If you’re down to get INTO it? Welcome!)
I loved Us, a film by Jordan Peele.
I don’t enjoy horror. I do appreciate a good time at the movies. I do need buttery popcorn at the movies. I had both. I also had my mind blown by this incredibly creative, inventive, ambitious, and elegant parable on freedom and bondage. Of course it’s a horror story. I realized when it was over that the genre is what allows for so much D R A M A, which lets you infuse so much meaning into a buttery popcorn spectacle. Auteurs know this. Jordan Peele knows this and is inviting us to join him; to meet him where he’s been all along without us knowing–sketch comedy giant by day, horror auteur by night.
I’m well aware of the mixed reviews. Including the woman sitting next to me in the theater, with her 5-year-old, at the closing credits proclaiming it the dumbest shit she’d ever seen, while I applauded, loudly. I, and my fellow Wesleyan-minded, extra-deep-thoughts companion, Steve Gray also seem to have taken significantly more meaning and majesty from the film than many. We debriefed for well over an hour and both intend to see it again. For the record, it is rich. Proverbially dripping with the following, exceedingly relevant, American narrative themes:
A mother’s love
As a mother myself, of a precious boy, for whom I would do anything—and have already done so many things I never would have otherwise, which is how I know how incomparable our love is—the bond Adelaide has with her son, Jason, was powerful to watch.
- When she snaps her fingers, encouragingly off beat with him, in the car.
- When she tells him to stick with her. She’ll keep him safe.
- When she tells him to show his magic, offering him hope and faith in himself which ends up protecting him.
- The many knowing looks they shared.
- A bond so tight they are both indebted to it—he, for his security; she, for her secret.
The protagonist, Adelaide, gains and retains her freedom by any means necessary. She’ll never give it up, and isn’t she entitled to it? Adelaide’s crime is revealed as theft, but under what unlawful state must one steal her own freedom? Everyone in the film, we are told explicitly, is an American.
The film is about free and not free peoples—all human, all entitled to the same freedom, living vastly different lives, struggling through a bloody revolution, and all through the centering and featuring of dark chocolate skin.
The heroines are black. We sympathize with one more than the other, but it’s not a unanimous vote. Some of us Americans are rooting for Red. In fact, Adelaide is tricking us. She was born as Red. But, beautiful, middle-class, identity-thief Adelaide remains the hero because, well, isn’t she entitled to her freedom? We Americans know well, it’s not okay to steal freedom from another, so it was never okay for the original Red’s freedom to be stolen at birth.
Original-Adelaide (who becomes adult Red) is born free and loses her freedom, without recourse—the worst of living nightmares. More than the other shadows who have never known freedom, Red once knew it well. She is nine when she loses hers. She loses this core identity for another which she is forced to learn. The fact that she wasn’t born into bondage makes no practical difference. Our circumstances dictate as much of our lives as our genes do. We tend to disassociate from this reality when facing the lives of others, but we never escape the risk of our circumstances changing.
The climax is a battle of wills between two women (the same woman) who know two worlds—free and bound. The horror.
Both Adelaide and Red represent Americans who have achieved security and even affluence from humble beginnings, yet run an inescapable risk of losing it all. Fun fact: any American runs this risk. Some Americans know it and can’t unknow it. Double consciousness is a double-bind of oppressive myths.
The role of a lifetime
That climax I referenced above, the one between the two central characters who are two sides of the same identity? Those complicated characters are played by one actor. I can only imagine the dream (and perhaps the nightmare) of such an opportunity. What Nyong’o is holding in every scene, for the audience, without our knowledge, with her depth of craft.
To say the least, it bears repeat viewing. Every scene. Every emotion.
American myths matter
As the climax emerges Red tells the story of her exceptionalism. She’s a ballerina—a textbook image of western perfection (with dark chocolate skin). She and Adelaide share this talent, as equals.
There’s just so much to unpack. It doesn’t matter what anyone can see unfolding in advance; doesn’t matter what “spoils” it. The metaphor is too rich to be ruined. The shadows are also humans, with the same needs, same talents, same potential, but not the same opportunity. In fact, they have the inverse of every opportunity.
What a thing to ponder …
- Abraham (Gabe’s shadow) needing but not having glasses.
- The little boy, Pluto, living as a pet—as a dog almost. And then burning in a fire.
- His sister, Umbrae, dies hanging from a tree.
It shook me. This is me, as the audience, adding meaning. A filmmaker can’t honestly take all the credit for the impact a film has. Any communication has more than one party. Jordan Peele may just be a genius. He may have plotted every point, but the myth-making and breaking of the film is mind-bending. He can’t and doesn’t own all of it.
Additional musings, for your ruminating pleasure:
The myth of safety in the middle class
The first protective action Adelaide takes is to call the police. She and we, the audience, hope they can save her. We soon learn the police need saving too.
Our children are not ours
In the childhood flashbacks of a silent Adelaide recovering from her disappearance, we see her parents struggling emotionally from the fallout. Later, we find out something they don’t, or do they know too?
When Adelaide’s son Jason disappears momentarily, at the same place Adelaide disappears as a child, we’re never told exactly what happens. We do know that he returns with an image he can’t explain.
Both events remind us that our children will all go through things from which we can’t protect them, and they may not return the same.
Blackness at the center of American life
The protagonists are black Americans. This entire family survives perhaps as a measure of how much more familiar they are with the threat.
The affectation of this black family having neutral American accents raised my eyebrows at first, until I became immersed in the world. Then it was gone. It was intentionally jarring to our American ears, so we might notice the discomfort, and then stop noticing when it stops mattering.
The supporting characters, who also have a bigger house and more visible wealth, are white, and it’s awkward to view them as secondary. It’s an interesting challenge for us as an American audience. I’m up for it.
“She was applying makeup and looking at the clothes!”
Steve caught, and I missed, how readily the white shadows slide into middle class performance.
Steve also observed, “Adelaide doesn’t give a fuck about those things,” in noticeable contrast to her husband. Adelaide knows better than anyone what’s at stake—anyone except Red.
When you’ve never been free you don’t know it.
It takes Red, the only shadow who has known the light of freedom, to lead the way to revolution.
I bet you so much more than I noticed was intentional. I love film so much, because when you’re watching a creative work helmed by a master everything can be contemplated—can be considered deliberate—because it very well may be. That’s how much time and effort it takes to make a film. It’s a team effort. There are countless variables. It is not easy to succeed. It is astounding when you do.
And now perhaps you see why an executive coach and facilitator, would write a dissertation on a modern horror film. I am deeply invested in our human progress. I’ve made its revelation my life’s work. On a regular basis, I am astounded by what we can accomplish together.
So, what else did I miss? Jordan? Anyone?
Tell me in the comments how I just blew your mind or where I’ve gone too far. I’m dying to know.