SPOILERS: “Us” comments on duality in America



Jordan Peele seems to be leading a resurgence of the horror genre. Having released “Get Out,” and now the movie “Us,” he is even slated at the helm of the “Twilight Zone” reboot. His use of horror is characterized by an artistic integrity based on his own nostalgia for the genre, as well as an apparent purpose of political commentary. While watching “Us” in theaters, I was struck by how often my brain was switching from scrutiny to complete absorption.

The movie operates along the premise that there are doppelgangers for each and every American, referred to as “shadows,” who occupy the miles and miles of abandoned tunnels and mine shafts under the United States. Lupita Nyong’o stars as the person at the center of the doppelganger siege. It becomes apparent that these doppelgangers embody the sickly underbelly of our respective identities; that within each and every one of us there is a trauma, guilt or depression that we would rather ignore about ourselves. So, what happens when that side confronts us, when it threatens us? In an interview with NPR, Peele says that in such a situation there is one clear thought: that one of you must go, and that if this doppelganger were to smile at you, you would know immediately that they had the advantage.

Nyong’o’s Adelaide is characterized by her apparent apathy. As we are introduced to her adult self, she is waking up from a long car ride to her charismatic and jovial husband, Gabe, played by Winston Duke, who screams to the family that they have arrived at their summer home in Santa Cruz. Immediately, the two are set as foils to one another, the mother being the driving force of the narrative, and the father the comedic relief that grounds us in reality. When our main characters go to the beach to hang out with their family friends, there is another duality presented to us. The other family possesses a clearly shallow mindset. This mother of this white family is played by Elisabeth Moss, a woman who regrets her familial standing in her life, cites how she could have been a movie star, and upon failing to appeal to Nyong’o’s playfulness, asks the apathetic Nyong’o if she is okay. Nyong’o’s character replies that she just “has a hard time talking.” Nyong’os character has a weight on her shoulders, a trauma, that the other main characters seem exempt from. When the doppelgangers are introduced, it becomes evident that this weight is no mere sense of apathy, as her doppelganger is the only to ever speak among the scissor-wielding red-clad pursuers. What’s striking is the sheer initiative seen in her doppelganger, who is known only as Red. It brings to mind the scene at the beginning of the film where Nyong’o’s character is preaching to her daughter that she can do anything she sets her mind to. And yet, it is Red who truly exemplifies this lesson and not Adelaide. By the end of the film, Red tells us in a mystifying speech, that the shadows were created as copies to those on the surface but without a soul, and so as christened “the tethered” must share the soul with the original.

So, what does this duality mean on a larger scale? The grandness of the conflict in this movie comes into play as our main family watches the wide-spread havoc of red-clad doppelgangers making their immense siege all over America. When Gabe asks their doppelganger family who they are, Red replies only with, “We are Americans.” This suggests that America as a whole is subject to this duality. righteous ambition versus our crippling apathy. The heavily used “Hands Across America” movement of 1986 becomes all the more relevant to the film. In 1986, a benefit event was held where approximately 6.5 million people linked hands in a chain across the United States. It was an event meant to bring publicity and funding to fight hunger during Ronald Reagan’s term as president, a time characterized especially by the first lady’s initiative, “Just Say No” to drugs. In the last few years, no doubt many of us have noticed the cyclical nature of history and how our current administration somewhat mirrors the Reagan era. How, despite the message of “Hands Across America,” we were in fact devastating the impoverished, those who the benefit was meant to be in favor of. Peele’s message becomes strikingly provocative; America is at odds with itself, full of a righteous motivation to progress and yet simultaneously plagued by a destructive self-loathing. In the final moments of the film, it is brought to light that our main character played by Nyong’o is in fact the copy, having switched places with real one as children, begging the question who among such a duality is holding the reins, and to that end, who should be.