Jordan Peele’s 'Us' Reflects the Struggle for Black Liberation (Spoilers)
|thenorthstar||Apr 8, 2019|
Jordan Peele’s Us, the highly anticipated follow-up to Get Out, hit theaters on March 22, quickly became an international cinematic phenomenon. The record-breaking film had the most successful opening weekend ever for an original horror film. It also secured Jordan Peele’s role as a premier director of this generation, and nearly broke the internet with memes, threads, and posts highlighting eerie coincidences and theories throughout the film.
While “the Tethered” have officially become one of the most feared monsters, these vengeful doppelgangers can also be viewed as the victims of a sort of sci-fi social injustice. Originally created as underground clones to control the actions of those at the surface, the Tethered have wandered thousands of miles of underground tunnels beneath the United States without direction, mimicking the actions of their ground-level counterparts for generations. The experiment was unsuccessful, and the Tethered were simply abandoned.
The neglected bodies of the Tethered have a lot in common with Black bodies of America’s past and present. Us chronicles a social revolution, as The Tethered take to the surface to reclaim their humanity and rectify a gross mishandling of human lives.
The film presents a number of parallels between the plight of the Tethered, and the struggle for Black liberation. One of the easy-to-overlook components of the Tethered’s orchestrated revolt and violent clash with the surface dwellers is that the original humans are oblivious to the struggle occurring, literally, below their feet.
The main protagonists —Adelaide Wilson (played with stunning precision by Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe, Zora and Jason — are preoccupied with sports, magic tricks, and visiting the beach, enjoying a typically American summer while they remain unaware of the suffering and neglect underground. Even after Red (Nyong’o’s doppelganger) describes the vastly differences between her life underground and Adelaide's — explaining that while Adelaide was given warm meals, she was forced to eat cold and bloody rabbits — her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) remains almost humorously insensitive to her plight. He offers Red money in exchange for the release of his family. Whites have similarly attempted to disregard the damaging legacy of America’s sin in statements encouraging Blacks to “move on,” from slavery.
This encapsulates the idea that being privileged exempts a person from being aware of their own privilege. As James Baldwin noted, whites are “apathetic and ignorant” to the Black struggle because they “don’t want to know.” As a result, Black people today are forced to defend the fact that racism and white privilege exist. This white fragility mirrors the Wilson family’s own inability to empathize with the Tethered’s struggle, opting instead to protect their own privilege at all costs.
The members of the Wilson family are quite clearly set as the protagonists of the film, while the Tethered are just as equally understood to be the villains. Socially, Black men have been cast as violent, aggressive and hyper masculine, while Black women have been unable to escape the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype. In contrast, white women have long-since enjoyed a reputation as the ‘damsel in distress.’
The movie chronicles the family’s journey of escape and self-defense against what appears to be an army of senselessly violent and ruthless savages. No value or humanity is assigned to the lives of the Tethered; at one point the Wilson family playfully compare their individual “kill counts” while in competition to determine who should drive the family to safety. Although Red expressly states that the Tethered are humans too, and that they also have blood, teeth and are “just like you,” the Wilsons treat them more like video game villains, than long-suffering humans.
Both the fictional Tethered and real-life Black people have, at some point, had their very humanity promptly dismissed. The myth of inherent Black inferiority has long been used to justify slavery, which is inherently inhumane. Founding Father and former President Thomas Jefferson justified enslaving over 600 people during his lifetime through a belief that Black people were as “incapable as children.” The Dred Scott case of 1857 firmly solidified Black people as property with “no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”
The intentional decision to overlook the personhood of a group of people and ignore the value assigned to all lives is a false justification for the mistreatment of human beings.
Much like freed Black people — who were promised 40 acres and a mule after emancipation, while reparations remain under discussion 150 years later — the Tethered were not provided with any tools to facilitate their productive entrance to society. The Tethered were a lost people until Red organized a movement, which is ultimately concerned with justice and liberation.
Noticeably, the Tethered were not taught to speak following the conclusion of the experiment, and instead communicated through a series of grunts and animalistic vocalizations (with the exception of Red, whose voice is the result of unique situational violence). This presents an interesting parallel to the plight of Black people post-enslavement: because 40-60 percent of Black people (compared to 8-18 percent of whites) remained illiterate after the abolition of enslavement, literacy tests were used to disenfranchise Black voters for nearly 100 years.
Although the Tethered appear to be monstrous villains at first glance, a closer examination of their plight facilitates a larger discussion about social injustice, neglect, and liberation.
About the Author
Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.