Film Reflection: Us
Us is prophetic.
Us. Much can be said of this film. As Jordan Peele’s latest production after Get Out. I knew I would see it as soon as I heard about it. Hearing that Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, Black Panther) was starring, only supported my decision. That being said, I tend to freak out during horror films, so I knew that this would be interesting from the get go, as I could barely stand the ads and trailer.
As a horror film, Us is effective. Watching it, I freaked out, even looking away at times (yes, I am a giant child). And a week and a half later, I still get a bit nervous when I think about it, late at night, by myself (or even when others are around).
But beyond its effectiveness as a horror film, much can and should be said. And sure enough, people more qualified than me are writing on it – see the reviews in the reference list below for three great examples to check out. So, instead, I’m going to draw attention to one idea that especially stuck out to me.
The doppelgängers, the people from below, that is, those who live in the shadows, the land of the tethered, are exact doubles of the people from above, aka the ‘normal’ people like you and me. It seems that they are joined by the soul. And yet, the people from below appear to have no soul, or perhaps, arguably, and far more interestingly, to have a grossly twisted and withered soul due to living in the shadows for the entirety of their existence.
When those from above receive soft toys for their birthday, those from below receive sharp toys that cut them. When those from above go on fairground rides, those from below project their bodies as if they were. Everything that those from above choose and experience, those from below appear to be forced into a poor and ugly mimicry.
Understandably, the doppelgängers from below are not exactly happy about this.
They emerge into the world above, out of the shadows, scissors in hand (sidenote: I haven’t been able to look at scissors in the same way after seeing this movie), ready for some bloodletting. Hence the horror. No one, not a single character – is safe.
The main theme of the film is that these doppelgängers are us. While it specifically makes reference to them being Americans (US, get it?) and the majority of its ample cultural references are US-based, as a British-Aussie I would argue that this idea easily extends to those of other nations who hold a certain privileged social status.
As Alissa Wilkinson in her review so ably puts it,
“The key notion in Us is that our shadow selves, our reverse negatives, are not separate entities from ourselves – we are simply our own aggressors.”
We are both the people from above and the people from below. We find ourselves tethered between the part of us that has a soul and the part of us, our shadow self, that arguably is soulless.
There’s enough there to chew on for many a sleepless night.
So what idea especially stuck out to me?
As Alissa Wilkinson also draws attention to in her review, through a man holding up a sign on a boardwalk, who makes a repeat (and double) appearance, the film references Jeremiah 11:11.
“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them”
What is this scripture?
This scripture, from the bible’s Old Testament/Jewish prophetic writings, shows God through the prophet Jeremiah speaking to his nation Judah. He’s warning them to be faithful to the covenant promises that they made between themselves and God, or else God will unleash the judgments due to them according to the terms of their covenant agreement.
In the surrounding verses and context, we find that the emphasis was on the need for a genuine spiritual conversion, as their unfaithfulness appears to have been a choice they made rather than being forced upon them by a ruler. Despite past opportunity to repent, and become and remain faithful to their covenant with God, they chose to break their covenant, worshipping manmade idols. And as seen across these prophetic books, a breaking of the covenant was usually accompanied by acts of injustice against people and against the land.
As a result, through this scripture we see God warning his people that because they have broken the covenant they made with him, disaster, in the form of violent military defeat, will now destroy them.
Us is prophetic.
This film can be taken as a warning of what is already here and what is to come if we do not ‘repent’ aka change how we are doing things.
What do I even mean by that? Am I going all end-of-the-world dramatic, or super religious, turn-or-burn style?
Gross socio-economic gaps between those in more developed economies and those in developing or emerging economies, and those same gaps within nations, within cities, and even within communities, are tragic. Everything ‘we’ in more socio-economically prosperous nations, communities and social statuses have, comes at a cost. That cost is usually not seen.
What costs do I mean? For example:
plastic and toxic waste dumping in waterways and oceans, and pollutants into the air
rainforest destruction, land degradation, and removal or destruction of animal species from their natural habitats with no regard for their lives, communities or species survival
slave or forced human labour, and human labour that works long hours in unsafe conditions below a living wage
rising temperatures that are transforming entire ecosystems, raising sea levels, increasing freak weather events, and as a result, worsening poverty for the poorest of the poor and increasing the number of climate change refugees
Joseph Earp’s review deals with this idea through his consideration of Us as a literalisation of the worldview Peter Singer proposes through his drowning child analogy. A read of his review (listed within references below) is well worthwhile for an expansion upon this point.
What is interesting, as Joseph Earp notes, is that the family in Us, the people from above version of them, that is, are not exceptionally wealthy. Sure, they’re wealthier than a lot of people. To be honest, I would probably differ from Earp here and suggest that they’re upper middle class, but that could be me speaking from my location and not from the average American vantage point. However, I can agree that they don’t appear to be throwing money around. They’re just a relatively typical family living a pretty comfortable life within a developed nation context.
And yet, it is this level of social status that is guilty, as per Peter Singer’s proposal in Joseph Eard’s review, and my point here also.
The ordinary family, the ordinary people, us typical people living in relative comfort, are guilty of causing others to suffer through our everyday decisions.
Yes, the doppelgängers are us, as per the main theme of the film, in that we are both the people from above and the people from below as we struggle between our soulful and soulless urges.
But also, for many of us reading this post, we are the people from above. We are the ones sitting pretty in our elevated socio-economic status, calling the punches that support the people from below to continue living in a poor and ugly mimicry of the lives that we not only enjoy but often assume upon.
What a surprise then, when those who have been tethered to us but forced to live in the shadows, instead, decide to emerge and take what we have been enjoying all along? And we call them monsters for it?
Of course, Us is a horror film and dramatises this accordingly. Again, hence the horror. Remember the scissors? But reflecting on this film in light of Peter Singer’s drowning child analogy, as innocent as the people from above seem and as much as I naturally relate more to them than the people from below, the people from above are not innocent, even if they think they are.
The people from below appear to be soulless. But we know that they are tethered to the people from above. They share a soul, or perhaps, as mentioned earlier, their soul has become twisted, withered away due to living underground in the shadows. They have become the non-persons, enabling the lives of the persons above.
As we see in the final scenes of the movie, in Lupita Nyong’o’s astounding dialectic between her two characters – can we entirely blame the people from below?
As much as I want to demonise them due to their haggard and creepy appearances, grunts, calls, and thirst for cruel bloodletting, or even may want to mock them as the film occasionally encourages – the people from below have been grossly mistreated, living in hopelessness, presumably assuming that nothing will ever change. Indeed, this is their lot in life. They are the tethered. Perhaps, they have been driven to this unrelenting callousness? Maybe they are not soulless, but instead, had souls, to begin with, and these have suffered to the extent that they have twisted and withered away. Rather than demonising them, I pity them and want mercy and hope for them.
The people from above, by chance it seems, had the opportunity to flourish.
The people from below, also by chance it seems, were denied this and restrained.
Neither are totally innocent.
As per the film’s main theme, both are us. Certainly, this film acts as a poignant reminder that we are our worst enemy; we can become the cause of our own destruction.
But also, in what especially stood out to me, for those of us who identify more with the people from above, this film cries out prophetically to us.
Across human history and in our world today we bear witness to the atrocities that occur when one group of people dehumanise another group of people to serve their own needs and desires. And too often we are silent to that dehumanisation, unintentionally supporting it.
Us asks us to recognise that for all our everyday comforts we are tethered to an unseen world, where people just like us, identical to us, are forced to live in a poor and ugly mimicry of our lives. It challenges us to see that we dehumanise the ‘other’ in our ordinary lives to meet our own needs and desires.
We might not think that we do this. After all, who would consciously do that? But unconsciously or carelessly, by absolving ourselves of active concern for who made the products we buy, and the conditions of their lives and their workplaces, and absolving ourselves of active concern for the unseen social and environmental impacts of our lifestyle decisions, we are dehumanising the ‘others’ within our socio-economic world. Those others may be miners, farmers or factory workers in another country, or people closer to or within our own community, or natural ecosystems which have no human voice to cry out with.
Perhaps Us is prophetic, in that it calls for genuine spiritual conversion. A conversion that calls us to reject manmade idols that cause and support injustices to others, to repent, returning to covenant faithfulness and establishing justice for the others in our world and communities.
What especially stuck out to me in this film is that it is prophetic, as a story of us today. And as such, it is worth watching and paying attention to, even if horror isn’t your thing.
Although that being said if horror really isn’t your thing, maybe think twice, because it is terrifying (if you’re a giant child like me).
Image: via Earp ref below.
Dargis, Manohla. “‘Us’ Review: Jordan Peele’s Creepy Latest Turns a Funhouse Mirror on Us.” The New York Times, March 20, 2019. Accessed April 4, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/movies/us-movie-review.html.
Earp, Joseph. “‘Us’ Is A Horror Movie About Everyday Inequality.” Junkee, April 2, 2019. Accessed April 4, 2019. https://junkee.com/us-horror-film-review/200085.
US - Official Trailer [HD]. Universal Pictures, 2018. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://youtu.be/hNCmb-4oXJA.
US Trailer #2 Extended (NEW 2019) Jordan Peele Horror Movie HD. Furious Trailer, 2019. Accessed April 15, 2019. https://youtu.be/T7vtuD5bGpQ.
Wilkinson, Alissa. “Us Is Jordan Peele’s Thrilling, Blood-Curdling Allegory about a Self-Destructing America. Our Ugliest History Is Coming for Us.” Vox, March 20, 2019. Accessed April 4, 2019. https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/3/20/18274105/us-review-jordan-peele-jeremiah-doppelganger.