Us and Them

Sheri-Marie Harrison

Between race and class, the tether.

Directed by Jordan Peele
Monkeypaw Productions  | 116 minutes

A consistent preoccupation of black filmmakers and television creators in recent years is the precarity that continues to characterize black life in the US, whether through threats of violence from the police, or from economic exploitation and marginalization. Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and even Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk are all concerned with the vulnerability of black bodies in relation to compelled labor, the deepening wealth gap, and limited possibilities of asset accumulation and property ownership. But where other films and shows demonstrate the inescapable perpetuity of a racially disenfranchising capitalist system, Peele’s Us depicts wealth without production in a system that grinds to an apocalyptic halt.

Without thematizing it in the manner of Sorry to Bother You, Us is similarly about labor. It’s also about work, home ownership, and aspirations of class ascent in an economic environment where such mobility and property acquisition are competitive, dehumanizing, and nearly impossible for those who didn’t begin their lives with wealth in the first place. The film’s callbacks to the 1986 Hands Across America campaign and N.W.A’s 1988 track “Fuck tha Police” tether its action to the passage between 1984 and 1990. In those years, the growth rate of US GDP fell from a high of 7.2 percent to 1.9 percent. If Hands Across America registered increasing poverty, as marked by hunger and homelessness, “Fuck tha Police” — which begins to play in the film when a voice-operated home entertainment system mishears a dying command to “call the police” — marks the moment when this decline is registered in California and the rest of the United States as a racial crisis. That this economic context manifests in the film through a grainy commercial and music played wirelessly on voice command renders it uncannily ambient. It haunts the present, like the mysterious figures who appear as spectral doubles of the film’s main characters.

Us is about a family, the Wilsons, who while vacationing in Santa Cruz find themselves in the midst of a violent uprising of murderous doppelgängers. These doppelgängers — “the tethered” — lived, up until the film’s present, in a network of underground tunnels. In the prologue, a girl, out with her parents at a Santa Cruz boardwalk, wanders off to a funhouse on the beach. There she encounters a double of herself in a hall of mirrors. She is subsequently found by her parents and grows up to be the film’s present-day protagonist, Adelaide Wilson. Or so we think.

In the present day, Adelaide, her husband Gabe, and their children Zora and Jason have just arrived at their vacation home in Santa Cruz. After some protest and with much trepidation from Adelaide, the Wilsons go to the beach to meet their friends Josh and Kitty Tyler and their two daughters. Later that night, a physically identical family wearing red jumpsuits appears and invades each family’s home. By the end of the film, the Tylers, along with countless others, have been slashed to death by their doubles; the Wilsons, who have managed to kill rather than be killed, are on the road to Mexico in a boosted ambulance. In the film’s final scene, a group of the tethered, reenacting Hands Across America, span a mountain range while helicopters hover above them and smoke billows in the distance. The imagery in this scene also seems to blend shades of the 1992 LA uprising with Coca-Cola’s 1971 ode to commodified multiculturalism in its famous “Hilltop” commercial.

Hands Across America, 1986

One could argue that race is not as central to Us as it is to Get Out, but that isn’t the case. Rather, Us differs in that it considers race through its complex entanglement with black class politics. The Wilsons are black and the Tylers are white. Josh and Kitty seem to be better off than the Wilsons, with a glossier lifestyle: the Tylers have a new SUV while the Wilsons have an older-model station wagon; the Tylers vacation in an ultra-modern glass-wrapped home while the Wilsons vacation in a bungalow inherited from Adelaide’s mother; the Tylers have a back-up generator. None of that helps when the violence begins, as the generatorless Wilsons remain alive at the end of the film. The Wilsons represent the comfort of the black petit bourgeoisie, who have job security and vacations but are still less well off than their white counterparts.

This racialized distinction serves as a screen for the movie’s more dramatic engagement with class under contemporary capitalism. While the Wilsons and Tylers lounge on the beach, a horde of doubles teems just below them, like Fanon’s lumpenproletariat, in readiness for an attack, seemingly waiting for their chance to usurp the positions of those above. For Fanon, the lumpenproletariat are not Marx’s “social scum” but “the landless peasants” who “circle tirelessly around the different towns, hoping that one day or another they will be allowed inside.” It is from “within this mass of humanity . . . that the rebellion will find its urban spearhead.” Indeed, “that horde of starving men . . . constitutes one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people.” Fanon’s significance for the present and for thinking about Us derives from his identification of the lumpenproletariat, the underclass that the film literalizes as revolutionary subject.

It is in this context that Red, Adelaide’s double, hatches a plan to murder all their doubles and demonstrate their presence to the surface world by replicating the Hands Across America spectacle. From this perspective — and with attention to Peele’s characteristic inversion of horror-movie tropes — Us might be read as a movie about a successful revolution. At one point Red refers to the Wilson’s home as “our house”; in another poignant scene we see Kitty Tyler’s double, Dahlia, sitting in Kitty’s former bedroom, trying on her doppelgänger’s lipstick.

Why Hands Across America? The movie’s conclusion reveals that Adelaide is not the girl who disappeared into the tunnels, but the one who began there: Adelaide’s tethered, who in that earlier moment usurps her place. The girl who grows up to become Red, notably the only doppelgänger who communicates in English, was wearing a T-shirt with the campaign’s logo when she was abducted, and she takes it as her inspiration.

This twist deepens the ambiguity of the movie’s ending. At one point a newscaster refers to an image of the formerly tethered taking up their position in line as “some kind of protest,” and on one level we can read it as an enigmatic representation of the tethered’s solidarity. But on another level, it’s hard to say what this representation accomplishes. From this perspective, Us depicts the revolution, much like the charity campaign, as an ultimately empty spectacle. In this regard the spectacle reflects the movie’s commitment to the general illegibility of the tethered’s demands, most crucially by depicting their verbal communication with each other as inarticulate howls and grunts.

Of course, the problem with Hands Across America was that it was not revolutionary, but a philanthropic gesture designed to make the members of the middle class feel like they were doing something, and to forestall more radical demands — demands, for example, that might get at the systemic causes of poverty and homelessness and the ways these issues disproportionately impact people of color. In this regard, Us operates entirely within a middle-class perspective fearful of lumpen revolution. The movie’s brilliance is to depict revolution as it might appear from that middle-class perspective. Indeed, the film’s final reveal insists that we contrast the situation of Adelaide — the lone member of the lumpen who makes it out by literally pushing someone else under, and who, once her property and family are threatened, is more than willing to turn killer — with that of Red: the person who realizes that the only way up is through collective action.

From this perspective, there’s ironic genius in having Adelaide suggest, once the family discovers the full horror unfolding, that they need to escape to Mexico. Once they become refugees, the sanctity of borders goes out the window. The fantasy of Trump’s wall is that it will protect the United States from home invasion by the growing mass of migrants and refugees tirelessly circling its borders. The irony demonstrated on multiple levels throughout Us is that when shit gets bad, those invested in maintaining the sanctity of private property and preserving borders have no compunction about invading foreign territory themselves.