Unpacking Jordan Peele’s Us From a Human Perspective




Jordan Peele’s latest installment in his collection of thrillers, Us, is yet another boost to the horror film genre. It is his second film, following the Oscar award-winning film Get Out, which premiered February of 2017.

Similar to Get Out, Us forces its audience to confront the many social commentaries immersed within it. The film runs close to two hours, not leaving a single moment missed as viewers are left on the edge of their seats, breaths held, as the dance of survival between two families plays out on screen.

Even before Peele’s Us premiered, people speculated that the film’s title conveyed two truths as both ‘us’ in relation to the paralleled family from the shadow world, and ‘U.S.’ as in the United States. Without a doubt, the movie is a commentary on the widening class divide arising from the exploitative nature of capitalism within the U.S. But I’d like to bring another connected yet distinct meaning to the discussion; Us mean us as viewers, the people.

The film provides an astute commentary on the class structure of the United States and the ways in which the poor are often criminalized, alienated, and erased from visible society. The duality of existence for each American as a citizen and participant and often the victim of a system built on the displacement and marginalization of silenced masses is what shines brightest throughout Us. The stripped citizenship of the shadow people along with the repossession of claim to their body and it’s movements casts a lens of shame, inferiority, and otherness over their existences. For both viewers outside and within the film, the shadow people are not Americans and not human, but instead burdens crafted from the remanents of American trauma.

“Who are you guys?” “We’re Americans.”

The privilege associated with a claim to America and it’s citizenry is a conflict that draws back to the earliest days of American exploration, with Christopher Columbus and the genocide of Indigenous Americans in the name of western, European imperialism. To understand and define something or oneself as American, knowing what it took to gain that title, what lives and communities of cultures were destroyed to create America as we know it is one of the greatest crimes of American history. Which is why when Red responds, “We’re Americans,” in response to Gabe’s questioning of “Who are you guys,” there is a critical shift in power. The burden of stolen identity is no longer placed on the shadow people and they themselves up to counter those who lived above them for so long.

Her declaration becomes an act of defiance. It is the battle cry of the poor, the homeless. It is a demand for justice for the lives dissipated by the hunger of America’s roaring belly. Us portrays what happens when a nation’s underbelly comes in search of reparations through retribution.

Peele forces the audience to interrogate our understandings of truth. The truth about the lives we live, the choices we make, and the way we exist as the beneficiaries of the sins committed in our nation’s history. Us requires a level of introspection that will make many people uncomfortable. As Peele gives to us new perspectives, he also asks of us humility and self-reflection. In what ways do we, do I, live freely and uninhibited in the wake of my neighbors’ destruction?

To what extent should we as heirs to the progress, reaped from centuries of Western brutality, be held responsible and accountable for the continuation of generational displacement and exploitation?

We need accountability.

In other words, do we get to be angry, to critique the shadow people for craving vengeance, for arriving with weapons in hand to the homes of everyday people like you and me, in search of the life our forefathers stole from their own? Whether we agree or not, the ability to render their anger as irrational, just as people dismissed Black Panther’s Killmonger’s anger as jealousy, is only a painful reminder of the split in perspective marked through the difference in choice. We have the choice to move freely as our shadows our bound in chains. We have the choice to speak our minds through our shadows creek in silence. We have the choice to exist independently, untethered to the struggles of past worlds while our shadows remain eternally bound to the enslavement of their ancestors.

The strain of the shadow world is not a darkness that sits quietly.

In Toronto alone, there are over 9,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night with over 96,828 people piling onto the subsidized housing waiting list.

The collections of nameless bodies sodden against street vents sheathed in smoke from the underground encircling their figures like a cloak seem to become a part of the city landscape. Ducked gazes scavenging desperately not to see the letters scrambled as black ink soaked with need. We live to be entertained. Our worlds revolving around the doing of others, the undoing of their lives, the made-up masks of craving, establishing what purpose we should fulfill. Deciding on meaning and giving to ourselves, proclaimed definition of essence. The right to exist, a gift bestowed upon every living, breathing ornament.

The truth, one truth, is that Us is a reflection of our own failings, yours and my own. Our failure to recognize the shadows not as our own but as human. As beings worthy of living in the light. But Us is also a chance to offer reconciliation. To choose compassion and to choose to see and hear what makes us uncomfortable and reminds us of our past. To acknowledge the shadow world as something not separate from us but as something that we’ve built to hide the wounds of our broken.

I don’t want to ever look back on my life and think I could have done more. So, through writing and through action here is one step of many to deconstructing the systems of power, privilege, and complacency that help make films like Us so damn terrifyingly real.