Us and Class

Us (2019) is a homage to many horror greats and yet retains a distinct directorial vision that could only belong to Jordan Peele. More critically divisive than his debut Get Out (2017), Us sharpens the clarity on Peele’s sinisterly comedic yet horrifyingly poignant approach to his feature work. We follow Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), a mother on vacation in Santa Cruz who is forced to reckon with the root of her childhood trauma. This 'root' is a group who would later call themselves the Tethered, a subterranean nation of doppelgängers who seek to finally take the place of their above ground twin by killing them. Red, also portrayed by Nyong’o, is their leader, and makes clear that their motivations are neither personal nor sadistic, but justified by government neglect and the above-ground humans' actions which they are bound to replicate. But now, the Tethered are breaking free. They’ve decided they’re going to pave their own unique destiny.

The destiny they’re chasing is the equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream, but the film until this point has been about establishing how it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Early on, Adelaide discourages her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) from quitting track, stating that, 'You could do anything you set your mind to', a common rhetoric used to justify the arduous work Americans put themselves through in the hopes of achieving this fantasy. Adelaide’s husband Gabriel (Wilson Duke) rejoices in having the status symbol of a boat, no matter how faulty the steering on it proves to be. Later, the Tylers, friends of the Wilson family, bicker and recount recent cosmetic adjustments and reminisce on career paths abandoned for the sake of family. They have the perfect life, one that the Wilsons openly aspire to, and yet none of their material possessions have made them more united as a family or even fulfilled them as individuals.

Beyond the American Dream, it’s a film that’s about appearance vs reality within the context of class. The parallels between the humans and the Tethered could be considered a metaphor for how we all behave in similar ways, yet are also as quick to discriminate, banish and kill one another based on the tiniest of discrepancies. And who creates, heightens, and draws attention to these discrepancies? The government. It would be hard to imagine the events of the film ever taking place if the Tethered had been treated with a modicum of decency after their experiment was abandoned, and their conditions are sadly not too far removed from America’s current reality. On the other side of the country, the infamous Rikers prison, which was built on top of a landfill site, reported severe overcrowding during the pandemic, with inadequate facilities leading to a build up of human waste on the prison floors. And even when not kept in conditions of outright squalor, America is renowned for its harsh prison settings that accommodate one fifth of the world’s incarcerated individuals. It would be hard to overstate such a huge issue, but Us makes sure you take notice by making it everyone’s problem. It says the land of the free is a lie, which is certainly not a fresh revolutionary statement, but its hypocrisy is a fundamental theme of this film and it has become clearer every day in the news since its release.

Not content with being critical of our present day and fast-approaching future, the film also makes a point to expose the pitfalls of nostalgia. Red’s plan of direct action is based off the hollow Hands Across America campaign, which aimed to raise money to solve homelessness. Except that Hands Across America did little to help its cause, with 'administrative' fees eating into the money raised. To drive home the point, the homeless man at the pier is the first one to be killed by the Tethered, to which Adelaide tells her children, 'Don’t look', an understandable reaction to violence but also one that seems to be America’s way of dealing with its homelessness crisis, which is worse now than it’s ever been.

In addition to its horror references, there are also the punk band cropped tanks worn by the Tyler sisters, such as Black Flag and Dead Kennedys. Whilst there is enough toxicity in the practice of determining who is a 'real' fan, it is made quickly apparent by the sisters’ vapid and mean attitudes that they are by no means fans of the bands they wear. Instead, these once bold and politically sharp bands of the early 1980s have been commoditised. In a capitalist society, it is easy to conflate commodification with social acceptance of progressive views, but very rarely do the subjects of the newest 'trend' of acceptance receive the full amount of financial support. Rather, it is the same old white male business elite who only choose to extend the hand of acceptance by assessing the most opportune moment to create a revenue stream. It is an endless cycle. What was once radical for one generation is merely trendy for the next, and sometimes it is less about truly becoming more tolerant as a society and more about an intention to divide by skewing our understanding of one another.

Lauren Gillies, Youth Board Member

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