‘Movin On Up’: A Guide to Us’s Critique of Black Elitism

Jordan Peele's complex horror-thriller can be read as a critique of classism in the African American community, asking its audience to recognize their own complacency in the incarceration of the Black underclass

Lawrence Grandpre

New Timbuktu is creatively and intellectually driven by Lawrence Grandpre – who serves as the Creative Director.

Lawrence Grandpre is also the Director of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle wherein he provides the research needed to facilitate effective political awareness campaigns, organized civil demonstrations, community education events and legislative advocacy efforts for policy reforms that impact Black people in Baltimore. Lawrence was a Maxy award recipient at Whitman College, where he competed on the school’s debate team. Thereafter, he coached college debate national champions as a Research Assistant at Towson University and high school debate national champions as a Debate Coach at his alma mater, Baltimore City College High School.
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“Therefore thus saith the Lord, 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.”

Jeremiah 11:11

“Movin on up, to the eastside. To a deluxe apartment in the sky.”

The Jeffersons

The understand Jordan Peele’s new movie, Us, is to understand you’re not watching a typical film.

You’re essentially watching one giant metaphor.

As Peele has explained in interviews and as many others have pointed out, the title itself is a double meaning,  that it also be seen as a metaphor for U.S., as in United States, an many have seen the film on commentary on fear of the other in the era of Trump.

As the films poster shows, the film itself is intentionally a bit of a Rorschach test, allowing many to project onto the film what they want to see.

On the surface, the film is a simple slasher horror film. In order to address what Peele saw as “genre confusion” around his previous film, “Get Out”, “Us” embraces the canon of American horror, with allusions to classic bits of American scary cinema like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, the classic tv show “The Twilight Zone”, and even lesser known films such as teen vampire cult classic “The Lost Boys” and “C.H.U.D.”, an 80s horror film about mutated monsters rising up from the New York underground to attack unsuspecting city dwellers. The title itself can be seen as an allusion to “Them!” another classic horror film about giant ants mutated by American nuclear testing. In it, a young black child has a frightening experience at a Santa Cruz carnival in 1986, entering a house of mirrors and seeing not merely her reflection, but a doppelganger, a child which looks exactly like her, starting back at her from the mirror. As the film flashes forward to today, the young girl, now grown into a woman with a husband and two kids, takes a vacation with her family.

Adelaide’s family, the Wilsons, are revealed to be middle class (perhaps upper middle class) family, experiencing tropes of middle class American life: an upwardly mobile father (Gabe) attempting to compete with his white friends for the acquisition of status symbols, a teenage daughter (Zora) obsessed with getting the keys to the family car and spending time on her phone, and prepubescent son (Jason) who wears a Jaws shirt and a mask and attempts to do magic tricks with fire and scare his sister. The normalcy of the vacation is interrupted by the arrival of a family in the driveway who barge into their vacation home and reveal that they are from an underworld where for all the fun and happy experiences people above experience, there are people underground who are “tethered” to them, forced to act out painful and degrading simulations of the fun experiences those above experience, like dolls tied to a puppeteer’s strings. The rest of the film shows this family attempting to survive what is revealed to a be a nationwide uprising of the tethered, who with their red robes, golden scissors and frightening, incomprehensible yells, are attacking their mirror images from the world above.

Peele presents a basic frame for the film, one which belies its social importance but undersells its complexity and depth. For all the privilege experienced in the world, he is saying, this has been secured through a system of historical trauma and suffering. The films asks the audience to address this trauma, in all its horror and vertiginous complexity. Through layered imagery and meticulously crafted, though often seemingly random, plot points, Peele offers viewers a window through which to reflect on themselves, and to contemplate how the horrors of the world, often externalized onto a foreign “other”, may actually be manifestations of the darkness within yourself.

Note: from here on, we will assume you have seen the film. There will be spoilers!!

Locking up Our Own: Us as Allegory for Captivity

While understanding that these views all have explanatory power, and add to the film’s tapestry of layered meanings, I took a different approach to interpreting the film. I saw Us a day after finishing James Forman Jr.’s book, Locking Up Our Own, where the Yale Law professor and son of a famous Black activist argues that it was political pressure from affluent and middle-class Blacks at a local level that was a critical force in driving mass incarceration. Under the theory that the people in their communities who were selling drugs were a force of chaos and destruction, local activists in DC pushed against marijuana decriminalization and for harder penalties of violent offenders, arguing that the only way to preserve the possibility of stability and upward mobility for their community was to demand forceful policing and longer prison sentencing. In the process of attempting to prevent communal destruction brought by the drug trade, these forces created communal destruction through the creation of the largest prison industrial complex the world has ever known.

Seen through the light of Forman’s analysis, and with a careful reading of the symbolism of the film, Peele’s Us can be read not only as a general analysis of an uprising of the dispossessed, but a specific narrative of how classism in the African American community produced a Black underclass stuck in oppressive conditions and the prison industrial complex, and asks the audience to recognize their own complacency in the construction of the Black underclass.

The symbolic allusions to Black upward mobility as a dangerous force which drives otherization and oppression of the tethered ones in the film are subtle, yet taken together, they tell a cautionary tale around the progress of middle-class Black folks coming at a personal, cultural and communal cost to the community as a whole, to the Black lower class, and even to the those who “get out” of the Black lower class.

Peele’s reference to 80s horror cannot be seen inside the context of the Reagan infused, super predator fears which permeated the era. “C.H.U.D.” is the film which most clearly mirrors the plot of “Us,” and, like the current film, this film clearly reflected the racially-driven fears of crime in the 80s. The trailer for the film shows well-dressed businessmen and cosmopolitan white women sucked into the underworld by mutated beings.  The title is an acronym for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, and their murderous attacks on New Yorkers can be read as an allusion to the fear of urban street crime stoked throughout the 80s (a VHS tape of “C.H.U.D.” can be seen on the tv which shows a “Hands across America” commercial in the 1986 flashback).

This is precisely the fear alluded to in Locking Up Our Own, where fear of drugs addicts turning into robbing, violent zombies led many in the Black middle class to support tough-on-crime legislation. Forman’s book reveals the depth of this fear, with many instances of community members and elected officials arguing that drug dealers should not only be locked up, but literally or figuratively castrated. The presence of rabbits in cages underground, while possibly an attempt to allude to the deep suffering created by industrial farming of animals, may also be a direct allusion to the prison industrial complex.

Like Adelaide’s father playing Whack -a -Mole at the carnival, it would seem that the Black middle class at times take some sort of perverse pleasure in keeping their lower class brethren down. Politicians used tough-on-crime legislation to score points against one another, include challenging politicians to take drug tests to prove that they themselves were not on drugs, and  piled on exclusionary penalties to drug convictions, such as exclusion from government student loans and public housing, forcing these populations back the “underground” economy of the drug trade and excluding them from the “light” of legitimate society.

In the film, all the doppelgangers have unique names (either stated by Red or revealed in the closing credits), a sign that these people have been dehumanized and that the film is attempting to give them identities. From this standpoint, the uprising of “the tethered” is a revolt against an explicitly racialized exclusion, perpetrated not by some nebulous evil beings, but by us, the Black aspirational middle-class moviegoers the film is largely, though not exclusively, courting as a target audience.

“Craw-Daddy”: Gabe as Black Bourgeois Cautionary Tale

The character played by Winston Duke, the father Gabriel, exemplifies many of the tendencies of the upwardly ascendant Black middle class, and his character’s actions best illustrate the argument that Peele intends the film to be seen as a commentary on the actions of the Black middle class in relation to the Black lower class. Gabe is the one who recommends the family go to Santa Cruz, a California beachside town noted for its affluence and social liberalism, which Black residents note has often come with a heavy dose of colorblind racism. His desire to go to the beach to meet up with the Tylers, an affluent white family,, shows his desire to integrate into mainstream white society (he literally starts a “Santa Cruz! Santa Cruz!” chant in the family car on the drive into town). That Peele chooses to make this city the gate to the hell world of the tethered cannot simply be seen as an allusion to horror films of the past, it is a specific commentary on the nature of emptiness of the white liberalism the town has historically been associated with.

Gabe’s character is explicitly in search of prestige by white standards. Gabe is in competition with his white friend, Josh Tyler, in terms of displays of status and wealth. Gabe proudly displays a new speedboat, faulty engine and all, and his family is underwhelmed by this somewhat shabby status symbol. While seemingly innocuous and comical, the boat is an important symbol.  If the boat is a symbol for the upwardly mobile aspirations of the black middle class, the fact the engine is faulty is very important, as it shows that attempts to attain elite status within the metric of material acquisition laid out by the white world are futile, a fact shown in the film by the fact that Gabe’s acquisition of a boat is one-upped by Josh’s acquisition of a new SUV.

Winston Duke’s character Gabriel on a white boat with a Black engine. It’s title ‘Craw Daddy’ is another clue to Peele’s metaphorical analysis in the film.

Peele masterfully accentuates this point by having the boat be white and having the engine of the boat be black. When the engine fails, Duke says “they taught me how to do this” and begins to strike the engine with his hand. This is Peele arguing that the engine of Black progress toward whiteness is the denigration of poor blacks, showing that aggression from the Black upper class toward the black masses is a vestige of their experience internalizing the racism of the white upper class, who instruct the Black upper class on how to oppress the Black masses. Every line of dialogue has meaning, as Zora’s question “can we all fit” is designed to show these forms of capitalist privilege aren’t accessible to the broader Black community. It also has a gendered connotation, as the material acquisition Gabe? seeks to provide is a form of patriarchal protection and assertion of his masculinity (it is not an accident it is the daughter who asks this question).  Even the boat’s name, Craw Daddy, is designed to symbolize Gabe’s desire to be a “good father”, but that the boat is named after the crawfish, a animal notorious for being a bottom feeder and scavenger, shows that the Black upper class are still merely scavenging the crumbs of white elite, attempting to turn these crumbs into signs to status to inflate their self-esteem, even if they come at the cost of the death of others, the carcasses off of which they are scavenging.

Gabe’s interactions with his doppelgangers reflect his separation from the Black oppressed as the film continues to use the boat as a metaphor for him being seduced by the American dream. When the red family enters the house, Gabe tells them he has money and can take them to the ATM. He even offers them the boat, his prized possession, leading to Zora’s retort (“no one wants the boat”). When Gabe is captured by his “tethered” world doppelganger, Abraham, he is taken, of all to places, onto his recently acquired boat, which continues to have engine trouble. This leads to the scene’s dramatic conclusion, where while fighting in the water, Abraham is killed after Gabriel headbutts the boat’s engine, causing it to turn on and its propellers cut into Abraham’s midsection, causing him to bleed out in the water. The metaphorical meaning of this scene is clear: in order for Gabe’s upward progress toward material respectability to move forward (i.e. the boat’s engine) the death of the Black lower classes (symbolized through his doppelganger from the underworld, Abraham) is required. The blood of the archetypal dangerous Black male brute is literally the lubricant which allows the engine of Black upward mobility to move forward.

In one final example of Gabe’s desire to achieve status, he insists that they stay at the Tylers’ house rather than travel down the coast, per Adelaide’s suggestion, can be read as his relative comfort in the lap of white luxury, basking in it even though it puts his family at risk. That all this happens as the Gabe character wears a Howard sweatshirt, an institution which for many represents Black educational attainment and upward mobility, is important. The character could, after all, be wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. That it is a Historically Black College is important, as it explicitly frames the story within the context of intra-Black politics and the class dynamics within the Black community.

Carceral Desires: Adelaide as the Upwardly Mobile Black Subject

Adelaide, the film’s main character, reflects the core duality of loving her children yet harboring a dark secret. At the end of the movie, it is revealed that, while it appears that Adeilad simply saw her doppelganger in the fun house at a child, in reality, the doppelganger grabbed her by the throat then dragged her to the underworld. After chaining her to a bed and stealing her “Thriller” tee shirt, she returns to the surface and takes over her life. Being left in the underworld, the version of Adelaide from the above ground world gradual turns into “Red”, the person who appears in the driveway with her message around why the tethered have come above to end their oppression and severing the link between them and the above-ground world.

The audience has several clues that this might be coming. Adelaide wears a tee shirt from the Michael Jackson album “Thriller” (the famous music video for which ends with a seemingly normal Michael Jackson being revealed to be a monster), the fact her snaps to the well known rap song “I Got 5 On It” are offbeat, that she cries when Red tells her the story of her oppression (a sign of her guilt over what she did dragging her double into the underworld), and that her white sweatshirt gradually turns Red from blood stains from Adelaide’s gradually more murderous behavior. Merely off of suspicion that Josh is a doppelganger, she stabs him in the head with a fire poker; she gruesomely kills one of Josh and Kitty’s twin girls (with Jason watching), and at the film’s dramatic apex, kills Red in a gruesome fashion, strangling her and breaking her neck after stabbing her.

Adelaide following her tethered double, Red, into the underground. Her white shirt turns progressively redder throughout the film, a hint to her true identity.

Adelaide has “Moved On Up”, both literally coming to the surface world and in the Black vernacular use of the term. She has managed to leave behind the suffering she was birthed into and achieve a level of material security and even apparent affluence (it is not cheap to be able to vacation anywhere near Santa Cruz). Her ascendance comes with the corresponding set of middle-class values. While it is clearly shown that she is connected to Red, and can likely sense her intentions, that her first response is to call the police is important. This mirrors upper-class Blacks’ response to lower class Blacks, a tendency constantly referred to in Forman’s book. Rather than wanting to confront Red and take accountability for what she did, she seeks to deploy the power of the state to protect her.

When Adelaide hears the cops are 15 minutes away, she and Gabe act as if this is a surprising or unacceptable reality. This will feel odd to many black working class or Black poor viewers of the film. Many of the neighborhoods the Black working class and poor live in experience the duality of being over-policed for petty offenses like marijuana possession, yet when the cops may be needed to protect this community, they often take far longer than 15 minutes to respond. To see 15 minutes as unacceptable shows a level of expectation about to policing that is explained by Forman as more typical for the Black middle class. Forman argues that despite the police clearly being a threat to poor Black community, the Black middle class and elites saw no other solution to crime, and began to see all investment in policing as good because it showed the state respected them enough to invest money for services into their neighborhoods, even if these services caused havoc for poor Blacks.

The red jumpsuits the tethered wear in Us are another potential allusion to the prison industrial complex, bearing a striking resemblance to prisoner’s wardrobe.

Peele brilliantly creates a duality between Adelaide’s desire for police protection and her actions of kidnapping her double and putting her in the tethered world. The police, when called, are 15 minutes away, the same amount of time it took for the young Adelaide from the shadow world to kidnap her double and handcuff her to a bed in the underground, steal her shirt and ascend to the surface. Adelaide operates a lot like a cop in this scenario, and this duality clearly creates a level of personal responsibility on her part. By being willing to send someone to the tethered realm, and by leaving the underworld without seeming to ever making any inquiry into who built it, why they built it, and how she could return to liberate those she left behind, Adelaide reveals herself to be akin to those who created the tethered relm in the first place, willing to allow people to suffer so she could live a comfortable life.

This story will appear familiar to anyone who is familiar with narratives of Blacks who “make it out” of the inner city or prison.  Adelaide can be read as an allegory for the ultimate version of the successful black person who is uninterested in improving the conditions of the Black masses, the type of folk who says things like “I made it out, so they need to figure it out for themselves”.

The Dissolution of Family: The Cost of Adelaide’s Choice

This relative privilege comes at a cost for Adelaide. First, her relationship with her husband seems to mirror the coldness shown between her parents in the flashbacks when her parents are dealing with the fact that after disappearing for 15 minutes from the boardwalk, Adelaide is no longer speaking. This makes sense, given she’s coming from an underground world where the tethered do not speak. Her parents seem to hold different views of the severity of their daughter’s condition, and there seems even to be an element of blame laid at the feet of the father, who complains about being constantly accused of doing something wrong. When the father offers the wife his hand, she refuses it, an act which would later be mimicked by Adelaide and Gabe. When Adelaide steps out of the car to confront the doppelganger version of her son, who Red has named Pluto (after the Roman god of the Underworld), Gabe leans in as if to offer her affection, and she pulls away and withdraws.

The status of Adelaide and Gabe’s daughter, Zora, is interesting, and she represents a middle ground between having an innate awareness that something is wrong, but also being indoctrinated into the larger American systems of power and privilege. She comments that “the government is putting fluoride in the water” and after being rebuffed, comments “I guess I am the only one worried about the end of the world.” This innate connection to a feeling of darkness makes sense given what we learn about her bloodline through the revelation around Adelaide at the end of the movie.

While Zora has these proclivities to potentially be connected to something deeper, she is constantly on her phone and desperately wants to drive, both symbols of material status and freedom to access American leisure and luxury. Even in the face of their friends the Tylers being violently murdered by their doppelgangers, she asks whether their deaths means they now get to use their new, fancy SUV, one which she now asserts her right to drive, based upon having the highest “kill score” among the family members. This gamification of death relates to her relationship with technology.  As she drives Tyler’s SUV, a symbol of whiteness, she is attacked by her doppelganger, who hangs on the roof of the vehicle, and kills her by rapidly decelerating and tossing her into the woods. Her pursuit of the American dream requires that her mirror image, those excluded from that dream, are literally tossed aside.

But it is in Adelaide’s relationship with her son, Jason, where the duality of those with privileged and those without it is most clearly seen, and the deepest pain of the film can be registered. Jason shows a deep connection to the tethered world. At the beach he digs a tunnel, signifying his understanding that there is a subterranean world nearby. He wanders off at the beach when he sees the film’s first doppelganger and draws him when he gets home. He and his doppelganger, Pluto, are similar: both are awkward (Pluto physically, crawling around like an animal, and Jason socially) and both love fire. Throughout the film, despite the violence, Jason is mostly cool and calm in his facial expressions, often wearing a monster mask which makes him seem inhuman. While the other family members fight their doppelgangers,Jason essentially plays with his, realizing he has the ability to still be tethered with him and control his movements before trapping him in the closet where they are playing.

This is yet again something that Black middle-class families might see as familiar. While class stratifications between black families make relationships between adults hard, at young ages there can be class mixing between different parts of the family without much friction. Whether rich or poor, kids will be kids, getting in mischief and often pushing boundaries. That both Jason and Pluto love fire seems to be an analogy to this dynamic, as to how young kids play with fire in terms of their risky behavior crosses class boundaries.

When Pluto’s face is revealed to be horribly burned, the meaning of Peele’s juxtaposition becomes more clear. While middle-class kids can play with fire and be seen as cute, eccentric or “going through a phase,” lower class Black kids are burned, seen as dangerous and threats and often put in jail. Pluto runs on all fours like a wild animal and even purrs like a cat at the foot of his mother, Red. He is an archetypical “superpredator,” the sort of hyper-dangerous black youth whites warned would swarm out of the Black community in the 80s and 90s. While, as Forman writes, the opposite happened, with crime rates dropping in the 90s, the fear of Black youth never faded. Similarly, Pluto burns a car to stop the Wilsons’ escape in the SUV, and the image of kids in masks burning cars reminded me of the Baltimore Uprising, where dozens of cars were torched by mostly kids in masks to protest police brutality. Given that the doppelgangers are fighting a form of oppression akin to the prison industrial complex, it’s possible this similarity is intentional.

Pluto burning a car, a scene which makes allusion to resistance actions taken in cities like Baltimore.

Pluto in the current time of the film appears to be around the same age that Adelaide was when she ran from the tethered world, creating a level of solidarity and connection between the two which belies the fact that Adelaide has severed her connection from the world she escaped from. Pluto dies with Adelaide trying to take his hand, another potential connection for Adelaide severed.

It is at this moment where Red kidnaps Jason and takes him back to the tethered world, setting up the final battle between Red and Adelaide. When Adelaide emerges victorious, covered with blood and wild-eyed, Jason barely recognizes her and, despite being embraced by Adelaide, he appears apprehensive and, for the first time in the film, begins to cry. Finally, in the film’s closing moments, where Adelaide’s status as a former member of the tethered world is revealed, it is Jason who stares at her with a look which could only be called accusatory. Perhaps because he senses the falseness behind Adelaide’s smile, he puts on his monster mask. In this moment, Peele reveals the ultimate cost of Adelaide’s deception: the fracturing of her relationship with her son and the transmission of trauma down yet another generation.

Whiteness and Technology: Us’s False Idols

Ultimately, Us is a challenge to the audience to look at themselves and their own culpability for oppression in the world. The film would be easier for a Black middle-class audience to interpret if the Wilson family where light skinned and framed as having Ivy League educations. However, this would absolve the audience of culpability, making the Wilsons’ sins the province of your “bougie aunt” or some self-hating Black person and not forcing the audience to see the contribution everyday middle-class Black people make to systems of oppression. After all, Forman’s book reveals that it was not just the Black upper class who argued for increased policing, but Black homeowners and community members who were decidedly middle class and working class as well. The book focuses on enforcement of drug laws in D.C., so it is literally people like Gabe who helped construct the system of mass incarceration: middle-class Howard graduates who saw open-air drug markets, even for relatively innocuous drugs like marijuana, as an affront to their notions of upward mobility and a bastion of dangerousness.

Today, as in the 80s and 90s, middle-class Black politicians and their constituents continue to enforce tough-on-crime laws and increased policing in the name of community protection and fear, seemingly unaware that the policies create a literal land of horrors that is our criminal justice system. Some of them even say “I was in jail once, and I made it out, so they should be fine,” reflecting Adelaide’s attitude toward the tethered. This movie attempts to expose the hypocrisy of the type of people who might sing along with NWA:

“Fuck the police

Comin’ straight from the underground”

(again not a conscience)

yet support a politician when they call for increased investment in policing because they fear their property values may decline without it.

The audience is challenged to realize the person they rooted for might be the “bad guy” this whole time. After all, in an era of being “woke”, why are people so easy to dismiss a violent uprising of people who, through Red’s explanation relatively early in the movie, are literally slaves in the tethered world? What is Red’s rebellion other than the sort of revolt of the oppressed none other than Tupac Shakur theorized about, where upon realizing hungry you are locked out of a room filled with resources, you over time realize it’s only through violence that you can meet your needs?

The Limits of Art of Politics: Us’s Misplaced Hope in Class Solidarity 

From a political standpoint, the film’s biggest limitation, though not a surprising one, is that Peele portrays the uprising as universal, rather than a revolt of the explicitly Black masses. The film could be an almost direct allusion to a violent vision of the Marxist historical materialist process of the global proletariat rising up and overthrowing their capitalist masters. In the opening text, which references the unused subway tunnels, mine shafts, and sewers which lie underground, it is the dirty work of those who dug these tunnels, maintain our sewers, and mine the precious metals used in our contemporary electronics, which makes modern life possible. That the tethered wear Red, the globally recognized color of the Marxist revolution, isn’t a coincidence. That the tethered are shown, black, white, and brown, as all struggling in the underworld together, shows a level of cross-racial solidarity which challenges the notions that the film is simply an allusion to racism but seeks to make a point about a broader level of class oppression.

That the affluent white family in the film is also killed by their doppelgangers is important, both to bely any potential ability for the film to be seen as simply a race riot, and to show that the white working class will also seek to destroy their own white middle-class enemies in a future violent proletariat uprising. Many of the films Peele uses as background for Us draw on fears of the Soviet Union in the 80s, and the nuclear fallout caused by weapons testing, as the foundation of the creation of monsters in the films. Similar to these classic films, one can argue that it is the fear of the other, particular an “other” which threatens your economic and material status, which leads to the creation of monsters. The film’s final scene, with tethered hold hands, an allusion to the 1986 “Hands Across America” action against homelessness, is a depiction of global cross-racial solidarity of the oppressed rarely seen in mainstream American cinema.

While the death of the white family by their doppelgangers has value in showing this isn’t just Black people on screen being violent and that the white poor are oppressed too, as I wrote in “The Black Book: Reflections from the Baltimore Grassroots”, the white working class has historically sided with the class oppressors, the white elites, rather than working with the Black poor:

“This mirrors Northwestern University professor Charles Mills‘ analysis on the political implications of what W.E.B. DuBois called ―the wages of whiteness. He postulated that even in instances where it is materially beneficial for Whites to align with Blacks …, the psychological attachment to whiteness would be seen as more valuable, and red state resistance to ACA provides empirical validation of this theory (Mills, 2004)…

Democrats and progressives often wonder why poor white Republicans vote ―against their self-interests. An understanding of anti-Blackness reveals these votes are actually not against their self-interest, as the dominant progressive/liberal framework fails to see that these interests are not just economic, but largely, sometimes even predominantly, racial.” (Grandpre, 2014).  

That Peele would adopt a view of cross-racial solidarity is understandable. This is, after all, a Hollywood movie, and it is easier to get a film made and get white viewers if there is a level of racial unity portrayed, even if it’s unity in murderous solidarity.

On God and Punishment

The film also clearly has religious overtones. Not only are tethered killing people, with the red robes and golden scissors (a weapon with two identical parts, an allusion to the film overarching narrative of duality), they seem to be sacrificing them in an almost religious manner. With the exception of Red, the name given to the doppelganger for Lupita Nyong’o’s character Adelaide, the tethered speak only in primal grunts and howls, potentially an allusion to some religious cult which speaks in tongues. The death of the affluent white family in the film is especially important to understanding the narrative. As the character played by Elisabeth Moss (Kitty Tyler), an aging woman who tries to drown her regrets in wine and plastic surgery, bleeds out, she calls out, not to God, but to her smart speaker, asking it to call the police. This scene shows how the police have replaced God as a metaphysical solution to our problems, supporting the point that theorists of class struggle have repeatedly made that the police serve a key role not in creating safety, but securing the interest of capital against exactly these sort of revolts. That the computer assistant, ironically named Ophelia (derived from the Greek Opheleia, meaning “help”) fails to call the police, but instead plays the classic NWA song “Fuck the Police,” show Peels attempt to tell its audience that the “new gods” of technology will not save them.

It, in fact, should be seen as linked to the Bible verse which is alluded to throughout the film, Jeremiah 11:11, though Kitty calls out to the Gods of technology and even her murderers, holding out a hand to Tex, the murderous doppelganger of her husband Josh,  they do not respond (or “harken back to thee” as the bible verse puts it). That the prophet Jeremiah is lambasting the Israelites from worshiping idols and losing faith in God, so too is Peele attempting to make a larger point about contemporary society worshiping the false idols of money, technology, and policing, and for their efforts, they are likely to end in ruin. This theme is underscored by the naming of the Gabriel, who in the Bible is an archangel sent to foretell the birth of savior; and by naming his doppelganger Abraham, after the prophet of the Old Testament, which tells of God’s violent judgment upon the wicked. Taken together, these show the depth of the religious overtones of the film, harkening back to Biblical notions of judgment and damnation.

This religious interpretation is not incongruous with a Black elitist interpretation of the film; it is in fact in line with it, as many of the conservative forces pushing tough on crime legislation were Black churches that encourage the worship of false idols of upward mobility and policing rather than the biblical teachings of “let he who without sin cast the first stone.” The praxis application of Black religion has a long history, but has increasingly fallen to the wayside in favor of prosperity gospel mega pastors, and the legacy of liberation theology has increasingly been lost. The film can be seen as a reassertion of the biblical notion of meek inheriting the earth, and thus is in line with the interpretation of a critique of the hypocrisy of the aspirational elites.

Conclusion: Turning Inward to Move Forward

While polarizing, the film is a masterpiece. It challenges the audience to look inward and confront the limitation of their political ideologies. If Hands Across America represented a nostalgic innocence by showing a belief that all we needed to do is unify to solve oppression, then Red’s revolt is simply the logic of Hands Across America taken to its logical, bloody conclusion: eliminate the privileged classes via complete and unbreakable solidarity of the oppressed.

Us makes an allusion to ‘Hand’s Across America’, a 1980s protest against homelessness so basic even Ronald Reagan could take part. Americans claim to care about the oppressed but also benefit from privilege, a reality Us attempts to force its audience to grapple with.

The questions Us asks us to ponder are troubling, but important. Have we as a Black community realized that those of us behind bars, like the tethered, literally are the same as those outside of prison, and the only reason we have a hard time seeing this is because we live in a system that pits the Black middle class and elites against the Black poor? Finally, as much as people these days claim to have solidarity with the oppressed, have we as a society taken in one of the fundamental point show by Adelaide’s revolution, that Us and them are merely a product of circumstance and conditions and with the right conditions, anyone could turn into Red or Pluto?

While we are unlikely to face a bloody, broad-scale race/class revolt in America soon, Us forces the audience to be honest with themselves in asking if the revolt were to break out, whose side would you really be on? While the tethered in Us don’t speak, which is a reflection of society’s inability to hear the voices of the oppressed, if we the real world listen, we may just hear that the solution the black poor are screaming for isn’t deeper exposure to the false idols of capitalism and technology, but the resources and space to build their own solution to their own problem.

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