Saturday, April 27, 2019

It’s Us, But Who Are We? – A Polysemic Reading of Jordan Peele’s Us (2019)

After writing up my non-spoilery thoughts on Jordan Peele's Us here after a first viewing, I finally got around to rewatching Us the other day (just in time to avoid the crowds for Avengers: Endgame).  So, now I'm finally ready to write a proper review.

Or am I?  Is this the kind of movie that one could simply review and then get on with other things?  I doubt it.  I can't say a second viewing answered all my questions.  If anything, it left me with more.  But what if that's precisely what makes this such a great film?  After all, one of my all-time favorite films is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that's a film that leaves me more puzzled every time I see it (also more astounded and amazed and transformed...).

A lamentable trend in recent years has been a proliferation of "[blank] explained" websites.  Maybe you're even reading this because you googled "Us explained"...  There's nothing wrong per se with seeking out some food for thought on a movie, but I balk at this idea that there's some "secret code" or a single fundamental explanation for great works of art.  Part of what makes Us such a great movie is precisely that is can't be reduced to a single explanation.

To illustrate this point, let me give four separate (but importantly: not mutually exclusive) explanations for Us.  At one point in the movie, Jason says of the doppelgängers (i.e., the "tethered"), "It's us."  But who is this "us"?  That's what I'm going to try to explain.

(Readers looking for a more traditional plot summary type of review should look here, here, or here.  You could also read about composer Michael Abels's excellent score or a biblical perspective on the movie with reference to that Bible verse that shows up a few times.  Or here's a fun, fanciful fan theory.)

My task of explaining who "us" refers to is unfortunately going to involve spoilers. Unforgivable spoilers.  Normally I think people are far too worried about spoilers, but Us has some important surprises.  I'm glad I didn't know where it was going the first time I saw it, and I'm just as glad I did the second time so I could look for new things.  I'm also going to assume that you have a basic working knowledge of the plot, which is mostly pretty well explained in the movie.

So, let me reiterate: SPOILER ALERT!  IN A MAJOR WAY.  


No, seriously.  Major spoilers ahead!


Really, you've been warned about the spoilers...

Us = Inner Duality

This is probably the most straightforward explanation (if "straightforward" is a word that can be applied to Us).  Freudian and Jungian versions of this explanation have already appeared here and here.  The basic idea is that the duality represented by the "tethered" (remember the spoilers!) is really the fundamental duality within each of us.  So "us" is, well, us.

Beyond Freud and Jung, you could find plenty to think about in Plato's Republic with the tripartite soul or in the Phaedrus with the battle between reason and appetite.  Or you might think of Buddhist visions of conflicts between desires like greed, hatred, and delusion as the causes of suffering versus the quest for extinguishing suffering or in later Mahāyāna traditions the idea of Buddha nature.  Or perhaps a dualist chord is struck in the Sāṃkhya tradition of classical India, which is the philosophical basis of Yoga (whether the shareholders of Lulu Lemon would admit it or not).  In Sāṃkhya, our suffering is the result of the "tethering" of the material and spiritual aspects of our being (although, oddly for most of us, the "material" includes almost everything we'd think of as our minds and personalities).  The great debate between Mencius and Xunzi in Classical Chinese philosophy also in its own way is about a duality within human nature: does our nature push us toward good or evil, and how does our answer to that question determine how we cultivate ourselves to become better people?  There is also, a bit closer to home, W. E. B. Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness.

So, maybe the tethered are us, or at least part of us.  They represent something atavistic, unspeaking (except for Red), lurking within us all.  And if we don't control them, they will be our undoing.

But...  but... as satisfying as this explanation may be, I think the film is more complicated than this.  The tethered may be murderous, but they are not entirely beyond reason.  From some perspectives perhaps their actions even make a great deal of sense.  And I don't get the idea that, as terrifying as the tethered may be, that Peele wants us to completely revile them.  It's deeper and more complex than that.

Us = US Underclass

A clue to another reading comes in one of the scariest parts of the film.  When Adelaide asks her double Red who they are, Red responds in her unsettling, raspy voice, "We are Americans."

One way to read this is to think about the fact that for every American like me (middle class with access to food, education, medical care, etc., with time and money to see movies and write blog posts about them) there is some other American who is not so lucky.  There are the documented or undocumented immigrant laborers who do the hardest agricultural work as well as the urban and rural poor who do low-paying service and manufacturing jobs with few labor protections, not to mention the 2.2 million Americans who are imprisoned in the country with the highest incarceration rate of any country on Earth.

On this explanation, the most horrific and unsettling message of Us is that "us" is the U.S. -- those Americans like me with the time and money to see a movie like Us have lives that are literally made possible by the suffering of other Americans.  Each person in that theater in America is tethered to some other American, maybe the teenager working concessions in the lobby, maybe an undocumented construction worker, a young person in prison on drug charges, an unemployed mother or father trying to feed their family, a senior citizen scraping by on a fixed income after a lifetime of labor.

Yet... yet... as deep and as unsettling as this explanation is it seems to ignore that fact that we live in a global economy.  The computer on which I type this or the phone on which you are reading this are a global matter.

Us = Global Poor

This explanation is maybe just a broader version of the previous explanation.  I'm not sure.  But it feels different to me.  A postcolonial reading has been given here, one that also blends into the first and second explanations by focusing on Franz Fanon's ruminations on postcolonial identity.  I'm also thinking of Spivak's famous article "Can the Subaltern Speak?" as a way to make sense of the fact that none of the tethered actually speak, except for Red (and we learn at the end -- I did warn you about the spoilers! -- that she was not always an underground dweller...).

Just as there are Americans who make the life of someone like me possible, so are there people across the world who do the same: cobalt miners in central Africa, tech factory workers in East Asia, garment makers in South Asia, agricultural workers in Mexico and Central America... to give just a few examples.  And there are more than 700 million human beings living in extreme poverty (living on less than $2 a day).

However ... however... disturbing and accurate as all this seems, it seems to miss something about Us.  While Us is not as explicitly about race in America as Peele's previous film Get Out was, the application of Du Boisian double-consciousness in the first explanation does seem to point to something...

Us = Ancestors

Many people (such as Tananarive Due) have pointed out that one great thing about Us is that it focuses on a black family, but without making their blackness the explicit focus of the story.  Black families go on vacation, too, and (at least in this movie) fight off horrific doppelgängers and uncover bizarre underground dwellings.  The family definitely is an African-American family, but this is no feel-good or feel-bad story about overcoming racism in the past or present.  They are allowed to be full human beings, with the range of complications and dualities that that implies for everyone else.

But as Due and other guests on a recent episode of Geek's Guide the the Galaxy pointed out, the Wilsons survive much better than their white friends, which may be Peele's way of inverting the horror trope according to which black people always die first or sacrifice themselves for their white companions.  I'm also not the first person to point out that there may be something about being black in America that makes survival in difficult times more likely.

And here's where another thought occurs to me: just as those of us of any race who live at a certain standard owe our existence to those tethered to us socio-economically, so do African-American descendants of generations of enslaved and oppressed human beings live today because of the suffering of their ancestors.  This suffering itself need not be seen as redemptive in any sense (I tend to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates on that point), but perhaps it does equip even relatively affluent people like the Wilsons with a certain mind-set conducive to survival.  This is maybe a deeper reading of Adelaide's knowing uneasiness when the tethered first show up, aside from the surface explanation of the major spoiler involving her character's history (this was something I watched for intently upon my second viewing, and you can definitely see it if you know to look for it... bravo to Lupita Nyong'o, too... she better win some awards!).

(The converse of all this, of course, is that white Americans today enjoy wealth and privilege at the expense of previous generations of black Americans).  

I haven't completely worked out this explanation, but maybe a way to think through it would be via the haunting treatment of the relation between the horrors of American history and the present found in Octavia Butler's novel Kindred.

But... but... of course I don't mean to say this is the explanation of Us.  It leaves out too much that the other explanations explore.

A Polysemic Reading?

Forgive me, dear reader, for using such a pretentious word as "polysemic."  It's a word I like very much, but it just means something like "having multiple meanings."  There's something funny about having "a" polysemic reading as if it could be both one and many at the same time, but I'm going to lean into that, not only because I find such self-referential tensions hilarious, but because I think it makes the best sense of how one film like Us could simultaneously contain multiple meanings and explanations.  To reduce it to merely one explanation, as so many claim to do, is to do violence to the film as a work of art.

I hope to have demonstrated with my little exercise that Us can be looked at in many different ways at the same time.  And this is what makes it such a great and interesting work of art (I would like to claim that much the same could be said about great works of philosophy, too, but I will refrain from doing so lest my fellow philosophers accuse me of making philosophy insufficiently "rigorous").

Whatever Us is really about, whether you favor one of the above explanations or another one, it’s safe to say one thing: it’s about us.

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