Jordan Peele’s Us is a note-perfect nightmare of Late Capitalism.
When I was seven years old, my family and I joined hands at the intersection of Rte. 1 and Maryland 175 in Jessup. Hands Across America was the first chance I got to be a part of a huge national charity event meant to help those less fortunate than myself. To be so small, so powerless, but able to do something to better the world was immensely thrilling to me. Of course, most of the money raised went to “overhead” and Hands Across America was revealed to be an ineffective stunt, with little to no effect on hunger and homelessness in the United States—let alone the world at large. In my mind, and in the minds of many others, it sank beneath the waves of memory, down and down until I’d forgotten it entirely. That is, until I saw Jordan Peele’s Us.
The performances of the principal cast are astonishing. Each actor plays a double role—one speaking, and one mime—save for Lupita Nyongo, whose doppleganger has the power of speech—mostly. It’s important to note that Nyongo told The New York Times that she modeled her vocal performance after Robert Kennedy, Jr, who suffers from Spasmodic Dysphonia, a condition causing periods of spasm in the muscles controlling the voice. The National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association called Nyongo out for associating sufferers with a vocal effect that might be considered “haunting.” That sort of association and its possible negative effects is something storytellers should always be aware of.
The film leaves viewers with unanswered questions, but I personally consider the answers to those questions unimportant. Leaving them open-ended and asking viewers to fill in the blanks on their own lends Us a dreamlike quality perfectly suited to its point. Us is a fable of Late Capitalism in which a geographical, psychic, and psychological distinction has been drawn between the Haves and the Have nots. Moving from one group to the other is next to impossible. The film states in no uncertain terms that achieving higher economic status is a loser’s game, and the benefits of upward class mobility are both ephemeral and temporary. Even if you manage to imitate the Haves and be accepted as one of them, your complicity in social and economic oppression will make it impossible to enjoy your achievements without incident.
The connection to Hands Across America makes perfect sense. The stunt was a grand gesture against societal ills that quickly fizzled into nothing. It didn’t even leave behind a cultural artifact for us to remember like “We Are the World.” Having its memory thrust at me after more than thirty years made me experience the film as two selves—one who is still seven years old, standing in a chain with my family, hoping to bring about some sort of change, and the other almost forty, knowing what it’s like to build and protect a family unit against hatred, poverty, and violence. This is why, in one of the film’s most chilling moments, when Red, the doppleganger matriarch is asked who she and her family are, she responds, “We’re Americans.”