The Enemy is Us
Five Political Take-Aways from Jordan Peele’s Latest Film
Spoilers for Us (2019) and Get Out (2017) appear below.
In 1971 — two years before he retired — the American cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote a legendary line in a strip on the second Earth Day. Gazing at a field of trash, the main character Pogo says: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Although environmentalism is not on the menu of Jordan Peele’s 2019 movie Us, the core conceit nevertheless centers on the terrifying intimacy of humanity being its own worst enemy. In this sense, the most important theme of the film is also the most obvious: How do we deal with a threat that is identical to ourselves?
Situating My Knowledge
First, a word on where my perspective comes from. I saw the movie with my wife on opening night, and I’ve only seen it once so far. I hoped it would be like Get Out with regard to accessibility. Peele’s first movie is user-friendly and unambiguous in many ways; by the end of the movie we know exactly what’s going on, and while some bits are open to interpretation, the big pieces of the puzzle are clear.
Us is different. Apparently Peele created a deep backstory for The Tethered, but decided to leave most of it out of the film. This is a creative decision to which every storyteller is entitled — but I don’t have to love it. I don’t care for Donnie Darko or Twin Peaks. I prefer movies like Primer and Barton Fink, which are confusing but not intentionally incomprehensible.
Not that Us is incomprehensible. It just leaves out the stuff I wanted most. I got spoiled by Neo’s conversation with The Architect in The Matrix Reloaded, in which we get a long, detailed explanation about exactly what is going on. (The videocassette Chris watches in the basement — plus his pre-op chat with the blind guy — serves a similar purpose in Get Out.)
The fact that I want such a reveal in every confusing movie doesn’t mean that it’s fair for me to expect it, and I don’t. Us gives us plenty of soil in which to dig, and the ambiguity allows — intentionally, so far as I can tell — for plenty of interesting conversation. (It also allows for a universe of meaningless babble from half-baked morons on the internet. Hopefully my writing falls into the former category.)
I don’t have any comprehensive unifying theories, and I don’t trust (or pay much attention) to those who do. But I’ve been pondering this movie deeply, and I’ve reached some conclusions that might be worthwhile to other folks. So let’s get started.
Spoiler alert. Seriously.
Take-Away #1: The Enemy is Us, Sort Of
The first trailers laid out exactly what’s going on: Jason, the son (named, presumably, after the zombie killer in Friday the 13th), says: “It’s us.” (Side note: I’m waiting for confirmation of my hunch that the daughter is named after legendary African-American author Zora Neale Hurston.) The people attacking the Wilson family look and act like them. But not exactly; only Red (Adelaide’s Tethered) can speak. The children are mute, and the father only grunts and howls.
This is because they are identical in some ways, but not all. Red explains that The Tethered are deprived of every advantage which their doubles above-ground take for granted: cooked food, medical care, etc. This is an experiment in what chaos theory calls “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”. The Tethered, if allowed to live on the surface, would have turned out just fine. Keep them locked in fluorescent tunnels eating raw rabbit meat, and they become mindless husks — until Red leads them out of the darkness.
There are many theories about who and what The Tethered represent, and I won’t waste time wading through them all. Obviously class is an ingredient; race, not so much. The important thing is that a revolution is taking place.
I was struck by the use of the word “prisoners” in one discussion forum. The red jumpsuits worn by The Tethered suddenly reminded me of the orange outfits worn by prisoners at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Prisoners in the US are especially convenient targets for inhumanity, because they have been convicted of violating the law. People say things like “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” “Criminals get what they deserve.” “They shouldn’t break the law if they want their rights respected.” But even leaving aside the question of wrongful convictions (and people locked up for years without trial), we forget the humanity of people in prison at our own peril. A society reaps what it sows, and the US is sowing some terrible suffering in our prisons. When Adelaide asks: “Who are you?”, Red’s reply (“We are Americans”) is as powerful as it is simple, potent because we prefer to ignore what connects us to our fellow Americans.
It’s easy for us to accept mistreatment of people who are The Other. This point is so ubiquitous that it almost doesn’t merit discussion: the Nazis did it in Germany, the Hutus did it in Rwanda, the Resources Development Administration did it on Pandora. Therefore an important step in preserving empathy is reminding ourselves of what we have in common with The Other. Us goes one step further: These revolting masses are not just like us, they are us. Wouldn’t we be upset if we were in their shoes?
And, of course, Adelaide is in Red’s shoes, literally. Swapped as children, the real Tethered here is the one who has been living on the surface, enjoying all of the luxuries of surface life. (This dynamic reflects the one in Futurama and The Simpsons.) Red’s indignation at the inhumanity of her situation would not have been possible without the taste of surface life she got in childhood. Candy apples, for example.
But the revolution also would not have happened without dance. Only when Adelaide’s parents encourage her to express herself through dance does Red find her own voice down below, and inspire confidence among The Tethered to begin preparing for the uprising. When Red dances, The Tethered realize she has a voice. She’s different. She can lead them out of the sewers.
This speaks to the double-edged blade of creative expression. Consider the Christian Bible handed to slaves in the US, on the assumption it would get them to accept their lot in life. They weren’t supposed to read it for real. They weren’t supposed to absorb all the stuff about “let my people go”.
The revolution of The Tethered is, like all revolutions, a messy affair. Questions about whether the surface-dwellers deserve such hideous violence are important, but not urgent for me here. Red’s path is not one of self-evident justice or moral clarity, but an illustration of karma in action. Adelaide’s action — as justified as it might have been itself — condemned Red to a lifetime of misery. Therefore she knew what she was causing, and she has a unique responsibility for the suffering of her Tethered. (Was there a third way? Could both children have lived on the surface, taking turns being “the real one”?) No one else has knowledge about their double, much less an understanding of their situation.
Which doesn’t make the fallout of this revolution more or less conscionable. Those who benefit from an injustice will probably be hurt when the injustice is confronted, whether they are aware of it or not. We could examine the revolutionary praxis of The Tethered vis à vis Mao, Che, Goldman, Trotsky, and others, but I’d rather move on.
Take-Away #2: Revolution Requires Unity
The imagery from 1986’s Hands Across America project points to the intrinsic value of unity, however abstract and insubstantial that concept may appear to most of us. HAA was organized by USA for Africa, who had released the smash hit song “We Are The World” one year earlier. (Note the collectivist title there; we’ll return to that in the next section.) Michael Jackson was, of course, a featured performer in that recording, and the impact of his music is found all over Us.
Unification has always been politically charged, from Qin in 221 BCE to Germany in 1990 CE. At the start of the 21st century, people in the US were urged to unite after 9/11 to respond to the threat of global terrorism. Sometimes this took healthy forms — donating blood, supporting first responders — while other manifestations were less healthy: silencing dissent and acts of violence toward ethnic minorities. Unity in the US has always been tricky, woven as our national cloth is from a hundred diverse backgrounds. Those preaching unification have often used codes of intolerance, exclusion, and purity (racial and otherwise) as the basis for this attempted unity.
Some communities have rallied around class. Working people have often found ways to overcome their differences and stand in solidarity to achieve real change. This is a great fear among those who stand to lose in a class-conscious wave of action. Therefore schisms in communities are often exploited to prevent such possibilities. The 1978 movie Blue Collar points this out:
That’s exactly what the company wants — to keep you on their line. They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white — ANYTHING to keep us in our place.
Red unites The Tethered. As their charismatic vanguard, she gives voice to their cause in a way no one else can. Naturally, she has a special interest in reclaiming her family and capturing the paradise she lost as a child. It’s even possible that she’s exploiting the other Tethered in order to make her move.
Either way, their revolution succeeds because The Tethered do not fight each other. They hold hands and commit fully to their project. The surface-dwellers are caught unaware, yes, they do not share the desperation of the insurrectionists — all the usual disadvantages of the losing side in a revolution. But they are also squabbling among themselves. The Wilsons don’t have the fancy yacht of their wealthier neighbors. Their home is less tech-equipped and luxurious. When consumption and cozy leisure become our primary concerns, unifying with others assumes a lower priority. When things get hectic, it’s too late.
Take-Away #3: A Higher Synthesis
In addition to the acronymal representation of “United States”, Us shares a title with Brother Ali’s 2009 album, the title track of which includes the lines: “Can’t nobody be free unless we’re all free / There’s no me and no you — it’s just us”. We should also remember that Ice Cube released a song called “Us” in 1991, which ends with the relevant line: “Now this is just a little summary / Of us, but y’all think it’s dumb of me / To hold a mirror to ya face, but trust / Nobody gives a f — about…”. Peele’s movie does, of course, prominently feature “F — The Police” by NWA, of which Ice Cube was a founding member (and the most skilled lyricist).
“US” was also the name of a music and culture festival organized in the early 1980s by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, who wanted to offer an antithesis to the “Me Decade” ethos of the 1970s. The tension between individual and collective identities is at the heart of Peele’s movie, and provides an important point of contention.
A plural personal pronoun also serves as the title of Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We. Sounding the alarm bells of conformity and oppression within a collectivist ideology, the book inspired dystopian works by Kurt Vonnegut and George Orwell. Ayn Rand’s Anthem shares many similarities, but it’s unclear whether she ever read Zamyatin’s novel.
Peele’s Us challenges the American hatred of collectivism. Our society’s individualist fundamentalism has brought forth many positive results, but also many forms of blindness and suffering. I myself dabbled in objectivism as a teenager, after my world was rocked by Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels. Before long, however, I realized that the modern political pathology known as “libertarianism” is predicated on a savage disinterest in the well-being of others, and a willful ignorance of the value of long-term mutually beneficial community-minded self-interest.
Martin Luther King Jr called out this paradox, as it relates to capitalism vs. communism, in his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?”:
What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.
The surface dwellers in Us bask in their capitalist individualism. They buy boats, stare at cell phones, lounge at the beach, and keep up with the Joneses. These are preoccupations of the aspirational classes, certain that they will — through pluck, hard work, and elbow grease — thrive in what they believe to be a pure meritocracy.
The Tethered, meanwhile, think collectively, and demand a collective reckoning from the surface for decades of suffering. They know that the success of the surface dwellers is linked to (if not dependent on) the suffering of those below. They understand that their fate is chained to the fate of their neighbors, and that their revolution requires a sublimation of the individual.
The idea of collective reckoning is especially difficult for Americans. We don’t do well with collective responsibility. We love individual responsibility; in 1968 Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the Republican party, said: “ It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” As Governor of California and then as President of the United States, he focused all of his policy on this notion.
But individuals never act in a vacuum. We are influenced by the world around us, and we must recognize that we bear responsibility at times for what happens as a result of our collective will. We can’t know much about how this collective will manifested itself in the backstory of The Tethered, but given my read of American history, it likely involved blind trust of elected officials and large doses of willful ignorance.
As Dr. King reminds us, a civilized society is not fixated solely on the collective “us” nor the rugged egocentric “I”. We must find ways to synthesize the best elements of both perspectives, and create a social order based on the best tools for each situation, rather than a fanatical devotion to one extreme or another. As Howard Zinn says in his 1990 book Declarations of Independence:
The coming of a new century may be the right time for people all over the world to discard old orthodoxies, frozen dogmas, simple definitions. It may be a time to welcome thinking outside the customary boundaries; to look with fresh eyes at communism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, and anarchism; and to seek out good ideas wherever they are, because we desperately need them.
Take-Away #4: The Wilson Children are Half-Tethered
I have to thank my wife Diane for this one; she pointed out that Red, as a Tethered, has given birth to half-Tethered children. What this means for the status of the children’s doubles is unclear, but we could spend an eternity debating the metaphysics of The Tethered. (We see Tethered underground miming the actions of their doubles on rollercoasters, but if someone were to climb a mountain above, could the Tethered escape the tunnels? When Jason walks backward, his double does the same, right into the fire. But obviously he doesn’t mirror everything Jason does.)
The more significant symbolic implication, I think, is that the Wilson children are in between worlds, as it were. This terrain is well-trod in anime, but we’ve no shortage of similar tropes in American popular culture either. In his 2017 song “Everybody”, the biracial rapper Logic intones: “In my blood is the slave and the master / It’s like the devil playin’ spades with the pastor”.
Jordan Peele was born to a white mother and black father. Perhaps Jason serves as a symbolic avatar for the filmmaker himself. It’s possible that Jason’s curiosity and intuition in the final moment reflects his unique connection to both worlds. In any case, the Wilson children provide a conceptual linkage between worlds, raising the stakes of connectivity. As in Gosford Park, it’s especially shocking when those in the upper tiers of society find ways to ignore the cries of their own children. (In Us, Adelaide watches with a kind of softness when the Tethered children meet their demise. This only makes sense when we understand the final reveal.)
Take-Away #5: Now What?
The final moments of the film also offer something rare: A successful uprising in which the story’s protagonists — victims, so to speak, of the revolution — also make it out alive. The tragedy here … well, there are two: (1) Red and her family are killed; and (2) therefore the “evil” twin succeeds in clinging to the family she has usurped.
But how tragic is that second point? It depends, I suppose, on how evil you consider Adelaide’s action as a child. The damning potency of this movie is the way it forces us to consider the ethical implications of an unjust reaction to an unjust setup. It’s an intriguing consideration of The Hate That Hate Produced.
Ideally, of course, The Tethered would emerge peacefully into the surface world and get invited to enjoy all the things we Normals have. ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d for Adelaide and Red. But that’s not how revolutions work — or, at least, we’ve never had one like that on Earth. Instead, we’ve seen seizures of wealth, seismic power shifts, and (usually) violent domination of the people. We get no evidence that anything different will happen in the post-Tethered-revolution era of Us.
But who knows what the future holds? The final images of the film leave us with plenty of questions about how this revolution will play out — although we’re distracted by retracing every event in the film, now that we know who’s really who. Perhaps The Tethered will create a glorious utopia of shared resources and bounty for all. Perhaps they’ll clear away the corpses of the surface dwellers and sculpt an eden of equality. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but anything’s possible.
We also don’t know how — or if — the Wilson family will find their place in this new Land of The Tethered. Are there other survivors? Surely someone found a way to overpower their doubles? Maybe some surface-dwellers even figured out how to avoid bloodshed altogether? Again: it’s unlikely, but not impossible.
Jordan Peele has become the most important American filmmaker since The Wachowskis. His movies provoke thought, imagination, and humor that few others achieve. Although I prefer more didactic, easily-consumed stories like Get Out, I’m happy to chew on his less simplistic films as well. (My love for the music of Public Enemy doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Kendrick Lamar, even if his lyrics are harder to wrap my brain around.)
When I wrote a SF/fantasy novel in college, my adviser asked (repeatedly) why those genres were so important to me. I shared a quote from Ursula Le Guin, author of the Earthsea series, from her speech accepting the National Book Award in 1972. It wasn’t enough to satisfy my professor, but I consider it an excellent perspective.
We who hobnob with hobbits and tell tall tales about little green men are quite used to being dismissed as mere entertainers, or sternly disapproved of as escapists. But […] realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in the laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition.
Fantasists […] may be talking as seriously as any sociologist — and a good deal more directly — about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived. For after all, as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.
Typing out this passage, I realize Peele has performed a remarkable magic trick in Us: We never even see the monsters. Dr. Frankenstein is the real monster, right? Not his “dæmon”, bloodthirsty though it is.