“I think these cases…underscored that kind of disparity, the two-tiered society that we lived in. The notion that these lives weren’t as valuable….the phrase that people used for so many of these kids, they were throw-away kids. Literally. Kill them or throw them in the underbrush and nobody will know or care.”
Vern Smith, Former Newsweek Atlanta Bureau Chief
The Atlanta Child Murders (2019 documentary)
“Encourage her to draw, to write, to dance. Anything to get her to tell us her story.”
(This essay contains the entire plot of Us and Get Out.)
Any serious conversation about Jordan Peele’s film Us must begin with the protection of children — specifically young black girls. Peele’s timing as a filmmaker is impeccable: in February of this year, singer R. Kelly was indicted on sixteen charges of sexual abuse of black women, including allegedly video-taping himself having sex with a minor. (Kelly was acquitted of child pornography charges for a similar crime in 2008.) Earlier this month, a four-hour documentary on Michael Jackson’s alleged abuse of minors, Leaving Neverland, premiered on HBO. Atlanta producer Will Packer, of “Ride Along”, “Night School”, and “Girl Trip” fame, has executive-produced a two-part miniseries entitled “The Atlanta Child Murders”. The series, which also premiered this month, documents the twenty-eight murders of black Americans that took place in Atlanta, Georgia between 1979 and 1981. While a few adults were counted in that estimated number, the majority of the victims were minors.
As a comment on America’s consistent neglect of children, Peele begins his film with two scenes of abandonment. In the prologue, a young girl watching television sees an advertisement for “Hands Across America”, the Eighties fundraiser and publicity campaign to combat poverty in which more than six million people created a human chain across the U.S for fifteen minutes. Very faintly, we see the girl’s reflection in the television screen. She watches TV alone during the day; this isn’t a family sitting together during prime time. The afternoon light on the screen and the image of her watching recall another popular conversation that took place during the Eighties — the dilemma of the “latchkey” child.
The young girl, Adelaide, is one of millions of kids who lets herself into the house at the end of the school day and waits for her parents to come home from work. It may be her family’s economic condition or the lack of an after-school program that necessitates her being “home alone” (a movie title referenced later in Peele’s script.) Whatever her circumstances, TV becomes critical to her survival. She watches TV because she enjoys it, but also because it fills the empty house and distracts her from feeling alone and afraid. As a young viewer, she is vulnerable to the images on the screen. She finds herself enrolled in the “Hands Across America” vision; it is a worthy cause, but more importantly, it is full of camaraderie and hope, and a community of which she longs to be part. She is too young to form a serious critique of the campaign; she only responds to its marketing. (In the end, the event did raise some money to combat poverty but was lambasted for its exorbitant operating costs.)
Adelaide absorbs “Hands Across America” as she absorbs all TV media — as a consumer. She is abandoned not because her parents need to work but because there are no adults around to help her deconstruct what she is viewing. She seems sullen and bewildered when we are introduced to her, enervated in the way children often are when they have watched too much television. Lacking a child’s sense of delight, she seems overwhelmed by her surroundings –a blank slate, a TV channel herself, awaiting input. She moves through the early scenes as if in in a trance. While this is no justification for what happens to her later in the film, TV, and specifically television commercials, have instilled in her the expectation that her imagination will be controlled by others. Which is to say, television primes her for victimization.
I n the second half of the prologue, Adelaide attends a beach-front amusement park in Santa Cruz with her mother and father. The carnival, always a terrifying movie trope, (think Jodie Foster in Carney, or perhaps don’t) contains danger for children within its barriers, and especially outside its prescribed bounds. Traveling carnivals, with their itinerancy, their impermanence, and underpaid workers, are advertised, when they appear in our cities, as great fun for the whole family. (In one scene, the traditional family is symbolized by a stencil of a mother, father, boy and girl attached to the back window of a car.) The duality of class is felt in the early scenes of Us– we imagine those who run the carnival, and those who get to enjoy it.
I can recall from my own childhood a traveling expo that came every year to the mall near where we lived. I was amazed at how the unloaded trucks, fastened slabs of metal and workers running around like ants, became, less than a week later, a paradise of twinkling and flashing lights against the night sky. How did the “octopus” ride, with its rising and lowering tentacles and individual spinning cars, stay in one piece? Those inside it may have wondered the same thing — their screams of terror floated over our heads as we approached the ticket booth.
There were bumper cars and the Tilt-A-Whirl and the enormous Ferris Wheel, majestic and languid, with rainbow colored spokes and its seats hanging like tiny earrings or Christmas ornaments. Junk food was never criticized on Carnival nights and cotton candy was my favorite. I marveled at it being made; a paper cone lowered into a circular machine, the sugar blown into wisps and then twirled along the edge into a light blue cloud of ecstasy. My sugar nirvana was interrupted only when I stopped to go on a ride. The men who operated the rides fascinated me. They seemed cold, inscrutable, hard. Their fingers were smudged from working all day, and covered with oil and grease. I didn’t know what their lives were like, nor did I appreciate terms like “class warfare”. I only knew what I saw on television.
These were the faces of bad men, men with “backgrounds”, who looked as if their faces belonged on a wall at the post office. White men with tattoos on their necks, ponytails, dark boots and missing teeth, who smoked or chewed tobacco and wore baseball caps and T-shirts, even at night. Some smelled of strong cologne or maybe alcohol. Heavy metal music, filled with chaos and fury, screamed incessantly into the night as the rides loaded and unloaded people. These men didn’t hide their contempt or indifference. I shared my ride with another “single”, a woman who waved at her husband and let out a shout of anticipation before the ride began. After making sure the metal bar across our laps was secure, the man flicked his cigarette into the dirt and returned to the gate where he pulled a lever. The ride churned into motion. When he pulled the lever again, the ride moved faster. I could imagine him jerking the lever over and over until the cars unfastened from their hinges and jettisoned us to our deaths, finally relieved to escape the momentum of his boring job. I located my mother in the dizzying kaleidoscope to make sure she hadn’t abandoned me. Just as I began to feel the spun sugar rise in my stomach and the hot dogs I’d eaten threaten to come up, the ride lurched to a slower speed and finally eased to a stop. The man kept our individual car from rocking by stopping it with his foot. He lifted the bar and the car gave one last sickening shimmy as I stepped down into the dirt. My mother greeted me with a reception befitting an astronaut returning from the moon.
“How was it?” she asked, holding my sister’s hand.
I swallowed my bile and counted my remaining tickets. “Can I ride it again, Mom?”
Many years ago, I met a man I’ve written about before who worked at one of the major theme parks — not one of the traveling expos I’ve just described, but the real thing. Men and women in hot, oversized cartoon-character costumes taking pictures with children; you know the kind. My friend found it an endless source of hilarity that as an actor with a summer gig there, he danced and sang as part of a Fourth of July, Apple-Pie, Bicentennial show that mid-western audiences enjoyed by the carloads. Flaxen blond and boyish, with a blonde female beauty on his knee, he served up Americana in a red, white and blue boater to families nostalgic for a time long past. Whiteness to its absolute core, in retrospect it sounds like a show Mike Pence would love.
Behind the scenes, however, was the performance the audience never saw. The curtain barely came down before the patriotic tableau was shattered: fingers snapped dangerously close to faces for missed cues and stepped-on toes, Miss Things joked about the hot straight man in the front row and a flaming queen countered with, “Stay away from him, bitch, that’s my husband”, a joint magically appeared at the end of the day, and white butch lesbians with peter-pan haircuts doffed blonde pigtail wigs and went home to meet up with their black girlfriends.
I’m sure my friend embellished the story somewhat to entertain us both, but there was a bitter truth in it. I knew he was describing the duality of sexual hypocrisy we all live with in this country. He finished his story with a sober expression: “The majority of the men putting on these shows are gay. We’re in theater, so of course we are. The shock is, a lot of the men watching these shows with their families and their conservative values are gay too. I’d watch those right-wing closeted faces every night, the way the men looked at me when their wives weren’t watching, and I’d think, Baby, if these people could just peek behind this curtain a few minutes before showtime they would all be scandalized. I used to imagine giving them a tour, like the MC in Cabaret: “Motherfuckers, welcome to the real America.”
I recalled this conversation as I watched the beginning of Us, and remembered the way I sometimes felt about myself before I came out to my family as gay. The man I saw, or avoided, each morning as I dressed; the way that shame, like a funhouse mirror, distorts.
Jordan Peele’s decision to comment on the duality of American life by placing his protagonist in an amusement park was a genius move. Adelaide’s family, a symbol of the black American consumer — a duality if ever there was one — is in a unique position at the carnival. While they are there to have a good time like everyone else, they may find themselves unable to surrender fully to the experience; they represent both the privileged and the disenfranchised. Adelaide’s father is eager to please his daughter and wants her to have a good time. But much like Gabe, the man Adelaide later marries and raises her own children with, he’s not really parental but an overgrown child himself, and there is no sense of protection or patriarchal safety when he is around. He and Adelaide’s mother argue about his drinking and he moans about not being able to have another beer. Adelaide’s father choses to cope with the tension in his marriage by drinking, and her mother, frustrated with his behavior, nags at him. It is suggested that he is derelict in his duty to his daughter, or at the very least seriously distracted, and her mother comes across as controlling and shrill. But there is a core of panic to her nagging — despite the festivities around her, she can’t relax. She fears that her daughter is in danger.
Adelaide has clearly seen and heard this fight before, which may explain her slightly dissociative, dislocated quality. As Peele presents these conversations, as if from a distance and heard above Adelaide’s head, she appears to be on the outside of her own experience; overexposed and overstimulated, hypersensitive but never fully engaged. Adelaide carries TV around inside her head and she sustains its hypnotic trance. Listening to her parents, however, is like sitting too close to a blaring television. It hurts her eyes and ears so she tunes it out. When she walks away from them later, she is remorseless and detached, responding with the ease of someone changing a channel. She barely looks back.
If we are to assume from the opening scene that Adelaide’s father may be an alcoholic, then we may also assume that her mother is co-dependent. (The abandonment of children to addiction, specifically children with parents addicted to crack cocaine in the Eighties, symbolized in the later underground “tethered” scenes, is another theme lurking in Us.) Adelaide’s mother confronts her husband, but isn’t able to protect her daughter any more than he does; she has reason to believe her husband is unreliable, yet she still leaves her child with him.
Her mother says she has to go to the bathroom, and encourages Adelaide to join her, but Adelaide says no, she doesn’t have to go to the bathroom, and the conversation ends there. As a same-sex child, Adelaide could easily join her mother in the bathroom. Or her mother might have snatched her hand and insisted she come along. Instead, she leaves Adelaide with her father. She is in denial — rather than face the fact that her husband is unreliable, she sacrifices her child’s safety to protect her marriage.
We learn from Adelaide’s mother that Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller, a pop culture sensation at the time, frightened her when she saw it and gave her nightmares. Still, her father enters a carnival contest and wins a Thriller T-shirt for her. Peele introduces a duality that exists throughout the film; the consumer dilemma as it relates to all of us but particularly to children. What “thrills” Adelaide also has the potential to harm her. Her father chooses to neglect her in order to win prizes at the fair; he is so focused on “winning” he cannot properly supervise her, she gets lost while in his care. In the end, she has a T-shirt but she doesn’t have the protection of a father. Michael Jackson, not the performer but the consumer product, becomes her father.
Some people may resist my intepretation of the characters and their motivations, thinking, “Come on. It’s only a horror movie.” But I believe these details matter and are critical to understanding the character Adelaide, her emotional subtext, and the decisions she makes later in the film. Fans of the movie could argue, for example, that if Adelaide’s mother had insisted she come with her to the bathroom there would be no movie. But Peele is too deliberate a filmmaker to be careless about his character’s choices; he is commenting on how black children are not protected, how most children are not protected.
These scenes of neglect that open the film, benign or otherwise, lead us to a disturbing subtext, referenced by the Michael Jackson T-shirt. The amusement park in Us recalls Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Thriller, one of the top grossing albums of all time, began the meteoric ascent of Jackson’s career. Never was there a time after that decade when he was more powerful, more mesmerizing or persuasive as a performer. The accusations of sexual abuse against Michael began after the success of Thriller; James Safechuck and Wade Robson, Jackson’s accusers in the documentary Leaving Neverland, both describe what it was like to visit Neverland in the late Eighties. Wade Robson’s grandmother, who came along too, said, “I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.”
In the various documentaries and interviews filmed during Jackson’s life, we are able to see glimpses of Neverland, the rides, the merry-go-round, the petting zoos and popcorn stands, all mimicking amusement parks in Anywhere, America. Peele, while not overtly accusing Jackson of molestation — a subject which continues to enrage Jackson’s fans after his death — has Adelaide abandoned while wearing a Jackson T-shirt. This has to be explored. Her parents, like the parents of the Jackson accusers, simply aren’t available, aren’t deliberate enough in their protection. Peele is making a comment on how children in our culture are abandoned not only by addiction, but specifically by fame addiction. Adelaide’s traumatic experience occurs in fifteen minutes — her father seeks his “fifteen minutes of fame” when he wins the T-shirt advertising the star. He gives his daughter the prize, but at its core, it is a devil’s bargain, she craves Michael but Thriller scared her. In the iconic video based on the song, Michael enacts the ultimate sociopathic duality, the man in our culture who seduces a woman, and then after she learns to trust him, turns on her and becomes her sexual violator.
It was rarely talked about at the time — at least I don’t recall talking about it with my friends — how scary it was when Michael, after the phenomenal dance sequence in Thriller, runs after Ola Ray, the actress who plays his love interest. As the Thriller monster, he chases her into an abandoned house and, with the help of the other ghouls, smashes the windows, rips the floorboards and tears the place apart to get to her. To my thirteen-year-old mind, having seen domestic violence in my house, the scene seemed terrifyingly real. At the time, Michael, because of his religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness, was so concerned about the occult elements of the film that he came close to not releasing the Thriller video at all. The violence against women, however, didn’t seem to worry anyone. There could have been a creative choice to have Michael and the ghouls descend on the town, return to the movie theater, turn over tables in a malt shop, whatever. Instead, he corners his girlfriend for a second time in the video, and breaks down the door with the menace of an abusive husband violating a restraining order.
As the video ends, Michael convinces Ray that she has imagined the whole thing, and says in the innocent Michael Jackson voice, “Come on, I’ll take you home.” In the video’s final frozen frame, he puts his arm around her and flashes the monster’s yellow eyes at us as Vincent Price laughs demonically. We become complicit in his deception. He is the monster who attacked her after all, it wasn’t in her head, and wherever she plans to go with him now, we know she isn’t safe.
This duality “gentleman/rapist” theme has recently caused controversy in the depiction of serial killer Ted Bundy in a TV movie released this year. The concern was that if he is depicted too sympathetically, if the actor who plays him is too attractive, there is a danger of putting the audience on the side of the killer rather than the victim. Others argued that portraying his charm and charisma is essential to understanding how he was able to move seamlessly through American society and kill over thirty women.
And finally, in the documentary Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson describes one of the evenings when Michael Jackson stayed in his childhood home, in his bedroom. Michael, he claims, would sometimes cry in a corner when it was time for one of their visits to end. Robson remembers Michael’s head buried under an arm, his face obscured. Robson wanted to console him, but in his child logic, he was unable to differentiate between the man in his room and the man on TV. He feared that if he touched Michael, he might lift his head and turn into the werewolf from Thriller.
Whether you agree with the allegations against Michael Jackson, or believe that he “did it”, it is impossible to ignore these themes as providing insight into Adelaide’s experiences later in the film. Adelaide’s father gives her the Thriller shirt and helps her put it on. Holding an untouched candy apple in one hand as a ruling monarch holds a scepter, and with her new T-shirt, Adelaide propels herself into the unknown, leaving her mother and father behind. She abandons the illusion of protection; clearly her parents aren’t in control, so she decides to see the world. In this moment, her journey becomes archetypal, she is the storybook orphan, and while it is she who steps outside the range of safety, no one stops her, which means she is abandoned a second time.
Peele’s perspective as a filmmaker is subversive here and forces us to deconstruct our racist assumptions about Adelaide, and black children in general. His camera reveals to us a vulnerable child, a baby we are compelled to protect. This conflicts with our conditioned societal perception about black girls. Sexual objectification and our investment, carried over from slavery, in the commodification of black women and their children to create a free labor force, means that too often we don’t approach the Adelaides of the world as kids. Peele’s vision as a filmmaker restores Adelaide to childhood; she is vulnerable, one of us, and becomes a black girl with a built-in community — movie audiences who want to protect her. If Adelaide were a little white girl, she might still have a dysfunctional family, but her wandering off to the beach, and the response of the people around her, would cause more alarm. On the streets of America, however, Adelaide is young, Black and female –which means she is on her own.
Adelaide’s storybook big, bad wolf arrives in the form an ominous-looking, long-haired white man who standing near the exit when she walks out of the carnival and down the stairs to the beach. He holds a carboard sign in his hand with the words Jeremiah 11:11. Much has been made about symbolism in Us, and it is rife — we see the numbers 11:11 repeatedly later in the movie, and viewers have been searching for clues in the fire and brimstone message of the verse: “Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”
The verse’s possible connection to the plot seems obvious; I am much more intrigued by the man himself. He does not follow Adelaide, at least not that we observe, but he is aware of her and that she is obviously underage. He can also see that she is on the beach unsupervised. We wait to find out if, as a “Christian”, he feels any responsibility towards helping her find her parents. He does not. Given the sustained look he gives her, I did not believe that this man wouldn’t follow Adelaide down the beach. The movie doesn’t confirm his intentions one way or another, but the suggestion of Adelaide’s having been harmed by him is in Lupita Nyong’o’s performance.
Adelaide walks into a funhouse on the beach that instructs those who enter to “Find Yourself.” A drawing of a Native American man in headdress is above the saying, and the image is stereotypically offensive, but also suggests the possibility of spiritual transformation. There are dangers of a different kind related to this image, of ancestral memory and things that are buried in the ground, what isn’t spoken, what’s been denied. A vocal track spouting “ancient” wisdom blares as Adelaide walks inside and eventually she finds herself in the hall of mirrors. Moments later, the lights dim and the soundtrack stops and it appears as if someone has shut the funhouse down for the night. Adelaide, somewhat panicked, searches for the exit. She whistles the song, “the Itsy Bitsy Spider”, and hears someone else’s whistle joining her own. Before she can find her way out, we watch as she turns and sees what appears to be a mirror image of the back of her own head, done in two pigtails with barrettes. Her eyes grow wide with horror at what she confronts in the mirror.
Peele brings us into daylight. It is the present, and we join the adult Adelaide on a road trip with her own family. Lupita Nyongo’s Adelaide is a beautiful, engaged mother, relaxed and at ease with her children. But she has a closed-in, overprotective quality, and we suspect why; she is still traumatized by her past. It is the year after the death of her mother, and the house her mother lived in is now their summer vacation home. Once they are settled, her husband Gabe informs her that he’s made plans for them to meet their friends on the beach — the same beach from the prologue. Adelaide attempts to shut down the plan, but she is aware that without any context for her fear — her husband has no idea what happened to her all those years ago — her resistance seems foolish and more than a bit selfish. She agrees to go, and even shares a flirty moment on the couch with Gabe. We see their easy rapport, but when Gabe and her children aren’t watching, we also observe how much effort it takes for her to keep things together, the extent of her internal distress.
Peele flashes back to a moment inside a therapist’s office, where the young Adelaide, mute from trauma, sits and watches her parents try to make sense of what happened to her at the beach. She plays with toys in the waiting room and listens through the open door as her father rebuts the therapist’s diagnosis: his daughter can’t have post-traumatic stress disorder, she wasn’t in Vietnam, for God’s sake, she was only lost for fifteen minutes. Her mother counters that they have no idea what happened to her during that lost time. She just wants her baby back. Her father, exasperated and feeling that his wife blames him, leaves the session to have a cigarette. He approaches his daughter and stops to look down at her (we cannot see his face) with what might be compassion or rage. She stares back at him with longing or fear, and holds his gaze. The tension is relieved when he places a hand on her shoulder. It is in these sessions in the therapist’s office that Adelaide is encouraged to express herself through creativity in order to heal. The therapist tells her parents: “Encourage her to draw, to write, to dance. Anything to get her to tell us her story.” Adelaide chooses to dance.
As I watched this part of the film, I thought of the late poet and humanitarian, Dr. Maya Angelou and her seminal autobiographical work “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Angelou recounts in her book how as a child she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, at seven and a half years old. She is hospitalized from the brutal encounter. Maya refuses to tell any of the adults in her family or the police who raped her because Mr. Freeman promised that if she told anyone, he would kill her older brother Bailey — the light of her life.
Bailey, almost nine, assures Maya that Mr. Freeman can’t kill him; he simply won’t allow it. Being omnipotent and all-knowing, Bailey convinces Maya and she tells him. Mr. Freeman is convicted and given a year sentence, but is released before serving his time and ends up back on the streets. Hours after his release, he is found beaten to death. Maya surmises that because it was her voice that spoke his name, a man was now dead. As a result, she stops speaking. For five years.
Creativity saves Maya as it does the young Adelaide. At first, Maya’s muteness is experienced by her family as a natural response to trauma. But when she is still mute months later, she is perceived as being willful and is punished and beaten. She and Bailey are sent back to Stamps, Arkansas and to the grandmother who raised Maya from the age of three. As part of an interview for a conference entitled “Facing Evil”, Angelou observed about this time in her life: “Rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism. And there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”
It is while working in her grandmother’s merchandizing store that Maya encounters Mrs. Flowers, to whom she refers as “the black aristocrat of Stamps”. Mrs. Flowers invites Maya to her home for tea. She chooses a copy of a Tale of Two Cities, reads aloud, and then lends Maya a book of poetry and asks that, when she comes for her next visit, she be prepared to recite. Mrs. Flowers tells her, “I’ll accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been badly handled.” Maya speaks, and after years of concentrated reading, she says: “When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say and many ways in which to say what I had to say.”
The adult Adelaide also has a lot to say, and attempts to explain to Gabe why she needs to leave the house in Santa Cruz immediately and go home. The day at the beach was disastrous. Her son Jason wandered off, and she found him, perilously close to the “find yourself” funhouse where she herself wandered as a child, and she panics. Despite the years that have passed, Adelaide is still as traumatized as ever. It doesn’t help that on the way to the beach, she sees the Jeremiah 11:11 man, desiccated and possibly dead, as he is loaded into an ambulance. Adelaide keeps noticing ominous signs and synchronicities suggesting to her that something bad is about to happen to all of them. Her own mother may have had the same foreboding feeling the day she disappeared.
I believe an interpretation of the film in which the Jeremiah 11:11 man did follow Adelaide into the funhouse is not unimaginable, and that her response to her son is that of a survivor of sexual assault. A reasonable argument could be made that her father, based on the look she gives him in the therapist’s office, is the one abusing her. One might also consider that her mother’s fear about Adelaide’s muteness, mirroring Adelaide day at the beach with her son, is the reaction of a survivor as well.
Adelaide describes to Gabe why the day has been so triggering for her, and that she feels as if there is a “black cloud” over her head. Gabe makes an effort to understand what Adelaide tells him, but seems unable to hear her; unwilling to enter the pain-body with her. She tells Gabe she fears that the girl she saw in the mirror is still after her. Gabe listens sympathetically, but they seem to exist in different universes. He doesn’t dismiss her entirely, but his comic response to her terror is wildly inappropriate: “I’m pretty sure I can kick your ass, so if she looks like you…” After repeated attempts, Adelaide gives up trying convince Gabe. She can see that he just doesn’t get it, may never get it. Her isolation in this moment becomes even more pronounced.
This scene becomes a revealing commentary by the filmmaker about the conversation between men and women on sexual violence in this cultural moment; Gabe doesn’t dismiss his wife entirely, but he doesn’t support her, either. He is bewildered — an honest reaction — that his wife has kept her feelings secret from him all these years. But if he really knows and loves her, there is no way he couldn’t tell, even without knowing the details, that something is clearly wrong with her. What she tells him should make sense in the texture of their lives. This scene is never resolved; and later, Gabe never apologizes for not believing her. I suspected that this devastating exchange would create a divide between them that would be impossible to overcome. But before we can find out, they are interrupted by Jason, who announces that there is a family standing in their driveway. Metaphorically, Adelaide’s unresolved trauma has arrived on their doorstep.
This is where Peele reveals his skill as a scenarist, and it’s a crackling idea: not just one, but an entire family of “body snatchers”. The tableau of the mirror family standing sentinel at the end of the driveway, and breathing together, while waiting, waiting, is a horrifying image. They are the stencil from the back window of the car — the perfect family come to life. Gabe goes into the driveway as the man of the house to confront the family, but his attempts to engage with them are unsuccessful. When they don’t respond, he returns with a bat and speaks to them in an unconvincing “street” voice — black and white audiences find this attempt at machoism both pathetic and endearing. We know that Gabe loves his family, but he seems to be better equipped when he is taking them to the beach. As the danger unfolds, it is clear that Gabe is the least aware in their pack, at times he is a liability.
Each family member discovers she or he has a doppelgänger; Zora’s double, unadorned, with circles under her eyes and a creepy smile, shares Zora’s athletic ambitions but without her ambivalence towards the sport; this girl in red, named Umbrae, can run, and fast. Jason’s doppelgänger, Pluto, is a little boy who moves more like an animal, all grunts and crawls. He wears a cloth mask over his head with holes cut for his eyes. It is a slightly more elaborate mask than Jason wears, which is more like a plastic mask for Halloween, but it achieves the same effect. Both boys are attracted to fire, and act out the unconscious grief and anger their mothers feel. They are also tricksters, responding in passive-aggressive rage to their father’s inability to respond to their mothers pain. Because the fathers are totally unavailable, the boys end up responding to their mothers as partners, and become repositories for the family’s shame. (It is Jason, not Gabe, who shares a knowing look with his mother in the film’s finale.) Pluto takes his rage a step farther than Jason, as all the doppelgangers do: while Jason’s “trick” ring clicks like a Zippo lighter that refuses to start, Pluto has access to real fire and has uses it to mutilate the lower half of his face, and eventually to immolate himself.
Gabe and his twin Abraham fascinate me as supporting characters; watching the film, I wanted to know what the filmmaker was saying to us through them. Gabe is presented to us as a teddy bear, a loving and easy-going husband, but also somewhat of a nerd, a loser. There is a revealing moment in the first confrontation scene, after the driveway family first arrives. We come to learn that they are the “tethered”- the people behind the funhouse mirror who lead a shadow existence underground. Gabe’s double, Abraham, takes the glasses off his face. Abraham makes prehistoric guttural noises, he is a Neanderthal, and looks completely baffled by his circumstances. Both women, Adelaide and the tethered Red, are married to children. With Gabe’s glasses off, he raises his hands defensively. We look at his body and his guarded stance, and see that he is completely unprotected. We can imagine Gabe as a child, perhaps overweight, a boy who might have been bullied. At Red’s command, Abraham drags Gabe from the house screaming, pulling him over broken glass as Gabe moans out in powerlessness. It is not an impossibility, suggested by this scene, that Gabe cannot face Adelaide’s childhood abuse because he may have to explore his own.
Gabe finally occupies the space of terror his wife has been trying to describe to him earlier, but he doesn’t get there voluntarily, he literally has to be dragged to it. When the two families sit across from the other for the first time, masters and slaves, the moment is profound. Gabe, a black yuppie at heart, resists it. He offers them material things, like a trip to the ATM, his boat. His children get it even if he doesn’t. Zora tells him, through a face lined with tears and near hysteria: “Nobody wants the boat, Dad.” The line is delivered comically, but it is a comment on black materialism and how ineffectual it is when facing and trying to heal historic pain.
I’ve observed while reading responses to the film online that some viewers are furious with Gabe as a character. He could be seen as a subversive choice opposing the usual macho depictions of black men in pop-culture; when facing the shadow family, as I’ve described, Gabe’s attempts to go all “New Jack City” on them spectacularly fails. It is nice to see a black man in a film who isn’t running around with a gun in his hand two frames in. Gabe is pliant with his family, vulnerable. But then something happens in the plot, and he goes from vulnerable to completely exposed. as a partner and parent. At one point, Adelaide heads into the woods to see if Umbrae, Zora’s twin who has been thrown from the roof of the car, is dead. Adelaide’s reaction is surprising, showing a maternal instinct towards the dying girl even though Umbrae has attempted to kill them. Gabe merely observes this scene with his children, saying wearily as Adelaide exits the car: “Where is your mother going now?” rather than attempting to stop her from putting herself in harm’s way, or joining her. Gabe’s character may be saying that black men cannot witness black women’s pain until we choose to deal with our own. We can’t save ourselves and we can’t save you. In fact, until we face our pain, we can’t even see you.
Something else that’s going on with Gabe: Peele’s desire as a comedian to bring levity to the audience. The Jordan Peele of Mad TV and Comedy Central’s Key and Peele wants you to laugh in his films, but as a director he hasn’t yet learned to trust that his ideas are inherently funny and don’t need laugh lines. A black man hypnotized by his girlfriend’s “hip” white liberal parents, liberals who would rather kill a black person than deal with their racism, is a comic idea; a family who gets their asses kicked by people standing in their driveway who look exactly like them is funny. Hitchcock at his best understood this, which is why you may find yourself laughing at his films even during the tensest moments. Get Out was undermined at times by low humor; whenever the racial stakes got too high and we got close to authentic pain, Peele returned to the comedic best friend. I didn’t mind this as much on a second viewing, and Peele has too much respect for his characters, and himself, to turn them into minstrels for white audiences. But as a black gay man, I felt violated by the use of Jeffrey Dahmer, including an ugly joke about dismembered black men, as comic relief for his film.
Later in Us, in a moment of exasperation, Adelaide addresses her husband’s failed leadership. He tells her a decision he has made for the family is final, and she replies, “You don’t get to make the decisions now.” This could be a moment of feminist heroism, but Gabe is so weak that it doesn’t register as a triumph. It actually draws more attention to what we’ve known all along, Adelaide is in an unsuccessful marriage, not unlike her mother. In fact, her decision to have Gabe as a mate may be more of a comment on her bad judgement than his ineptitude, even though Gabe was the one to suggest they travel to the summer house, and who insisted on the beach; like her mother, her husband has indirectly put her children in harm’s way. The scene in which Adelaide takes over would play very differently if she were married to Idris Alba or a young Sam Jackson. Telling an empowered black man to sit down, and having him acknowledge and respect his wife’s authority, to watch two equals negotiating power, would be riveting. In the scene as played, Adelaide doesn’t wrest power from Gabe, she gives him a time out.
Peele wants us to laugh, but as there is only one adult black man in Us, unlike Get Out, laughing at him becomes problematic. Peele wants to inject humor, but Adelaide has nothing to laugh about, and the children, at least before they get their killing on, are in a state of shock. At a low point in the movie, with his wife and son missing, Gabe observes the untethered standing outside in “Hands Across America” formation. He says to his daughter, as they peek from behind an ambulance, “They’re like a fucked-up performance art piece.” Zora looks up at him and rolls her eyes. She doesn’t respect her father anymore, and Peele’s need for a laugh here finishes off Gabe as a character. We may appreciate his suffering by the end of the film but we never take him seriously.
While each of Peele’s characters gets a face-off with his or her doppelgänger, the tethered versions of Gabe, Jason and Zora have no personal vendettas or scores to settle with their counterparts, they are just doing the bidding of Red who commands them to carry out her treacherous acts. Red doesn’t care about the family really, and she knows through harming them she can manipulate Adelaide. These confrontations are unsettling but not particularly inspired. What we would need to see are scenes where Gabe’s, Jason’s and Zora’s own fears are established before the shadow family arrives, and that Red knows how to use her family’s nefarious talents to play on these fears. Gabe’s doppelgänger is as hopeless as he is; their confrontation on the boat doesn’t force Gabe to confront his own inner demons or face anything heroic in himself. He’s just lucky because he gains the upper hand. Zora and Jason show no particular mortification when they watch their alter-egos die, nor do they experience any guilt. The lack of consequences in their storylines may make some viewers feel these characters exist only in the service of the plot, and the white characters in Us are really just pawns for the real showdown between Adelaide and her nemesis, Red. Fortunately, Lupita Nyong’o is doing enough acting that we never take our eyes off her. Her technique is so mesmerizing, in fact, that I often forgot to remember that the roles were being played by the same actress. She attacks the role of Adelaide’s trauma and Red’s disturbance with a ferocity that may be inspired in part by her own #MeToo experience with Harvey Weinstein, which she has publicly acknowledged. Nyong’o is telling us something about sexual violence, fragmentation and internalized rage.
Red also recalls, both in face and intention, the resurrected murdered baby girl in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. The novel is the story, based on an actual account, of Sethe, a woman who attempts to kill her children rather have them returned with her to slavery. The baby daughter, who was murdered and has been haunting her mother’s house as a spirit for years, returns in the form of an adult woman, much as Red appears on Adelaide’s doorstep. This connection came to me the first time that Red spoke: I was reminded of actress Thandie Newton’s vocal choices in Jonathan Demme’s film version of the novel. Nyong’o publicly acknowledged that spasmodic dysphonia was the inspiration for Red’s voice. Red sounds like the voice of a resurrected dead woman — as in the Morrison’s novel — who has just emerged from the bottom of a lake. Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey, is over twenty years old. It occurred to me, watching Us, that Peele is the director who might have a triumph with the remake; he could bring out visually what astounded readers about the novel, and Morrison’s structure would give him what his scripts sometimes lack — sustained narrative coherence. It is entirely possible that Beloved can never be made successfully as a feature film, even with the original film’s three-hour running time — we need more time on the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky before we arrive at 127 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati, Ohio. Perhaps, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Beloved needs to be a (limited) mini-series. Nyong’o, who might have played the title character at the beginning of her career, is now at the age to play a devastatingly powerful Sethe.
What Peele has done, and it is a phenomenal achievement, is to create two films that speak metaphorically to the horrors of racism, making them thought provoking, entertaining, and award-winning. And — critical to success in Hollywood — lucrative. It may be a little soon to talk about Peele’s oeuvre, but his films may move us closer to having a real conversation about racism in this country. It might be a “Peele generation” that is open to serious discussion about reparations as white and black audiences are finally able to digest the “unspeakable” aspects of American history and black history through his stories. Which means that we may begin as a society to concern ourselves again with justice.
A certain texture of black American blues, expressed within the black artistic tradition of fiction, music and poetry, is sustained in Peele’s work. He has not compromised his vision, and he gives us insight into black pain that we rarely, if ever, see in popular entertainment. Us approaches the themes in Beloved, and — this is not to be underestimated — his camera acknowledges the pain on black faces without fetishizing dark skin. (He does have a signature, a black face shedding a single tear — a blues reference.) Unlike many filmmakers black and white, Peele doesn’t telegraph what we are supposed to think about his characters based on their skin color. As a man of color I can sit in his movies and relax, knowing that I won’t be racially humiliated by his aesthetic. In this country, in Hollywood, that alone is a major feat.
Jordan Peele has recently gone on record saying that he has no plans to cast a white actor as the lead in any of his films. This is probably great news to actors of color in the industry, and his stance, on some level, is an admirable one. But not hiring a white lead actor doesn’t solve his problem of creating authentic white characters for whom the audience feels something. Audiences need characters they care about, even minor ones. As this is not the last time Peele will deal with race in his films, he doesn’t do his black characters any favors when the white people he creates are one-dimensional.
This may be a black filmmaker’s revenge, creating white versions of the one-dimensional black characters who are often dispatched early in horror films. But if that is Peele’s intention, it is an unfortunate decision and ultimately his loss; Peele has gone to the head of the class, with an Oscar for Best Screenplay. He has already surpassed the usual throwaway and exploitative submissions to the horror genre. Trash horror usually traffics in one-name camp counselors, and hitchhikers who wander off into the woods alone. Introduced in one scene and murdered in the next, we don’t grieve these people, because we never knew them. Great horror has great supporting characters and often great actors in the roles.
Peele’s white characters in Us and Get Out, and occasionally a few of the black ones, lie somewhere in between. On the beach, we meet Adelaide and Gabe’s friends, Kitty and Josh. These two characters have the singular distinction of being drunk and white. (And they have two daughters.) While Gabe and Josh have an amicable conversation about boats and appear genuinely to be friends, Adelaide seems barely able to tolerate Kitty.
Kitty tells Adelaide, facetiously, that she sometimes dreams of murdering her husband. While their conversation suggests that the two women have some kind of history, they could also be strangers who met that same day. Kitty brings up Adelaide’s dancing and asks if she misses it, at which Adelaide slaps her thighs and tells her as a dancer she peaked at 14. (One doesn’t want to overdo it with the symbolic references, but my ears bristled at the mention of that number after watching Surviving R. Kelly, particularly as it relates to a black girl’s body, and one who is dealing with trauma. 14 was the age of the alleged victim in the R. Kelly sex tape.) Kitty then tells Adelaide that she could have been a movie star, she took some acting classes, but having children got in the way. Adelaide keeps reading her magazine. It isn’t clear what we are meant to learn about these people, or if they are just being set up for something that comes later.
This is the second time Peele has given us interracial relationships at the core of his film. In a movie with few characters outside the immediately family, these relationships, especially when they aren’t well written, stand out. It may be satisfying politically for audiences who, after gagging on the sentimentality of a racial buddy film like Green Book, have white characters they don’t have to care about at all, but I think it is a self-destructive choice for Peele. The slackness at the core of the middle act comes from the fact that we spend more than an hour of screen time with the Tylers, and watch them and their daughters murdered; and we couldn’t care less about them. Adelaide, whose story is so dramatically compelling it almost exists in its own movie, deserves better in supporting roles — a real female friend and her husband, whether she is white or black.
We may have some insight into Peele’s intentions of creating a memorable role by the casting of Elizabeth Moss as Kitty. Moss has been enacting horror scenes of a different kind on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and she does what she can to create a character out of what’s been written. She almost succeeds. In a brief scene that is all hers, she brings a great actress’s intensity to the simple application of lip gloss. Kitty’s tethered alterego, Dahlia, having helped kill Kitty, now sits in front of her mirror, admiring herself. We know that Dahlia has been denied beautiful things, because Red describes how as one of the tethered she’d been deprived all these years. The music changes and becomes dreamy, old-Hollywood, and Dahlia is transformed from a murderess into a siren, or a girl playing at mommy’s make-up table. In what must be less than a minute of screen time, we watch her experience, with melancholy sadness, how the “other half” lives. This is all in Elizabeth Moss’ performance and it’s a lovely, bittersweet moment.
Josh and his tethered twin never register as characters except that we know Josh likes to listen to the Beach Boys. We know even less about the daughters: they might as well have been cast as extras. Peele may not have wanted to take away from Adelaide’s story by having too many competing narratives, but without any other strong characters except for Red, Us becomes a one-woman showcase for Adelaide.
We do get a tiny comment about black capitalism and envy from the others; Gabe covets Josh’s new car in an earlier scene. After Josh’s entire family is killed, Zora asks on the way out, “Does that mean we get their car?” Once inside the car, Zora insists on driving based on who amongst them is wounded, which starts a family argument about who has the highest kill count. We see how evil within the family is being normalized, and how the gap between the free and the tethered gets smaller as the film progresses.
I t is obvious that as a director Jordan Peele wants us to have a good time. That matters to an audience; even if he doesn’t get everything right as a director, we can feel his passion for movies and which ones have inspired him as they have inspired us. The black family’s easy camaraderie at the opening of the film — parents who are “hip” and playful with their children — is very Spielbergian, a reference to E.T. and the Tobe Hooper/Spielberg collaboration Poltergeist (another film that begins with a little girl staring into a television.) Adelaide’s son, Jason, has the same endearing gap between his teeth as the son in Poltergeist, and the same disbelieving, open-mouthed stare at terror. On the beach, Jason wears a T-shirt from Spielberg’s iconic and perhaps greatest film, Jaws. The music we hear over the creepy opening image of rabbits trapped in cages in Us, recalls the ominous theme from The Omen. Composer Jerry Goldsmith admitted that he wanted to create a Satanic version of Gregorian chant for that film. Peele and composer Michael Abels top him by adding percussion, giving the chant an African or Native American twist. Jason wears a mask throughout Us, not unlike his namesake Jason from the Friday the 13th series. Jason, a horror movie icon and another child abandoned by the adults he trusted, dies because camp counselors are too busy getting high and making out to keep him from drowning in a lake.
Peele isn’t stealing by using these references in his work, he’s winking at us and locating his story amongst horror movie legends. When his characters are strong, we laugh in recognition. But when the characterizations are weak, he uses these references as a form of shorthand and it’s lazy: the creepy twin sisters in Us with their Kill Bill acrobatics are borrowed from The Shining and probably should have stayed there. Without a single distinguishing feature between them, and speaking in unison, they are too crudely conceived to be “stylized” — they are nothing, merely zombies from a video game. When Adelaide is forced to kill one of Kitty’s tethered daughters, it is of no emotional consequence to anyone, except Jason, who sees the violence and reacts to his mother’s brutality with quiet horror.
Peele does one amazing thing in the Tyler house: when Kitty, close to death, instructs their version of Amazon’s “Alexa” to call the police, Alexa chooses “Fuck The Police” by NWA from their album Straight Out of Compton. (I was waiting for Sting’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.”) We hear the song almost in its entirety as Jason and Zora climb the stairs to rescue their mother. Hugely polarizing when it came out, “Fuck the Police” had many detractors in 1988 and NWA became notorious because of the controversy. People who would have run out of a room in the Eighties at the mere mention of the song are now forced in 2019 to sit and actually listen to the lyrics. As Peele has directed the scene, it takes an incredible amount of screen time for Zora and Jason to reach the top of the stairs. Fully aware that at this point his audience is indeed captive, Peele knows how to make his politics felt.
This is also clear in an earlier scene when a white man in the neighborhood steps out of his house and shouts at Umbrae, Zora’s tethered twin, to get off his car. (Umbrae has a thing about jumping on cars.) There is no concern in his voice that given the time at night — Umbrae appears to be alone — she may be in distress. Despite the fact that she is clearly a child, the man speaks to her with the rage and entitlement that some whites reserve for “any old black person’ — Umbrae can’t be more than fifteen or sixteen, but he speaks to her as if she were an adult man. To the neighbor, it is inconceivable that Umbrae, as a woman, might require his protection from someone pursuing her. Like Jeremiah 11:11 at the opening of the film, he seems incapable of perceiving a black child needing help.
His tone reminds us that black children in America are often perceived to be adults by law enforcement. Rather than ask if she is all right, or imagine that she belongs in his community, he verbally attacks her, and his lack of inquisitiveness and aggressive response proves deadly. Umbrae, not the black child to fuck with, stabs him to death — a twist on the tragic ending that befell 12-year-old Tamar Rice at the hands of Cleveland police or Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. When the NWA song arrives several scenes later, with its challenge to racist authority, we are primed for it.
I n great horror, the emotional stakes are always high. Stephen King based his novel Carrie on a girl at his school who was bullied and was the object of constant adolescent cruelty, in part, because she wore the same outfit every day. Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane is about the pain of being ‘washed up” in Hollywood, getting old in America and living with mental illness and untreated alcoholism. Rosemary Woodhouse is betrayed by her husband‘s ’fame addiction; in order to become a star he gives their first-born child to Satan. Rosemary approaches her marriage with a traditional 1950’s devotion to her husband, to the male doctors that treat her, to the elderly neighbors who look after her; she trusts patriarchy and tradition to have her back. The film came out in 1968 — two months before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam war — a time when many felt the government couldn’t be trusted. Eventually, Rosemary realizes that no one is going to save her or her baby, but by time she wakes up to the danger she’s in it is too late.
William Friedkin took his time to give us the backstory of Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist and the heart-wrending decision he makes to put his elderly mother in a care facility/institution where she dies. When the devil wants to get inside Karras’ head, he speaks to him in the voice of his mother: “Dimi, why you do this to me, Dimi. Dimi, I’m afraid.” Karras, screams in response, holding his head in his hands and sobbing, “You’re not my mother!” It’s is beautiful cinematic moment, rendered with great patience and care to achieve the emotional impact that it finally delivers.
I have referenced these films, because I put Us, and to a much lesser extent Get Out in the category of horror classics, great horror, rather than B horror, because of what they aspire to, and also, to varying degrees, what the achieve. Get Out, Jordan Peele’s first film, had a devastating origin story at its core: Chris, at the age of eleven, is home watching TV and waiting for his mother to come home from work. When she doesn’t come home, he is too terrified to leave the house and find out what has happened. He later discovers that she had been the victim of a hit and run. He is also told that his mother didn’t die right away, she lay by the side of the road and died alone. When Chris meets his girlfriend Rose’s family, he shares this story with her mother, Missy, during a hypnotherapy session to stop smoking. It is in this scene that Missy takes him to The Sunken Place— a remote, dissociated, free-floating place within his soul.
I didn’t dislike Get Out, but I wanted Jordan’s vision to be more expansive– in a critical moment in the film when Chris repeatedly asks Rose to give him the keys as they attempt to escape, he discovers that Rose has been a part of the plot against him from the beginning — in short: she’s a racist too and he ain’t getting those keys. She is also clearly as sociopath, incapable of love, but whatever her motivation, I needed the moment where Chris realized the woman he claims he loves has betrayed him. Without this emotional foundation, Get Out becomes a cautionary tale for not leaving your neighborhood, not leaving your tribe.
The problem is, one of the reasons we are in so much trouble in this cultural moment is because of rampant tribalism. Art should move us away from tribalism, not deeper into it, our assumptions left unquestioned. Chris escapes the house, having dispatched with the family quickly. For Get Out to fully enrolls us, however, we need pain we recognize, we need to understand how Chris’s loss of his mother makes him vulnerable to being exploited. But serious betrayal can only begin with real love, and there is no love between Chris and Rose.
Get Out’s genius lies in its conception of The Sunken Place —an altered state where racism has broken your heart to such a degree that your relationship to your life exists only through television, i.e., consumerism. (It is suggested that some blacks sent to the The Sunken Place become complicit with racism in order to survive.) The sunken concept alone may have catapulted Peele into the pantheon of great horror directors. In his films, Peele is able to articulate the “blues song” visually. I’m not talking about having a great performer stand in front of a mike and sing the blues, which is, of course, is always effective. Peele has translated the experience of black blues, the depression that racism engenders, and defined a psychological experience that heretofore, on screen, has been nameless. Whether he coined the phrase himself or not, he has made it part of our lexicon.
Get Out was a stunning directorial debut, but a deeper archetypical layer was missing from that film. Us has that layer, and the pain is in Lupita Nyong’o’s performance. Peele has our attention as an audience, which means that he is able to shape our culture. His genius lies in translating the experience of racism visually, helping us to understand the assault on the black body in cinematic terms. He extends the tradition of witnessing black pain and exploring the duality of black American life that dates back to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 poem, We Wear The Masks. The movie’s plot in both Get Out and Us may not stay with us point by point, but the nightmarish images and their archetypal resonances remain unforgettable.
There are very few reasons to go to the movies anymore; in addition to exorbitant ticket prices in too many areas, rudeness in the theater, and impossible concession prices, it’s easier just to stay at home. But there is something — and there always will be as long as theaters exist — about seeing a movie with an audience, and especially on an opening weekend. I will never forget the gasp and uncomfortable laughter and then perfect stillness after the shocking moment in Hereditary– which I won’t reveal here. I could easily have seen that at home months later, perhaps even watched it with friends, but the sound of over a hundred people in the theater gasping at the same time and then laughing at ourselves together was amazing.
During the previews for Us, we were shown a trailer for Octavia’s Spencer’s Ma, directed by Tate Taylor of The Help, which comes out next month. Spencer and Taylor seem to be atoning for the earlier film (and they need to), Ma, at least from its trailer, seems to be “Mammy” recast as a black female serial killer, another inspired comic premise. In the trailer, Ma is approached by a group of white teenagers and asked if she will buy them some beer. She hesitates at first and then after she gets the booze, asks them if they want to “party like rock stars” and invites them to hang out in her basement. Ma becomes clingy, and it’s a yummy twist: instead of Mammy taking care of these white kids, they are forced to manage her — because she’s stalking them. It’s doubly intriguing because Spencer doesn’t seem to be phoning her performance in, or just acting “black and crazy” for the camera. Ma, like Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction and Annie Wilkes in Misery, has dimensions.
It was at a point when Ma is seen sewing a white woman’s lips together with needle and thread, a possible voodoo reference, that the black woman next to me said, “Oh hell no, this is way too much!” and we laughed together. I’ve seen the trailer at home, dozens of times, but the price of the ticket to Us was worth it just to hear her reaction and the audiences delight. Some might not understand, after years of minstrelsy and black characters scraping and bowing why Ma in all her pathology might be delicious to a black audience. No matter. The point was that the audience was alive and clapping in anticipation and the experience was thrilling, and it was Friday night, Us’s opening weekend. I know I complain every year, but as long as there are movie theaters and New Yorkers like the woman I sat next to in Harlem, I will be going to the movies.
But the main reason to keep going to movies is that, with the exception of home theaters, there is no other place to experience the same dynamic of light and sound. I’ve seen Us twice, and despite my frustrations with characterization and plot which I have detailed here, I will see it a third time and will pay extra to see it in an IMAX theater because of one scene: in the Pas de Deux destruction ballet, the ultimate confrontation between Adelaide and Red. We watch the two women battle for power, as Adelaide attempts to overcome Red. She becomes more and more exhausted and frustrated when Red eludes her, until her attempts become pathetic and she appears to be beating herself to death. Tthe movie seems to be saying, as we watch these two aspects of Adelaide’s psyche at work: “You can’t destroy your shadow, you can only make peace with it.” It sounds trite when written out like this, but if that is what Peele is telling us as a filmmaker, it is visually stunning to watch.
In an extended monologue, Red describes what it was like to exist in her underground world; we return to the early scenes of Adelaide at the carnival, and what was happening underneath, down below, in Red’s shadow reality. We see the tethered people, as they enact the same movements as those above ground, deprived of light and cramped in an unforgivingly tight space. I’m not the first person to observe that this scene suggests the millions of people who are incarcerated in this country, who are institutionalized, the class divide in our nation, our “two Americas”. It also suggests the rampant mental illness in our culture; those of us who are driven mad by neglect, or by our pursuit, and failure at achieving, the American dream.
Above ground, couples eat at tables, leisurely enjoy themselves, below they are panicked and palsied, like workers without breaks in factories, who must return to assembly lines, workers, in slaughterhouses, who cut themselves on machinery, lose limbs, cannot take breaks even to relieve themselves, in order to make someone more money. These days, the word socialism is being used often to scare people politically, but Peele enacts what might be the cinematic version of Marx’ Theory of Alienation: the people underground are dehumanized, like cogs in a machine, they move like worker bees as part of an intricate system, but there is chaos everywhere and they barely interact with each other. Adelaide’s shadow mother shows no maternal instincts, her tethered father hands her the Michael Jackson T-shirt and walks away. The T-shirt adds another dimension in this new context: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, in the dance sequence, is a powerful commentary on black life, and the dead and buried, the forgotten, returning to be seen. As Toni Morrison writes in Beloved, “People who die bad don’t stay in the ground.” The standard b-horror movie plot that frames the dance sequence in Thriller isn’t transformative, but the dance is. It is aggressively black, it is the dance of the tethered, the enslaved Africans lost in the middle passage, the lynched black body swinging from the poplar tree; Michael Jackson as voodoo conjurer. Adelaide responds to it as a dancer. The girls also share a “Hands Across America” T-shirt. Red explains that it is she who has organized the tethered in the “Hands” formation. It was her vision that they finally get their moment to shine — to exist above ground.
The culminating battle between the two women takes place in an empty corridor and is edited with flashes of Adelaide and Red dancing as little girls, one above the ground in front of an audience, the other, tethered, in the basement, bumping into walls. The image brings up so much pain, about self-destruction and what demons are exposed when we express our creativity or face our trauma, it is emotionally overpowering. We are used to seeing black children dance in pop culture, their creative contributions often dismissed because dancing, for them, is perceived as “natural”. It is rare, however, to see a trained ballerina who is young and black and female, espeically a girl with very dark skin. Her grace and silence are juxtaposed with Adelaide’s stumbling, exhausting attempts to vanquish Red while screaming in emotional agony. The moment is transcendent, a bravura act of filmmaking.
I tried to recall where I recently felt so moved by a cinematic or televised experience, where it took me to the basement floor of my own trauma. I knew it had been fairly recent. It hit me as I was leaving the theater: It was the R. Kelly interview with Gayle King. Wait, hear me out. If you’ve followed the allegations against R. Kelly, and if you watched the documentary Surviving R. Kelly that premiered this summer, you know that he has been accused of keeping woman in a sex cult. It has been hard to prove, especially when the women are of age and claim to want to be with the star. After Gayle King interviewed Kelly, she spoke with two of his romantic “partners”, Joselyn Savage and Azriel Clary.
Clary’s story is too complex to be detailed here in full, but for those of us who watched the docuseries, we may feel we have a relationship to her. We’ve been concerned about her wellbeing. Before the CBS interview aired, Azriel’s family had been trying to communicate with her, claiming they had been denied access by Kelly, and that Azriel had stopped all communication with them. At one point, during Kelly’s recent arraignment, Azriel sat in the row in front of her parents and reportedly refused to turn around and speak to either one of them. Kelly’s handlers encouraged her to move to another row to avoid their entreaties. For viewers who wondered what had happened to Clary, or if she was even alive, it was a minor miracle to see her walk through the courtroom, so I can only imagine what it was like for her family. Joselyn Savage accompanied her, another woman whose family claims she has been brainwashed by the singer.
Based on the argument of the series, Joselyn has been harmed by Kelly, but Clary is a special case. She admits in the King interview that she had attempted suicide prior to meeting R. Kelly. When asked about her singing aspirations, she claims that she never wanted to be a singer, that she attempted to fatally harm herself because her family was putting so much pressure on her to sing. This statement is belied by the number of videos of Azriel Clary on YouTube, singing the National Anthem, singing Ave Maria. Performing at school events, in her community. From the clips, singing appears to be her life, and she’s talented.
The Azriel Clary that arrived at the interview in a black coat, freshly styled hair and full make-up, looking fabulous and very expensive, tells Gayle King she doesn’t care about singing and that she never aspired to be a singer. There seems to be no hint in this woman of the damaged girl-child her family has been looking for — only a cynical rock-world sophisticate.
King asks about Clary’s relationship with the R&B singer and Azriel points a finger in Gayle’s face and speaks to her disrespectfully. I stood in my kitchen holding a cup of coffee and audibly gasped at this point; most black Americans, whether we live in the South or not, cannot escape our Southern roots, more specifically our our ties, however tenuous, to the black church, the black community and its heirarchies. I knew, without having ever met Azriel Clary, that this person in the interview, defensive, sassy, shut down, and getting in Gayle’s face, was not the real Azriel as she was raised by her family. This was her “tethered” self.
I didn’t use that exact language at the time because Us hadn’t come out yet, but I’m using it now, just as many of us have referenced “The Sunken Place.” Peele’s filmic ideas are so powerful that they are transforming the language we use to talk about race, sexual abuse and self-betrayal. (A friend of mine, an actor, saw Us and it gave him a new perspective on his sexual addiction. Unable to “find the time” to audition for the parts he wanted, he’d spend hours in places where people cruised for sex all day like zombies. His relationship with his partner was non-monogamous, so the issue wasn’t about the sex. It was the fact that above ground, he was scared to take risks for his art, but below ground, among the thetered, he didn’t have to risk anything; attractive and sought after in sex clubs, he was already a “star”.)
I know there were legions of black people watching the Gayle King interview, who responded to Azriel’s nasty tone with some form of “Girl, who you think you talking to?” A clip has recently gone viral on the internet of a young black woman in an Eighties talk-show audience calling Maya Angelou by her first name. Angelou makes it clear to the woman that she is in serious violation. (I personally think Maya’s response was a little over the top, and she apologizes to the woman after the break, but Angelou clearly establishes the boundaries of traditional Southern black social discourse for anyone watching.)
Gayle doesn’t flinch at Ariel’s behavior, or response with anger or violence as many people did on social media. Instead, what she does is masterful: she assesses Azriel’s response as indicative of trauma, not unlike Maya’s decision at seven years old to go mute after her rape (and which also inspired rage in others) and goes deeper into empathy. She says, “You sound very angry with your parents” and the tender words break Azriel all the way down and she begins sobbing.
The interview with R. Kelly himself held no surprises, but I literally had to sit down and gather myself after I watched Gayle King’s interview Azriel Clary. It affected me on a level that I find, even now, very hard to describe. I risk someone’s reading this and thinking it a complete digression, total pop-culture bullshit, but I think the moment and the interview need to be memorialized. And I am fully aware that my reaction wasn’t only about Azriel, it was about my history, the abuse in my family, the way I felt when R. Kelly jumped up and started shouting in Gayle King’s face and I remembered being five years old and running to hug my mom because my Dad was yelling and pushing her, the way my soul is still tethered, and what I find impossible, at almost fifty years old, to integrate about my past. But sometimes it is too hard to look at ourselves directly; we need a refracted view, to see ourselves through the experience of someone else. I see myself in Azriel.
In the R. Kelly saga, as it has unfolded all these decades, there have been investigators, prosecutors, police officers, jurors, investigative reporters, filmmakers, musicians, therapists, enablers, and all other kinds of professional people running around, achieving a range of results either to get the truth or obscure it. But when Gayle King sat in front of Azriel and said, “You sound very angry” as a black woman elder, something came over me like Holy Ghost power. Maya Angelou, another black woman elder, appreciated future Azriels and their relationship to harm when she said in an 1993 interview with Charlie Rose: “You can be so scarred by abuse that your “tenderness-es” your sensibilities, are impossible to reach, or beyond reach, and so you make yourself not only a victim, but a victimizer.” This could be the tethered’s credo.
I thought about the young Azriel singing in her family’s kitchen to The Emotions’ “Best of My Love.” It’s a great vocal performance from 1977 that has lasted from my generation to Azriel’s because of the black self-love it contains, and — written by Maurice White and Al McKay — that signature, joyous, “Earth, Wind and Fire” groove. It’s a song that always emerges at black cookouts and graduation parties, everyone from seven to seventy knows the words, everyone dances. In the clip posted on YouTube, Azriel looks about eleven. She is dressed in summer shorts and a T-shirt with her hair up, tells us her name, what she is singing and then she makes sure to emphasize more than once: “This is just practice, okay, practice.” I compared the woman who sat in front of Gayle King and said she never wanted to sing with this child’s natural radiance. I don’t have much more to say here about R. Kelly, but it takes a special kind of evil to separate a black child from her creativity, to separate a woman from her dream.
My response, I knew, was about more than Azriel Clary — it was about the black girls and boys whom this country throws away every day because of greed, it was about the murdered children in Atlanta that never got justice, it was Betsy DeVos attempting to defund the special Olympics, and whatever the hell else that is spiritually indigestible and heartbreaking and that happens in a given week. Children locked in cages. DeVos went after the special Olympics because knew she was dealing with a population who had been othered in the past and that, given the tenor of the times, with all our social progress, from the Voting Act to Roe V. Wade, up for grabs, she might have been able to get away with it. The fact that she didn’t get away with it most people will forget; what horrifies is the audacity of the trying. She clearly wants us to go backwards. And there are so many others like her.
At the time, I couldn’t articulate the powerlessness I felt watching Azriel in that interview, but fortunately, I didn’t have to. I just went to the movie theater and watched the Pas De Deux in Us. The scene said everything I needed to know about violation and the black body, from the corporate entities who desecrate the planet to the uncle who sneaks into his neice’s room at night. The scene didn’t give me answers, or easy solutions, and I wasn’t expecting any. I just wanted something to witness what I was feeling. That’s what great art can do.
At the end of the film, when Adelaide kills Red, she triumphs but loses a part of herself; a necessary conversation ends. I was again reminded of Beloved: Red doesn’t die a typical horror-movie villain death, but looks more like a baby spitting up food. She attempts to whistle “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” For a moment, Adelaide seems ambivalent towards Red as if she’s lost a sister. She breaks Red’s neck, and releases a guttural moan. Maybe through Red’s death these women can finally come together, the two fragments forming a whole. But Peele doesn’t direct the ending to suggest that Adelaide’s now whole. Whatever her outcome, we have witnessed how she was almost destroyed by what she was unable to face in her history. There has never been a more convincing argument in contemporary pop culture — especially for the black artist — as to why we need to integrate our fragmented selves, why it is essential that we get our shit together.
A final thought: I wish that Jordan Peele had stuck with what must have been the original ending, before adding the final “twist” at the end of Us. Returning to the opening carnival scene, Peele reveals to us that the girl in the mirror, Red, does more than just smile at Adelaide, she grabs her by the throat and drags her “through the looking glass” into the underground world. She tethers Adelaide to a bed, and takes her place above ground. Which means, I suppose, that it is Red who survives, not the original child Adelaide. This would explain why Jason gives her a dubious, “you’re not my mother!” look at the end of the film before he lowers his mask a final time.
This “twist” doesn’t intrigue or satisfy us as did the one at the end of The Sixth Sense. There is no “Ah-ha!” moment in which you think back on what you just watched and all the pieces fall beautifully fall into place. The opposite, in fact: things you took for granted, and character motivations in the earlier scenes stop making sense, and raise entirely new questions. Unless the plot is so brilliant that I missed something — which is entirely possibly — this final stroke doesn’t fit with the film we just watched. Perhaps Peele is saying that there are a lot of us walking around — I’m back to Betsy DeVos again — whose best, most authentic selves are trapped in the basement of our consciousness, while our offending selves are walking around in these streets wreaking havoc. Sounds good, but complicated false twists often lead to an unfortunate result — not unlike last year’s horrifying yet totally inscrutably plotted Hereditary: people end up finding symbolism in anything and everything: “Did you see the way young Adelaide’s pigtails were braided left to right and she entered the ‘right wing’ of the funhouse? That was Peele’s comment on the end of Obama administration.”
Us, with a shatteringly brave performance by Nyong’o has too strong a narrative for it to be dismissed as one of those films that seemed as if someone were making it up as they went along. Thought and care has been put into Us, and I believe there is greatness in it. But the film should have stopped after the final confrontation; we could have still enjoyed the conspiratorial look between the mother and son, and the sense that everything is not resolved between them. I find it scarier, actually, if the film ends with the original Adelaide in the driver’s seat, forever changed, having murdered her sister-twin, astounded by her own brutality, than if the original Red from underground has triumphed. When I read that Peele has been quoted as saying that he is open to a sequel to Us, I immediately felt a sense of betrayal, and wondered if he’d even watched his own film. Us could be part of a trilogy, including Get Out, in which he continues his themes of the sunken places and the untethered lives of the black and working class. But an actual sequel to Adelaide’s story, where the tethered are reaching for their scissors again, would be totally misguided, and prove the film’s cynics right. In this context, the “twist” becomes a marketing decision to keep us guessing about Adelaide, rather than the artistic one the character, and the actress, deserves.
There are people expressing their exasperation with Us on social media and here’s why: As movies go, Us is a horror film in the same way that I’ve argued Beloved was a horror film. At its core, Us is the story of a black woman attempting to integrate her fragmented selves as the result of trauma. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance in Us may be closer to Sally Field’s in Sybil than the protagonists in The Hills Have Eyes or Night of the Living Dead. And if you are not interested in this woman’s psychological odyssey, how trauma is passed down through families, and how family members react to a mother’s or father’s abuse history- then you may watch most of the film with an anticipatory feeling, wondering when it is going to start. You may still be feeling this way after it’s over.
Or you may respond the way the couple beside me in the theater did; she was riveted, while her partner watched with half an eye, pulling his cell phone out every fifteen minutes and looking up only when the sound track tipped him off that the gold scissors were coming out again. (Cell phones could seriously mark the end of going to the movies; I longed for my own pair of scissors.) Twice, my movie neighbor asked her partner to put away his phone and he complied, putting it in his pocket, only to bring it out again moments later. She eventually used her hand to shield away the light.
I don’t know what happened to that couple when they left the theater, or if it was her idea to see the movie and he just came along. I tried to imagine what the conversation might look like if the woman beside me were a survivor of sexual abuse, and if her partner, like Gabe, couldn’t enter that space with her, if this was a test, and she discovered he wasn’t even able to concentrate on a movie about a fictional black woman’s pain for just a couple of hours, let alone the one who he shared his life. I’m aware that I’m making a lot of assumptions about people I don’t even know, and this is not to dismiss those reading this who genuinely didn’t like Us or found it boring– but at least you saw the movie. This man simply wasn’t interested. I watched as she encouraged him to pay attention, to engage, whatever her reasons were, because it was meaningful to her — and isn’t that enough? He refused to respond. Maybe she saw some of her story in Adelaide or Red and the movie was a mirror into her experience, a way of telling him, without telling him, something about herself, what happened to her as a girl that day when she wandered into funhouse. Movies can be good for that. It matters, what our favorite movies are; the movies we return to again and again, that we ask someone to sit down with us and see.
As my partner and I left the theater, I thought: for all the progress we’ve made as a society there is a still a conversation about sexual violence that we refuse to have. And because we refuse to have it R. Kelly still has his staunch supporters, many of them women, Michael Jackson’s greatest fans are unwilling to consider that something inappropriate happened with the singer, Bill Cosby is off in jail somewhere claiming he’s a political prisoner, and Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein await trial any day now. Betsy DeVos tried to defund the Special Olympics. The police officers who shot unarmed Stephon Clark in his own backyard will not face charges. Close to two and half million people are incarcerated in America. We live inside a funhouse. In the scene where the two families meet, Gabe asks, What are you people? Red replies, “We’re Americans.”
We are the U.S., we are Us. The president threatens to close the borders daily, to build walls that will keep “them” out. Peele’s film seems to be saying that as long as we believe in “ Them” and “Us” our lives, both personally and societally, will continue to be defined by walls. Walls that keep out self. End the war with self.
Every war is self.
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “Bill Cosby, Himself, Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”, “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’”, “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”