CultureFilm / TV

jordan peele’s ‘us’ is a commentary on double consciousness

March 25, 2019
1.0K Picks

When a friend asks for my opinion on a cinematic adaptation or sequel, they often ask whether they need to read the source material or watch the beginning and my answer is pretty much always no. So, this is the first time I’m saying yes. To understand Jordan Peele’s latest film you should consider his previous one.

In both films, the central fear is of being replaced by imposters. In Get Out, it’s the Armitages, the Order of the Coagula and their special lobotomy that makes a Black person a passenger to their own existence. In Us, it’s a separate cult—the Tethered—no less committed to taking over the lives of their victims. This, however, isn’t insightful. It’s just observational. The real question Peele presents is how do these films—like separate blades on a pair of scissors—snap together?

In The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Du Bois presented the framework for “double consciousness”—the concept that Black folks, in particular, experience a sensation of “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” For Du Bois, Black consciousness is both haunted and hunted, on the one blade, by what white people think of us and, on the other blade, by what we think of ourselves.

Get Out examines the anxiety of that first blade. In his attempt to assimilate, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is brought beneath the Armitage home, and his very identity is almost severed. Through a nightmarish allegory, Peele gives voice to that Black fear of white surveillance (think: the stalking car in the opening sequence or the party scene with the house guests) and the silent pressure Black folks often feel in white spaces to sublimate our Blackness in order to fit in. Or, said another way, to experience existence—whether that be in the break room at work, at a regional conference, or a social gathering—as a passenger.  

Us examines the anxiety of that second blade. In the press tour for his sophomore film, Peele himself has (strategically, I think) referred to this film as “not about race” with the same assuring colorblindness as someone who insists they’d vote for Obama’s third term. In the film’s first act, this pretense is true. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family (played by Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) are a portrait of this sort of racial transcending America calls upwardly mobile Black people towards.

But, whereas the Armitages attempt to submerge Chris’ identity in their basement, Adelaide’s repressed identity (a doppelgänger) emerges from the depths. In this sense, Peele’s attempt to frame Us as “not about race” is not so much a distancing from Get Out, as it is a positioning across from Get Out.  These are the shears of double consciousness, where Black folks sit between the sharp edges of losing who we are (Get Out) or our suppressed, traumatized selves breaking free (Us).

At the beginning of the second act, Adelaide’s doppelgänger, Red, explains that she is a bizzaro version of Adelaide and has suffered in sync with Adelaide’s success. As she spoke, I began to think of Langston Hughes’s poem, I, Too:

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes.
But I laugh and eat well and grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes.

Nobody’ll dare say to me, “Eat in the kitchen” then.

Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.

I, too, am America.

It’s a poem open to interpretation. The “darker brother” might be a reference to the general experience of Black folks in America, to a sibling or to a servant. But, in either, the darker brother is a repressed identity, like Red, waiting for an opportunity to surface. In Us, Peele mirrors the darker brother’s final claim (that he, too, is America) when Adelaide asks Red who her and her haunting family are. “We’re Americans,” she replies.

It’s an answer that caused the audience I was with to laugh, and has sent some theorists to chase at political metaphors. But, for me, the clear allusion to Hughes affirmed the film’s concern with repressed identity, and by doing so brought the film into contrast with Get Out’s concern with suppressed identity. That these films work in tandem with each other.   

But, despite this, Peele seems unconcerned with providing answers. In fact, it’s not just that his films end on unresolved notes. It’s that his films expose systemic problems and walk away from them. In Get Out, the Order still exists and is presumably still kidnapping Black folks. In Us, the Tethered still exists and are presumably still murdering their counterparts. And, yet, perhaps that’s Peele’s sharpest commentary—that even after the final cut of his films, the horror of double consciousness continues uninterrupted.