“The Wilsons leap over stereotypes about dark-skinned Black characters and embody another aspect of their identities—their upwards mobility.”
Title: Us (2019)
Director: Jordan Peele 👨🏾🇺🇸
Writer: Jordan Peele 👨🏾🇺🇸
Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸
—MILD SPOILERS AHEAD—
Jordan Peele defends his title as the new director to watch with his sophomore suspense film, Us. Not only will you encounter strong performances and tense excitement, you’ll find a plot so densely packed with symbolism it becomes difficult to talk about the film without digressing into social commentary.
So let’s start with the surface-level premise. Adelaide Wilson, her husband Gabe Wilson, and their two children Zora and Jason—played by Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex—head to their summer home on the California coast. After they return from a day trip to the beach, a mysterious family arrives on their driveway. From there, all hell breaks loose.
The resulting tangle of allegory and Easter eggs has turned Us into one of the year’s most discussed films already, something Peele has confirmed was his goal all along. In successfully sparking debate about the many ills of American society, he also helps drive an ongoing renaissance in horror. Other recent works that blend scares with deeper themes include The Babadook (2014), The Witch (2015), A Quiet Place (2018), or Hereditary (2018). In addition, Peele’s Get Out (2017) and now Us collectively break ground while also providing Peele a way to pay homage to some of his favorite horror and suspense films growing up, like Halloween (1978) and Poltergeist (1982).
In Us, Peele’s framework of having the Tethered—government-created shadows with human counterparts who live blissfully unaware aboveground—can be applied to any number of social issues such as cultural assimilation, economic inequality, or societal rot.
In addition, the recurring reference to 11:11 strengthens Peele’s messages, whether through religious allegory or numerology, where the 11:11 “angel numbers” can mean a soul awakening and the appearance of your “twin flame”—someone who carries the literal other half of your soul.
Each of these theories can coexist simultaneously, and that’s both the beauty and the bane of Us, depending on who’s watching. Many might happily interpret the film’s vague ending, while others simply feel unsatisfied. This isn’t Get Out, which enjoyed neat closure. No, the murkiness of Us is intentional as Peele explains how he wanted this work be a Rorschach test, reflecting its viewers more than it presents any single message.
For me, that deliberate handing over of the keys succeeds. I felt empowered to dissect the film, and to an extent, Peele’s own political and artistic influences, making the overall viewing experience that much more meaningful.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test: YES
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 22% of key cast and crew members were women.
As the main character, Adelaide propels the emotional narrative of Us as we see her grow from a scared woman into a powerful fighter and protector. Her strength soon pushes her to the top of the family food chain, palpable when she shouts to Gabe, “You don't get to make the decisions anymore!”
Meanwhile, both Adelaide and her shadow, Red (Nyong’o), are rendered with depth and sympathy. Even though Red may be the “villain”, she’s shown to be competent and a single-minded leader who paves the way for the Tethered to rise to the surface and wreak havoc. Furthermore, their backstories reveal how both women are coping with personal traumas, a key piece of character development that lets viewers understand, if not excuse, the atrocities both Adelaide and Red commit.
Even more than casting a female protagonist, which already vaults Us above the male-centric Get Out in matters of inclusiveness, women in supporting roles feel thoughtful as well. Adelaide’s friend Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) exists independent from her husband. During their conversation on the beach, the women focus on deferred dreams such as Adelaide’s former dancing career or Kitty’s acting aspirations prior to becoming a wife and mother.
Even Kitty’s shadow, Dahlia (Moss), is well-defined enough to telegraph complexity without having to utter a single word. An eerie scene of Dahlia painstakingly applying lip gloss and admiring herself in the mirror reveals how she must have coveted the luxurious life lived by Kitty. Compare this telling scene to those of Kitty’s douchey husband and his animalistic shadow, neither of whom achieve the same level of introspection.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 56% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Peele might have told BET that Us “isn’t about race”, but by virtue of casting dark-skinned Black actors he addresses colorism in Hollywood. Furthermore, the Wilsons leap over stereotypes about dark-skinned characters and instead embody another aspect of their identities—their upwards mobility.
This isn’t to say that their Blackness is ever erased. Importantly, the Wilsons navigate their cultural identities with the fluidity that real minorities in America are forced to traverse. For example, Gabe brags about his new boat with Kitty’s white husband only to switch to AAVE (African American Vernacular English) when the Tethered come to his driveway and he wields a bat, trying to scare them off with the warning, “If you want to get crazy, we can get crazy!”
Of course, this doesn’t work, but it does highlight how Black people in real life code-switch for different reasons, including intimidation. By the same turn, the scene reveals America’s ingrained fear of Blackness. Why else would Gabe play up his “Blackness” in the attempt to protect his family?
Bonus for Disability: +0.25
Social inequality affects all marginalized groups, including those with disabilities and Us references that in subtle ways. In one scene, Gabe’s shadow Abraham (Duke) squints and pretends to push up glasses he doesn’t have, mimicking Gabe’s mannerisms. He eventually takes Gabe’s glasses for himself, possibly because Abraham, like Gabe, suffers from poor eyesight. The difference is that Gabe has been able to afford glasses while Abraham has had to suffer without.
A more overt reference to disability can be learned from Nyong’o’s interview with The Hollywood Reporter. She describes how Red’s breathy, linguistic tics were patterned after the way spasmodic dysphonia can sound, an affliction that "can be caused by emotional or physical trauma.” Red’s past provides the perfect background for developing this condition. Sadly, she never received proper treatment for her condition while Adelaide, who also suffered childhood trauma, was able to attend counseling and went on to live a healthy and comfortable life.
Mediaversity Grade: A+ 5.08/5
More than just a horror movie, Us represents a multilayered experience that will leave your brain in knots. Even if you fall in the camp that finds Peele’s latest work unnecessarily complicated, you’ll likely find yourself thinking about its social commentary long after its end credits roll.
In short, you simply have to watch Us for yourself. Not only if you’re a fan of horror, but a fan of great, challenging film in general.