Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Depicts Black Double Consciousness (Spoilers)
|thenorthstar||Apr 13, 2019|
I would venture to say that no Black person has ever used the term “doppelgänger” in casual conversation. Yet, virtually every mainstream review of Jordan Peele’s Us centers the German term, meaning “double goer” or non-biological twin. A few reviews mention the Du Boisian concept of “double consciousness” or “twoness,” but only as a passing reference. Conversely, to many Black moviegoers, the dichotomy of two “selves” is at the movie’s core. Connected through a single form but opposed in perspective, Lupita Nyong’o and cast portray this inner struggle beautifully.
In a sense, the double meaning of Us — one apparent to white American masses and the other accessible to Black people — itself illustrates Black American twoness. Black and white audiences, perhaps sitting among each other, experience Us in vastly different ways. This difference in audience experience echoes the analogy that Peele draws.
Released on March 22, 2019, Us is a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful horror film which pays homage to classics like The Shining and Friday the 13th (although most critics missed the obvious reference with a masked “Jason” as a lead character). White film reviewers cite Peele’s reverence for Stanley Kubrick and love for the thriller genre; for them, Us’ hidden codes point to familiar tropes. The doppelgänger or body-double concept is meant to elicit an unknowingness and evoke terror — “There's something cosmically freaky about seeing yourself from an external standpoint,” one review notes. Many white critics (and, I would imagine, viewers) see this duality as an alien experience; doppelgängers appear alike but are not necessarily connected.
For Black audiences, the film is thick with layer upon layer of analogy with the experience of double-consciousness in America. Us centers on the Wilsons, a Black upper middle class nuclear family, who are clearly tied to Black identity and Americanness. The father, Gabe (played by Winston Duke), wears a Howard University sweatshirt for the duration of the film and demonstrates an authentic adulation for rap music, but also keeps a white best friend and demonstrates a willingness to immerse himself in traditionally white spaces and pastimes (like boats and a Santa Cruz beach). The daughter, Zora (perhaps for Zora Neale Hurston), arguably emerges as the film’s heroine by utilizing both her wit and physical ability to defend and preserve her own life and the lives of her family. The son, Jason, keeps a mask throughout, eliciting Paul Laurence Dunbar stanzas from even novice consumers of Black poetry.
We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties…
The mother, Adelaide (who Nyong’o plays brilliantly), is the center of the film. As the family travels to their summer house, a few miles from Santa Cruz beach, the trauma experienced by a young Adelaide of an underground “twin” re-emerges. A dark version of the Wilsons, whose drive is immediately unclear, challenges the seeming normalcy of life. These doubles are tethered to the Wilsons, and the film quickly unfolds as an “untethering.”
Additional undergrounders emerge, wreaking havoc, murdering those above ground, and forming a human chain of people in red jumpsuits across America. It is Red, Adelaide’s doppelgänger, who gives us insight into who they are and what they want. “I didn’t just need to kill you. I needed to make a statement that the whole world would see. It’s our time now, our time up there.” There is confusion around good and evil; thinly-veiled references to heaven and hell become confused and muddled.
Repeated reference is made to Jeremiah 11:11. As reviewers and film-goers seek to unpack meaning by reading the Bible verse — 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 — they are missing deeper meaning if they neglect the preceding passage: They are turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, which refused to hear my words; and they went after other gods to serve them: the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers. When asked who they are and what they want, Red — dressed in the undergrounder red jumpsuit, with a warped and forced voice — responds, “We are Americans.” What must it mean, then, to go after other gods and serve them and view oneself as an American? What does it mean to untether oneself from Black people who live above ground? What does it mean to form a human chain across America and engage in a murderous frenzy in the process?
If we are to examine the film through a critical Black lens, it holds much greater depth. Rather than a fictional, fantastical horror film, Us becomes a statement about the place of Black people in American society, about our “twoness.” Us presents the search for individual and collective self, the psychological grappling around the authentic self, and the mask at the heart of Black life, especially in America. “One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder,” Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk.
The struggle between Adelaide and Red represents the struggle between Blackness and Americanness: two warring souls. We witness Adelaide trying mightily to preserve her family’s Blackness even as they’re pulled into an American norm that attempts to kill them.
On the drive to the summer house, as Gabe turns on the hip-hop classic “I Got Five On It,” Adelaide instructs her out-of-sync son, to “get in rhythm.” She rolls her eyes and ridicules her husband for his boat purchase, and she resists friendship with the Tylers (the white family “friends”). Ultimately, there is confusion around what is good and what is evil, and what is American and what is Black. Adelaide’s white outfit becomes bloodstained and grows increasingly red. As Jason drops the mask over his face and directs Pluto (his tethered half) into his death, one might also surmise that the mask and the authentic self have melded together. This makes an untethering an impossibility, especially as undergrounders (Black people) and abovegrounders (Americans) become indistinguishable from each other as embodied by the Red/Adelaide reckoning.
By the end of the film, Peele brings the duality to a climax with the confrontation between Adelaide and her shadow. In the background, an instrumental of “I Got Five On It” plays again, but using orchestral instrumentation — Black music played with European tools, a white-appropriated mutation of Black culture. Black and white audiences feel Adelaide’s pain together in a beautifully acted scene by Nyong’o. For white audiences, the conclusion of the film is an exciting twist, reminiscent of an M. Night Shyamalan film. It is a cinematic “aha,” a cause for excited conversation about Peele’s talent as a filmmaker that stops short of social and political analysis. For Black audiences, the twist is more complex and raises innumerable questions about race, place, identity, history, power, and liberation, as all of the analogies that Peele has drawn are seemingly thrown into disarray. Perhaps Peele’s greatest achievement with Us is his ability to extend his analogy into the experiences of the audience. White audiences leave the film excited by a fun horror/thriller with many smart references. Black audiences have a much more complex experience, as Du Bois aptly described over a century ago. Us gives the experience of “looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
About the Author
Melina Abdullah is a senior writer for The North Star and professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She was appointed to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission in 2014 and is a recognized expert on race, gender, class, and social movements. Abdullah is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, with subjects ranging from political coalition building to womanist mothering.