One of Jordan Peele’s most telling comments about his new film Us is the story of a nightmare from his childhood. In the dream, which inspired the film, he would be standing on a subway platform, only to look up and see “[himself] on the opposite side of the subway track.” This deeply unsettling image of seeing oneself reflected and recreated serves as the central underpinning fear of the entire film. But beneath this, Peele proposes that the real fear is the horror of truly seeing yourself.
Us follows the Wilson family’s summer holiday to Santa Cruz where Adelaide, the mother, played by Lupita Nyong’o, vacationed as a child. Adelaide gets increasingly anxious as she recalls encountering a doppelganger of herself as a child in the boardwalk’s funhouse. As night falls, the Wilson family are confronted by the ‘Tethered’ arriving in their driveway — a family who are murderous copies of the Wilsons, led by Adelaide’s doppelganger, Red.
The Wilsons are portrayed as a comfortable black family, wearing Howard sweatshirts and jamming to I Got 5 On It as they vacation at their lakehouse. Despite the subtle representations of racial identity, Peele avoids explicit discussion of their race, briefly allowing viewers to buy into the myth of a post-racial age.
This illusion is shattered as Peele delivers another version of the Wilsons — one that has been oppressed, traumatised and forgotten — through the Tethered. Peele’s use of duality here is arguably a reference to Web Du Bois’ seminal theory of ‘double consciousness’. Du Bois proposes that African-Americans often experience the sensation of having two selves — one being the ‘black’ self, and the other being the ‘American’ self that has internalised the lens of a racially oppressive society. They exist fragmented into these two ‘souls’ that conflict as each attempts to repress the other.
In Du Bois’ framework, the Tethered family parallel the repressed black identity, violently buried by oppressive American society. The conflict between the two ‘souls’ is most evident when Adelaide strangles Red (with a pair of handcuffs nonetheless, perhaps alluding to the legacy of slavery). As Adelaide laughs maniacally over Red’s body, we come to see that Adelaide is in fact both characters, two reflected identities struggling for control. As her son Jason realises this, he lowers his mask over his face, choosing to hide rather than face this difficult truth.
This repression of burdensome memories becomes a nod to the broader way in which we often avoid reflection for fear of confronting harsh realities about ourselves. Adelaide practices this, denying Red’s existence whilst living her own “ideal” life above ground — but nevertheless, she continues to be haunted. Despite the Tethered being perceived as the threatening Other, when asked what they are, Red responds “we’re Americans.” In this loaded answer, we realise that the Tethered are a forcibly forgotten part of America, left underground to die. But, just as Red is bound to Adelaide, the Tethered are also an undeniable part of America’s dark history.
The derogatory Native American cartoon on the front of the funhouse in 1986 is replaced with a smiling Merlin by 2019. Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), another mother on holiday, comments on how fashionable the Native American headdress in her magazine is. A cheerful TV ad explains how Hands Across America can end American poverty. Peele shows that too often we choose to forget our own history, slapping a band-aid over institutionalised racism and the legacy of slavery and dispossession. But much like the Tethered emerging from the tunnels of America’s past (perhaps a reference to the Underground Railroad), the horrors of history are inescapable. And when they do ensnare us, it is in the reflected image — the comparison between past and present, subterranean and surface-level, reality and denial — that our flaws, traumas and wrongs become too ugly and glaring to ignore.
But Peele shows us a way forward, out of this adamant refusal to confront our own history. The film itself is a mirror-image of classic horror, taking many visual cues from The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street and Jaws. But rather than replicating, Peele inverts the tropes of the tradition; notably, he places the white Tyler family in the secondary position that the black family would typically take, to be killed off early in the film for comedic value. As Jenna Wortham excellently pointed out, Us with a white family has already been made — “it’s called Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.” Here, Peele re-does what has been done before, to show us what has been missing in our past. And through reflection and sometimes painful confrontation, change is created.