Exploring the hidden meanings of ‘Us’

Jordan Peele’s sophomore film is packed with rich cultural touchstones.

This article contains spoilers for “Us.”

If you’re one of the millions who watched the Wilson family confront their murderous doppelgängers in Jordan Peele’s “Us,” your post-viewing course of action could’ve gone any number of ways. Maybe you looked distrustfully at your reflection in the movie theater bathroom mirror or became involved with lead actress Lupita Nyong’o’s 2020 Oscar campaign for portraying Adelaide Wilson and her double Red. Or — if you’re anything like me — you thought about how weird it would’ve been had the doppelgängers worn those pastel Urban Outfitters jumpsuits instead of red ones.

Regardless of what your reaction to “Us” was, it’s bound to encourage viewers to debate the many spine-tingling Easter eggs that it doles out. To save you a few rounds of Googling, MOVE has delved into the film’s recurring symbols and motifs.

About that ending

In the third act, we learn that the doppelgängers — or the Tethered, as they’re called in the movie — were products of a failed government experiment to control the American people through cloned doubles. Although the original humans’ bodies were successfully copied, the clones lacked “souls” and the ability to speak.

Government officials then abandoned the Tethered in the underground tunnels where the experiments first took place, dooming them to spend their lives copying the actions of the people they were bound to above ground.

It’s ultimately revealed that –– major spoiler alert –– the woman we’ve been following for the past two hours is actually the original Adelaide’s doppelgänger. When the young girl (Madison Curry) wandered away from her parents at a boardwalk carnival, she came face-to-face with her Tethered. Her double strangled her, tied her to a bedpost underground and took her place in the human world. Later, as an adult, the real Adelaide leads the Tethered in a revolution to kill their privileged counterparts and assume their lives. This information adds another layer of subtext to the larger themes surrounding Adelaide and Red.

’80s pop culture

A collection of VHS tapes are littered next to the TV that young Adelaide watches in the film’s first scene, including “The Goonies”(1985), “C.H.U.D.”(1984) and “The Man With Two Brains” (1983).

“The Goonies” and “C.H.U.D” both center around populations living underground, with one doppelgänger even shouting the iconic line from “The Goonies,” “It’s our time now!”

“The Man With Two Brains” quite literally refers to the idea of two people sharing a single personhood. Because “Get Out” was predicated on a white community forcing their brains into black people’s bodies, the title is also a nice wink to Peele’s first film.

1980s pop culture references can also be found in characters’ clothing. Young Adelaide wins a “Thriller” shirt right before her kidnapping. Michael Jackson is a notable influence on the Tethered uniform that she later creates — a red jumpsuit similar to Jackson’s “Thriller” music video outfit and his signature single glove. The doppelgängers themselves act like the zombies in the song, stiffly imitating the people to whom they are bound.

These inclusions are notable and controversial given that HBO’s “Leaving Neverland” — a documentary recounting two men’s childhood sexual assault allegations against the singer — premiered weeks before “Us.”

Costume designer Kym Barrett said that she had no idea how timely these Jackson references would be. She and Peele explained that they wanted to capitalize on his duality — especially since he was part of the original Adelaide’s jumbled perspective of the world she last saw at age eight.

Jeremiah 11:11

Before Adelaide’s fateful boardwalk encounter, she passes a homeless man (Alan Frazier). He’s carrying a cardboard sign with the Bible verse “Jeremiah 11:11” written on it. When she returns to the same spot around 30 years later, one of the first signs that something is amiss comes when the Wilsons see the same man being carried off on a stretcher. We later learn that he was murdered by his doppelgänger, who carved “11:11” into his forehead.

While never spoken aloud in the film, the verse 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.”

In the Bible itself, the verse refers to God warning the Jewish people that he would turn his back on them if they continued worshipping false idols. Red is driven mad with a desire to avenge the normal life that was stolen from her as a child. After observing people in the human world living in ignorant privilege, it’s clear she doesn’t believe that they deserve mercy. The mirror nature of “11:11” also speaks to the consistent duality at play in “Us.”

Rabbits

The film’s opening credits roll as the camera slowly pans out from a single rabbit’s eye, revealing an entire wall of the caged animals. Red later tells Adelaide that they were forced to survive on raw rabbit meat underground.

The rabbits might be included because they’re one of the most common species used in laboratories. Like the Tethered were created in the name of a scientific plot, these animals are often put through in corporate product testing and medical research.

Another explanation? Jordan Peele is afraid of them! The director had a pet rabbit as a child and told Uproxx that he fears “their weird glazed-over dumbness.”

Hands Across America

“Us” opens on a commercial for Hands Across America. This real-life charity event took place in 1986 and involved 6.5 million people linking hands to create a human chain across the continental United States. Intended to raise money to combat African famine and American homelessness, only $15 million of Hands Across America’s $50 million goal was actually distributed after costs.

The original Adelaide wears a Hands Across America T-shirt that remains with her once she’s trapped underground. When she grows up, her cracked-mirror view of the ‘80s culture she was first raised in reemerges as she stages a similar demonstration. After they’ve killed their human counterparts, the remaining Tethered join hands to celebrate their victory. “Us” ends with a macabre aerial shot of their human chain stretching across a California mountain range.

Peele said that he came across a Hands Across America commercial on YouTube, and was scared by its hollow Reagan-era optimism. The dark Tethered version of the event upends the Stepford-esque notion that American class inequality and systemic prejudice can be solved when we briefly put up a united front.

“The feeling that we all feel we are the good guy in our own story prevents us from facing our demons,” the director told the Los Angeles Times_. “I wanted to make a movie that allows everybody to face their demons. But as a starting point ... the United States and our xenophobia was the front and center idea to grapple with.”

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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