The Meaning of 'Us': A Deep-Dive into Jordan Peele's Nightmare
"Us" is about looking at the problems you have hidden and how those problems reflect the problems society hides as well. But is it?
After a few weeks of unprecedented success at the box office, I think it's time to talk about Us.
There will be spoilers in this post, so if you haven't see the movie or want to avoid them, try to stay away. If you're excited to talk about the meaning of Us, then keep reading and hit the comments later with your analysis and theories.
The Duality of Man
Early on in Us, we see a little girl lost in a fun house. The place is supposed to be themed after some sort of Native American culture. When she enters she finds a mirror image of herself wandering around. This scars her as a person, and when we catch up with her as an adult we see that this trauma still shakes her to her core, though she tries to hide it.
This duality of a person, good and evil, is thematic of everything that follows in the movie. If we all have a double of ourselves we bury deep in the tunnels, then what makes it come out? Can we say it's gone if we bury it?
As the saying goes, out of sight out of mind, but how do those hidden traumas and darker thoughts and feelings influence our day to day?
If Us truly is about the duality living within mankind, then we need to look at it on two levels: the individual and the societal.
The Individual Analysis of Us
Let's take our main family in Us, the Wilsons. Each one of them has a distinctive personality and character development. When their mirror images come from the tunnels and attack the home, they are emblematic of the character's flaws. In fact, these mirror images call themselves "the tethered," and they are directly linked to our thoughts and actions.
The father works unilaterally, buying a boat to keep up with the Joneses. His mirror image is lumbering and relentless, just like his jealousy that slips into everyday conversation.
The daughter, who likes to zone out and wants to quit track, is chased by a girl who is focused and loves to run. The son, a kid who wanders, gets himself into trouble, and has trouble using a magic trick, is confronted by a boy covered in burns who plays with fire.
That leaves us with the mother, a woman defined by the trauma of her childhood, having to face off with the girl she left behind all those years ago. The girl who took her place in the basement. While the movie is built around the individual bad acts we bury as a family, this switcheroo reveal makes me think Peele is telling us that no matter how deep we hide it, these versions of ourselves will always exist.
This individual duality is even in some of the movie's easter eggs.
For example, in the opening, the little girl is dying to get a "Thriller" tee shirt. That 1980's version of Michael Jackson is very different than what we know today. And when the mirror images of people rise and wear that leather glove and the red Thriller jumpsuit, it feels like Peele letting us know that even the most beloved artists of all time have these horrific mirror images buried deep below. Thanks to Leaving Neverland, we know the darkness that was hiding within Michael. And Peele even confirmed this fact.
But how does this work on the macro level?
The Societal Analysis of Us
That same trauma reflected in the Wilsons is reflected in the changing beach town. It's no longer a place for carnies and poorer families; now it's a yuppie destination for the affluent and people trying to flex past their tax bracket. As the Wilsons arrive and hang with their yuppie friends, we make observations about how much the town has shaped anew. The fun house is now an innocuous and more politically correct "wizard" theme. Most of the community looks rebuilt, refreshed, and refurbished. Santa Cruz has never looked better.
But there's still the same homeless man waving his sign. You can't pave over the people. You can't pave over the past. Because no matter how deep you bury something, it will always rise again.
The big twist in Us happens when we realize the trauma with mirrors is happening all over America. The tunnels under every part of society are erupting and spewing out the worst of us.
So what is Peele saying about society?
I think it's pretty easy to look at the gentrification of Santa Cruz, the political correctness washing of the carnival, and the irony of "Fuck the Police" blasting in a white person's house while they're being attacked and to understand Peele is addressing contemporary race relations in the United States. It's about how we, as a country, try to just rename, reclaim, and wash out the stains of the past, as if that will just make everything better.
The movie opens on Hands Across America, a statement of unity that was supposed to be the "we are all one, racism is over" moment of the '80s. But in 2019, we know that's not the case. Just like in Get Out, the Obama presidency line stings so much, because people thought when he took office they could declare the end of racism, but while watching Us, and seeing the themes, we know that's empirically false.
As the tethered join hands at the end of the movie, it reads as if it's an acknowledgment that this dirty and racist past exists all over our country. We can paint the houses, pretend to be politically correct, and even make friends with a wide array of people. But the past won't go away.
So what are we supposed to do about it?
How should we confront what Us says about....us?
It's my reading that Peele's overall message is that we shouldn't try to bury and sanitize these images. We should be opening talking about them. From the misconceptions and horrible things we have on the individual level, to the big scars on society like slavery in America, economic inequality, and the steamrolling of cultural centers to make places more palatable for rich people.
If we acknowledge what we put in the tunnels, we could foster change and understanding within our duality.
If we continue to bury these thoughts and feelings, they'll continue to try to kill us. If we talk about the good and bad tethered, confront it on an individual and societal level, then maybe the world we all pretend to have, the euphoric and propagandist utopias built over the landscapes of yesteryear, may actually be a possibility.
The awesome people at Wisecrack put this video together summing up some theories and analysis - I think it's the best one on the internet. So check it out.
What's next? Dig into Film Theory!
Now that we've dissected Us, let's jump into some other analyses of film and television. It’s important to have a baseline of Film Theory so you can properly analyze what’s in front of you. To dissect a film and understand the context can take years of training. But you've been training without knowing it. Every time you watch a new show or movie you're building an internal database. You have something to base your reactions on and, over time, your tastes grow.
If you want to work in Hollywood as a creative or even critique film and television for a living, Film Theory is extremely important. In this post, we're going to learn how to put that training of consuming media into action by learning about Film Theory.
Click the link to find out more!