Jordan Peele’s Us as a failed political satire: What the film gets right about America, and what it gets wrong
Jordan Peele made a big impression with the first film he directed: Get Out (2017), nominally a horror film but with a nasty, satirical take on race relations and the American liberal class. This making of a film that pretends to be something but, in a hidden way is something else, is usually the way of allegory, and the horror genre is one full of allegories. Among the most familiar devices in a horror film, the zombie originally had something to do with Haitian voodoo, but in the 1950s, the notion of a dead person with no soul who can be manipulated seemed — to the US — to be particularly suited to portraying Soviet citizens placidly accepting tyranny under Stalin and the party; allegories involving zombies flourished. Evidence of this can be found in films like Don Siegel’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).
In the latter film, the zombies are white but the man who holds them off a whole night is African-American. The next morning, a group of local whites hunting zombies (on a ‘search and destroy mission’) find him at the window of the house besieged the previous night, and shoot him dead. Political implications linking the film to Vietnam have been seen — ‘search and destroy missions’ — but on checking history, one finds that the film was made just before Mohammed Ali refused to go to Vietnam, and was imprisoned. What the film is proposing is the irony of an African-American required to fight Communists for the glory of the country that regards his kind with natural enmity. These allegories may not be admitted as such by the film-makers, who would rather want their films seen as independent ‘works of the imagination’; still, the resemblances are too close to be missed. (Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings  seems similarly directed, though the writer also denied it was allegorical.) Us is also a horror film like these two but there are explicit utterances and moments that announce the director’s satirical intentions — he is deliberately pointing at political aspects of America and not allowing them to emerge through interpretation.
The film begins in 1986 when a young African-American girl Adelaide Thomas goes on vacation with her parents to Santa Cruz. At the beach there, she wanders off from her father and enters a funhouse, where she encounters a doppelgänger (double) of herself in the hall of mirrors. Adelaide is later reunited with her parents, although unable to talk about the incident. In the present, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is married to a successful man Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) by whom she has two children, Zora and Jason. It is summer, and the family is going to the beach at Santa Cruz, where they are due to meet up with a white couple — Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elizabeth Moss). Gabe has climbed up in the world, has a summer house on the bay and owns a boat, an acquisition that impresses the Tylers. At the beach, Jason sees a man in a red jumpsuit standing alone with blood dripping from his hands.
After a series of coincidences that remind Adelaide of her childhood experiences in the hall of mirrors and put her in a state of anxiety, something happens. That night, a strange family of four appears, attacks the Wilsons, and breaks into the home. The Wilsons realise that the four intruders are doppelgängers of themselves, led by Adelaide's double, Red. Each of them is wearing the same red jumpsuit as the man on the beach, and Jason's doppelgänger Pluto is wearing a white mask. Within a few moments the Wilsons realise that their four assailants are versions of themselves (‘Us’) and in response to the question of who they are, the answer they get from Red (the only one who speaks) is that they are ‘Americans’. Red tells Adelaide the story of a little princess and her ‘shadow’ who suffered privation and misery even as the princess had a happy childhood and privileged upbringing.
Up to now the film has been pointed in its methods and we read the doppelgängers as a reference to the black majority left behind even as elites have emerged successfully as professionals, entertainers and sportspersons. It is the African-American liberal elite to whom the Obama persona appealed and that Peele partly satirised in Get Out. The fact that successful African-Americans have forgotten these ‘doubles’ is implied in Red’s story and the terror with which the Wilsons regard them. That the protagonists of the film are African-Americans makes us suspect that the film is a commentary on race relations. Since the ‘1986’ invoked in the film must mean something, we react to it politically and identify it with the Regan era. The Regan era created an entrepreneurial revolution and meant wealth for some classes but it also widened the income gap between the wealthy and the underprivileged. It is credited with creating an atmosphere of greed and the creation of the affluent class of the Wilsons may owe to it; this is how we read the motif of Adelaide and her ‘shadow’. This interpretation is not far-fetched since Peele puts up signposts pointing to it. 1986 is associated with ‘Hands across America’ a fund raising campaign in which 6.5 million people held hands for 15 minutes across America as a gesture towards homelessness and poverty and the film invokes it.
To return to the happenings in Us, Gabe contrives to kill his doppelgänger Abraham when both get onto the boat, and the Wilsons escape on it with the intention of joining the Tylers. Before we reach the point when the Wilsons join the Tylers we see the latter also being killed by their own doppelgängers, whom the Wilsons on arrival manage to destroy, one by one. But this is also the moment when we begin to have doubts about the political direction of the film, whether it is emerging as planned. We have seen comic bits pertaining to the complacency of the successful classes who respond to the doppelgängers with casual bravado, only to come to grief; we hear Gabe and his family comparing gleeful notes about who has killed more; the satirical implication is evidently the smugness of the moneyed in contemporary American where the underprivileged have been banished from sight. What would they do if all these ‘shadows’ returned in full strength to reclaim their space?
The Wilsons watch television at the Tylers and see an outbreak of returning doppelgängers on the streets and they are also holding hands. My observation here is that as long as Peele was dealing with the separation of the African-Americans who have moved up from those left behind, the film was on firm ground. African-Americans were
Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 17:48:30 IST
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