Review of the film, US
Black & White in Color
“in ours (society), some combination of greed, cynicism, obsequiousness and subordination, lack of curiosity and independence of mind, self-serving disregard for others, and who knows what else, as reflected quite vividly by income distributions and the contributions to society at the high end.”
Noam Chomsky on factors predicting success in U.S.’s “meritocracy”
A Mulatto slave called Sandy, about 35 years of age, his stature is rather low, inclining to corpulence, and his complexion light; he is a shoemaker by trade, in which he uses his left hand principally, can do coarse carpenters work, and is something of a horse jockey; he is greatly addicted to drink, and when drunk is insolent and disorderly, in his conversation he swears much, and his behaviour is artful and knavish… Whoever conveys the said slave to me in Albemarle, shall have 40 s. reward…
Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), 14 Sep. 1769
I got the shotgun… you got the briefcase…. It’s all a game though, right?
Omar to Bird’s Lawyer while testifying against Bird, The Wire
US is a seriously unserious serious movie. What would anyone expect from a progressive, mixed race, Manhattan private school entertainment superstar in an age of racism, nationalism and xenophobia. Jordan Peele cut his artistic teeth doing biting TV satire centered on American race relations. His break out was a feature called Get Out, a horror film masking a bold social statement. He continues this tradition with US, a searing discourse on the class system pretending to be a zombie apocalypse thriller. It is similar to Get Out in savaging white supremacy but goes further in exploring the power structure that exploits the vulnerable. The message has no border. The action takes place in the United States.
The film opens with a Reagan era event called “Hands Across America.” This strange spectacle asked people to donate $10 towards “charity” to reserve a place in line to, literally, hold hand across America. How did a chain of people physically joined from LA to NY help the disenfranchised? It didn’t. The costs outstripped any funds for the the indigent. It was an absurd, albeit, heartfelt attempt to help but it also showcased an army of metaphorical Marie Antoinettes. This duality is the fuel for Peele’s art. Hell is paved with good intentions as the US finale features underclass zombies clasping hands across the landscape. It is funny but make no mistake, Jordan Peele’s humor is born of being a soldier on the front lines of America’s schizophrenic relationship with “justice” and “goodness.” All men are created equal and some don’t count and others count as 3/5’s of a person. This isn’t Orwell’s 1984 but the United States Constitution. Peele’s childhood is a meditation on how the ruling class is still missing 2/5s of the equation. He lived in two distinct worlds. No doubt this gave him the stomach to abandon a fancy school and embark one of the most difficult careers imaginable — being a writer/performer/director.
Peele was born to a financially disadvantaged white single mother and an absent African American father. He grew up in an affluent, white Manhattan neighborhood and went on to attend one of the most expensive colleges in the country. He carries the credentials of elite whiteness but no doubt would have difficultly hailing a yellow cab in Midtown. Despite all the accolades and mainstream success, one can feel his heated passion for social justice. Not far from his childhood home lies Riverside Park. This waterfront greenery on the West Side is a major hub for “mole people”, the name for the homeless who live in the underground train tunnels. As a keen observer Peele was acutely aware of the alternate universe, populated disproportionally by people of color, that existed under the playground of his youth. This would set him apart from his caucasian friends on Park Ave who might never have given a thought to the denizens of the old 4th Avenue train line that lay, literally, below their feet. US is a paean to those lurking in the shadows. It asks the simple question running through Peele’s mind: “What makes me different from the people in the tunnels?” The answer is: US.
This feature shows a world where the class/racial divide is literal. The underground is a parallel universe inhabited by mirror beings who are destined to live out their lives as disenfranchised mole people in a ghetto of no opportunity. His social commentary matches the bleakness of real life data. In 2018 33% of black children lived in poor families compared to 10% of white children. Social mobility statistics overall are equally dire. Horatio Alger’s American Dream of rising out of poverty thru hard work is, statistically, TWICE as likely in Canada. Average wages have been flat-lining for decades despite disproportionate wealth growth for the top earners. Given the anger born of economic stagnation, Peele is clever to reprise the device of masking social criticism in a horror genre. The satirist John Stewart, when confronted by anger for his “unpatriotic” insights, would simply say “I’m a comedian in a comedy show.” One might image Peele using the same defense, “I’m a comedian making a horror film.”
Ironically Peele’s oeuvre is as American as apple pie. His entertainment empire has thrived because he has expanded, rather than reinvented, a uniquely American celebration of irreverence, gore and comedy. US follows Get Out in populating classic slasher movies with people of color. This is also true in his rebooting of the Twilight Zone franchise. These are updated versions of the original but, metaphorically, in color. There is no clamor about an African American replacing Rod Sterling as Peele has made a seamless transition. He has lived the material. One can sense the thousands of hours spent in front of the TV and at movie theaters during his childhood. The most terrifying moment in US is the arrival of the “twin” family on the driveway at the vacation home. Any middle aged American would immediately call to mind a melding of the silhouettes of the priest on the original The Exorcist poster or Norman from Psycho. This is not to take away from Peele’s enormous talent but rather to see him as part of the ascending generation of Americas entertainment dynamos. US is as familiar as Dr. Huxtable’s suburban home on The Cosby Show and as disquieting as Steven King’s prom night in Carrie.
US has two characters masterly played by Lupita Nyong’o. The rest of the cast are archetypes and foils. Nyong’o is being “her-selves” rather than completing a gag or representing an idea. She literally fills the screen by being the two dimensions of the same person. Her confrontation with herself is heartfelt. Her love and protection of her families feels genuine. The motivations for the rest of the cast seem bound by service to the plot. The concept of seeing yourself on the other side of “the road not taken” is a standard literary troupe. In the early 20th century Henry James’ short story The Jolly Corner explores a leisurely gentleman haunted by the specter of himself as a ruthless businessman. The story evokes Nyong’o’s struggle of defining the cost of success in the context of the American Dream. Was it “right” for her to abandon her doppelgänger in the hell of the underworld? Her new life is based in the cocoon of American middle class suburbia that gives no quarter to interlopers on the other side of the social justice divide. It is a tranquil enclave but woe to those who would disrupt the status quo. Her son’s expression at the end of the story says it all. He realizes that his mother is actually from… below. She is still his mother but that soccer mom smile masks a sociopathic gang banger. All the horrific attributes of being an uneducated, drug addled “zombie” lie just under the surface. Middle class legitimacy, despite the veneer of easy living, is actually a brutal zero sum game. Your American dream is built on others’ American nightmare. Peele does a good job of explaining the dichotomy but there are issues in his rendering of the story.
US is a wonderful period piece rather than a masterpiece. He is akin to the pre-scandal plagued Woody Allen of the the 1970s. That writer/performer/director captured the zeitgeist of the moment but his work is struggling with the test of time. Sleeper was viewed as the definitive comic statement about the anxieties of the ascent of computers. That film is now largely forgotten. Perhaps the shelf-life of US will face the same fate. Peele and Allen both have their roots in stand up and set-piece comedy which, unlike film, relies on a proscenium arch to contain the action. Allen’s early work and Peele’s two features suffer from a choppiness born of plots being shoe-horned mergers of self contained comic moments. These units are held together on a shaky plot points. The decision of Nyong’o to return to the scene of her rebirth stretches credibility, even within the confines of a gore/horror film. It is exposed as merely a device to set the stage for a myriad of revelatory moments and gory chase sequences. Three scenes that stand out are Nyongo lost in the mirror house, the original adult confrontation between Nyong’o other halves and the twinning dance sequence towards the finale. In these moments this work is far more than a teenage bloodbath. Unfortunately there was too much laborious exposition illustrating the tchotchke-filled lives of middle class black and white families. The overly complicated parable waxed and waned giving the dramatic impression of a top of the line sports car with an intermittently clogged fuel line. Despite the blemishes Peele has created something entertaining and important. The film begs the question: who are we? The answer is…. It’s complicated.
We are a country with aspirational founding documents with contradictory messages that gloss over our violent origins. We are created equal and less than human. Peele knows all of this and hold the awkward status of being BOTH the oppressed and the ruling class. US shows what is behind the smiling materialism. US knows that our houses sit on land taken by genocide and filled with shiny objects that are born of the blood of slave labor. Peele doesn’t point a wagging finger. He makes us laugh. But there is a caveat. One day someone from our world might get stuck in that ghetto and rise up….. beware. It will take more than the spectacle of joining hands to stem the rage. The scissors, the Zombie’s weapon of choice, cuts both ways. The jolly corner won’t be so… jolly. In Henry James’ story the meek man of leisure ends up tearing off two fingers from his tormenting doppelgänger. Everyone turns vicious when it comes to protecting life, liberty…. and the pursuit of property. I can see Peele riffing in a small comedy club: “What’s the difference between a beautiful, charming, sophisticated, educated, talented, entertaining millionaire and an ugly, rude, ignorant, sociopathic, killer…. (pause). NOTHING.” The joke is on US.