Pathologies of the poor in Us (U.S.)

Spoilers ahead.

At a key plot juncture in Jordan Peele’s Us, the Wilsons – headed by Adelaide and Gabe – are seated alongside kids Zora and Jason, having been violently confronted by their scissors-wielding doppelgängers. Responding to the natural question of who are you/what do you want, Adelaide’s croaky twin (titled “Red” in credits) answers: “We are Americans.”

Without any need for explication (and there isn’t, thanks be), this line directs us to what is a foundationally American story – the story of a vilified “underclass” (this time, in the very literal sense of the word) and the cultural narratives of individual merit and pathology that have been propped up to justify that position. Hands Across America, a Reagan-era campaign launched in 1986 to address national hunger and homelessness through non-profit fundraising and awareness, is featured in the film’s opening shot – a publicity stunt at odds with what was otherwise a vocally anti-welfare administration. This context foregrounds the plot of film: a story of the so-called “tethered” rising out from their underground existence to find and kill their above-ground counterparts. The tethered, until now, have been banished to a life of mechanically enacting the movements of those above, stripped down to an empty performance without any of the accompanying material enjoyments of a middle-class life.

As with the urban renewal efforts and dispersal of public housing under the HOPE VI project under Clinton in 1990s, the visible signifiers of poverty were moved to the “underground,” diffused and discarded in the interests of private capital – to such an extent that the demolition of these units, and the communities they contained, radically outpaced the promised construction of mixed-income housing at the time. Beyond that, these efforts were backed culturally by a behavioralist vision of poverty as earned, not produced – an outgrowth of one’s own personal and moral failures to overcome the adversity and challenges inherited through generations of disadvantage. Achievement is ahistorical and something singularly tied to the efforts of the individual, even when those efforts are narrowly circumscribed by circumstance (i.e., living in a sparse underground dungeon with nothing but rabbits to feed on and the routines of other lives to observe).

Driving this allegory home is the final twist at the end of Us, when Adelaide is revealed to be one of the original tethered, having abducted and traded places with Red as a child. This revelation turns on its head the question of what is earned vs. what is structurally conditioned. Young Adelaide, new to the world above, is encouraged to dance, sing, and create, all backed by the privilege and opportunities afforded by a middle-class life. Red, meanwhile, is raised among the tethered, eventually emerging as a figurehead of the rebellion and a voice for injustice. In light of this, what makes Red a tethered person is not pathology – the individual failings to “rise up” so to speak – but rather the narrow passage of options and constraints that have shaped and constricted her life in the underground.

The thematic subtext of Us is only amplified by the successes of Peele’s debut film, Get Out, where he unpacks racism and exploitation of black bodies with a keen eye to another slate of issues so deeply unsettling, but largely unspoken, in the States. Allegory is not objective; part of what I love about film is being able to find an intersection between art, social commentary, and interpretation. It causes you to think, render your own judgement, and hopefully grow from it – not to absorb one meaning. Subtly blended commentary on homophobia, the surveillance state, and McCarthyism, among other things, is part of what made me fall in love with Hitchcock (but that’s for another post).

So that is all to say that these are only my thoughts – perhaps an appropriate disclaimer for my first blog post.

What I see in Us is a gesture towards society’s collective ownership over individual outcomes, and the pure fallacy of rugged individualism as a principle to live by. As such, we all bear the consequences of an unjust world.

Many movie-goers leaving the theater this past weekend were probably quick to look up biblical passage cited throughout Us, Jeremiah 11:11, which reads:

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.

Interpret as you will.

2 thoughts on “Pathologies of the poor in Us (U.S.)

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