, the family of copies arrives on the driveway, dressed in red prison jumpsuits, reminiscent of a group that has been enslaved, and wielding scissors, which signifies once more the theme of doubling. While Gabe tries to be heroic and confront the others with violence, Adelaide retreats to shield her children. As I sat in the theater and viewed the moments of torture that would unfold, I was gripped by how removed the father seemed from his children and how attached Adelaide was to them, or, if she was ever separated from them, she fought more to ensure their survival than her own. Gabe, on the other hand, seemed more to fight for himself, but I acknowledge that my takeaway here is only after one viewing. At any rate, the mother is the protective figure in this story, finding identity as the caretaker of her children. After all, they are her brood and blood, but also her legacy on a symbolic level as Zora is a runner, suggestive of Adelaide’s tendency to want to escape her past, and Jason wears masks and plays with magic, indicative of our character’s other version of herself and illusory experiences. More than just a passive defender, the protagonist is an active fighter in that she is an agent that brings about change to the plot. Subverting a genre where the greatest horror has been the injustice that horror movies have done to black identity or the black experience, Peele offers a different account from what we have seen before that is engaging, because it plays off our expectations.

Us 3

Following what seems like just a simple home invasion movie, we learn that everyone has a doppelgänger (even the affluent Tylers get slain by their copies in their palatial second house): the so-called Tethered that are the results of a government cloning experiment and were oppressed and forced underground. Redolent of American slavery and systematic racism, we know these individuals, which also refer to themselves as shadows, went mad and were confined in claustrophobic, cell-like settings. In the buildup to the film, Peele was outspoken that he had a clear social criticism in mind and that was the xenophobia that is pervasive in the current political climate and cultural milieu. The director stated that his focus was that in a time when we fear the outsider or the other as being the threat that maybe our own worst enemy is us. Doubling, it turns out, exists on a titular level as well as Us signals both us and the U.S.; it is personal and it is collective. Trauma happens on an individual level, but when that trauma expands and becomes part of a communal experience, when it becomes distinctive of group identity, it is a shared trauma that is the most horrifying of haunts, recycling through generation after generation.

Recall Jeremiah 11:11, which is more than another appearance of the doubling motif, but is a Biblical allusion to when the Jews were evicted by Yahweh from their nation by the Babylonians, after the civil war which divided the monarchy and pagan worship became rampant. The context of Jeremiah 11:11 is that the Israelites are living in a foreign land and serving an alien king. Prophetic woe suffuses the bleak pronouncement then as the text from above says that God will both bring evil that his people will not escape and he will not listen to them though they cry out to him. Paralleling our movie narrative where the Tethered are unable to escape and crying for deliverance, the concept of a people in exile is one that the black church has historically relied on through times of slavery and suffering. If any group has encountered oppression and violence, it is the Jewish people, and, thus, it stands that the black Christian is in better position to identify with the people of God. Further, the true Jew is not one that has an ethnic marker but one that has the marker of faith, which is inclusive of the Gentile (non-Jew). To put it otherwise, all Christians should desire to be considered a Jew and should conceive of themselves as in exile. This is why the black church understands on an existential level the Christian pilgrimage best, because it knows what it means to be looking for a heavenly kingdom while working to improve social conditions here. In many cases, the black church has not exchanged a theology of the cross for a theology of glory. Problematically, I fear that too many white Christians identify more as Americans than as Jews. To do so is to misunderstand our identity and what defines a true Jew exegetically. As a white Christian, I self-examine and confess that my ways of constructing my personhood around my privilege is sin and only distorts the self.

Anthony Bradley has written with aplomb on how what he calls Great Commission Christianity (GRC) has kept blacks away from the church or has sent them leaving in droves. In its place, he offers a position of Cosmic Redemption Christianity (CRC), a message of God in Christ redeeming all of creation, which allows for social justice to be intrinsically linked to the gospel. Ironically, evangelicals and their promotion of GRC saw it reach its heights in the 80s under the Reagan administration, much of which was concurrent with the Hands Across America movement that is displayed in the film. It’s not happenstance that GRC and the Moral Majority and Religious Right surged at the same time. It is syncretism of the worst kind; it is when primarily white Christians subscribe to the doctrine that America is unique and alone in its importance, taking precedence over all other nations. It is nationalism run amok. It leads to misguided wars. It engenders paranoia about immigrants and foreigners. However, the church is global, and it has no borders.

Watching Us, I was reminded again of how an entire people group, many of those whom I have a common heritage with in the church, have a narrative of trauma and tragedy that, not unlike PTSD, will linger long after the crimes were committed. We can say equality has improved since the 50s, but we are circumventing the necessary grieving process that suffering people need to undergo. If individuals must process loss, how much more so entire people groups?

And yet Peele has said how he wants the film to also be personalized. Challenging truths about xenophobia and bigotry notwithstanding, the director is inclusive in his storytelling rather than exclusive, bringing together rather than pulling apart. Upon seeing trailers for the much anticipated movie, I thought only the black characters would have doppelgängers and I tried to speculate at what the significance would be. Would the film be about internalized oppression? As I have mentioned though, all characters have doubles. We are all duking it out with our own demons, dealing with the nightmare of our inherent evil. For the Christian, this is understood in general as indwelling sin, as the apostle Paul speaks of the warring between sin (sometimes called the flesh, though as a metonymy not as the material) and the Spirit in us. In particular in Us, the wickedness manifests itself in the form of contempt and resentment. We see contempt and resentment festering in two of the main characters, Gabe and Adelaide. Gabe is frustrated, because he cannot quite acquire the American Dream. Adelaide is saddled with anger over her life being robbed by tragedy. And yet contempt is understood as having an object, as seeing some other as worthless. In the case of Gabe and Adelaide, what are they seeing as worthless? Paradoxically, I’d argue that they are seeing themselves as worthless, for not being able to have the lives they expected. Contempt is seething and incipient, and, worse than any frightful facsimile, will destroy you. Peele is right–horror is in the mundane.

As a divorced dad, I have had to confront my own shadow, the contempt that gestates inside of me. Abandonment trauma, being left without notice by a wife and estranged from my kids, is triggered when I see a photo of Karis or step on one of Ander’s LEGOs. The result is that, if left unchecked, I will brood over past wrongs that have been done to me and present conditions that bring pain. My kids have a stepfather now, and it seems like a duplicate dad, a doppelgänger of sorts, has swooped in to replace me and to kiss them goodnight.

I do not write here to disparage anyone, and I certainly do not write for pity. I have written elsewhere on my divorce. I write now as I did then: from a place of emotional honesty and as a way to heal. My enemy is not my children’s stepfather; it is not my ex-wife. My enemy is in the mirror. For if I allow my contempt to ferment, what will come out will not be wine but poison. I will become so deformed by my own intensifying anger that I will become a monster that I will not even be able to recognize anymore.

And that is what Jordan Peele’s Us is aiming for, especially in a time of an insurgent, demagogue president, carried to office on a populist movement of contempt. The response to that is not to give contempt for contempt, but to acknowledge the anger and let go. As someone has said, to have anger for your own anger is simply to have two angers. Listen to someone of a divergent viewpoint. Extend charity to the other. The black community has been victimized and hurt; hurt people need to have their pain validated. Often though, as blacks have recorded, they have had to stifle their blackness in order to permeate white society. As W.E.B. Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk,

One ever feels his twoness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

White Christians would do well to learn from their black brothers and sisters about how feeling divided and an undesired duality can prepare one for both what I will call a real duality (the flesh vs. the Spirit mentioned earlier), and an ideal duality. The ideal duality demands attention for that is the concept that was nascent in this article earlier: we are dual citizens. We are residents of two kingdoms, not of America and the church, but of heaven and earth. That distinction is a subtle one but needs to be made. I think so often Christians will talk about belonging to America and to the church, but the redemptive duality is so much larger than that and is correctly understood as being citizens of the celestial city and the entire world, rather than of a particular nation-state.

Towards the end of the film, Jason, whose duplicate is Pluto which is the god of the underworld no less, is abducted by Red, Adelaide’s double. In the final act, Adelaide goes back to the funhouse, discovers a secret door, and travels underground to where she finds her copy and Jason (clever Easter egg is found here in that Peele, a connoisseur of horror films has made the mask wearing character named after the villain of slasher fame). More is explained about the Tethered, and their lair is filled with white rabbits. The rabbit then is not only an allusion to Alice in Wonderland but also to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in which one of the main characters, a double of a sense, named Lenny wants to live on the land and have a bunch of rabbits. In Steinbeck’s novel, the rabbits are symbolic of the American Dream and the impossibility of it, since Lenny keeps crushing the poor creatures when he tries to hold them. In Us, the rabbits are behind cages, a visual reminder of slavery and other forms of imprisonment of minorities. Red recounts how she envied Adelaide’s life and desired what she had. Thus, she had to murder her and not just do that but to stage a chain of hand holding, reminiscent of Hands Across America in order to make a statement. This human fence brings to mind the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, and indicates that it is time for the oppressed to rise up. But perhaps what is the central irony of the movie is that the Tethered succeed where we do not precisely because they are not divided. Could it be that the American Dream is a myth and creates inequality?

Acting as a surrogate gospel, the American Dream offers no relief but only resentment. In its place is the legend of Jesus who became our doppelgänger on the cross, becoming a monster of wickedness for us, taking on the contempt of God on account of our own contempt. He is the Tethered, tied to us in becoming like us as a man and uniting us to his mystical body but also in binding himself to the cross where in his hands were not scissors but nails and on his body was not the red of a jumpsuit, but the red of God’s blood. And while he didn’t go underground, he went to Hell and has arisen to reconcile not only black and white, but Creator and creature and all opposites in the cosmos. He became the Other for us, so we could have an identity that is shared in the church and one with him. Overcoming the real duality will only be accomplished upon his return for those who have the ideal duality.

Parting shots in a horror film are often significant as the 80s, arguably the golden age of horror movies, saw the heyday of The Last Gasp trope or the idea that the monster that was thought defeated remains alive and poised to strike when we are unsuspecting. Before the final reel, we are told in a graceful, masterful stroke that Adelaide is not Adelaide. It is hinted to us first by Jason’s reaction in putting on the mask and acting terrified of his mother. And then we receive flashbacks where we see that the actual Red choked out Adelaide and drug her down to the underground. Thus, from childhood and from the beach experience, Red acting as Adelaide actually could not speak, because she was one of the terrors from below. She had to learn language for the first time.

The prospect that the monster always lies in wait should keep us vigilant. Addressing the rifts in our society, what if we recognized that our pain, different as it may be, gives us common ground; our contempt, though the focuses may vary, is our common enemy? What if we saw oneness and alliance in the church or, if not there, in our humanity? In a divisive era, Peele asks us to look inward, so we can heal outward, individually and collectively.

In our increasingly polarizing times, perhaps heeding the subtext of a horror film would unite instead of divide us. Even if it starts by sharing a scream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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