Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) opens with an uncanny barrage of hidden histories and slippery signifiers.
The film begins with a title card informing audiences that a vast network of underground tunnels stretch beneath the United States. Some are disused subways and others abandoned mines, but most of these tunnels’ purpose remain unknown to the average person. From the onset, Us makes us consider the relationship between the known, visible aboveground and the unknown, invisible underground.
The concept of “underground” is not a neutral geographic designation. With the commercial and critical success of Get Out(2017) and Key & Peele (2012–2015), Peele has established himself as one of the most important contemporary cultural producers interrogating the meanings of black identity, culture, and history.
The underground history referenced by the title card suggests a cultural network of underground narratives so prominent in African-American history, including the underground railroad, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1961), Amiri Baraka’s The System of Dante’s Hell (1965), Thelonious Monk’s Underground (1968), and Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s concept of “the under commons“.
The spatial relation between the visible aboveground and hidden underground may initially suggest the central metaphor of Get Out, the sunken place. But Peele is perhaps even more ambitious in Us. In conjunction with making us think relationally between the aboveground and underground, he also makes us think about the relations between the past and present.
After the unsettling text about subterranean geographies and histories repressed by the US everyday, Peele shuttles us to the past. Or rather, a simulacrum of the past.
More specifically, Peele takes us back to 1986. This journey back in history is a mass-mediated endeavor filtered through popular culture. The first visual we see after the title card is a rabbit-eared television surrounded by VHS tapes from the ’80s, includingDouglas Cheek’s C.H.U.D. (1984), Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985), and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The various VHS tapes framing the television set invite the audience to critically think about the relationship between these cultural texts and the narrative unfolding.
Before terrifying us, Peele overwhelms us with cultural signifiers.
In the first few moments, Peele asks us to think relationally between the aboveground and underground; present and past; and between pop-cultural signifiers. This aesthetic affect of cognitive overload is one of the signatures of postmodernism. In his canonical study, Fredric Jameson defines postmodernism as the “attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten to think historically in the first place” (Postmodernism ix). Postmodern culture comes into being when capitalism saturates and determines all institutions and discourses. When capitalism colonizes all of social life, history becomes forgotten; or to use Peele’s metaphor-concept, history becomes repressed in the vast underground network beneath the American everyday.
Postmodernism, as defined by Jameson, is the cultural dominant of late capitalism, and it’s postmodernism, I want to suggest, that defines the aboveground history of Us. The aboveground world of Us is a postmodern simulacrum. In the dominant aesthetic mode, signifiers circulate and collide in “pure and random play” in which both “reference and reality disappear” (Jameson 96).
In the first few scenes, we are inundated with popular culture references freely circulating: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Jaws, Black Flag, The Right Stuff, A Nightmare on Elm Street… As Us suggests, the untethering of signifiers from their referents has profound and pernicious ramifications. Especially when it pertains to race relations.
Us centers on an African American family that has ostensibly become at home in a world of “Whiteness” and wealth. When the movie begins, the Wilson family, led by Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), drive to their second home on an exclusive lake in Santa Cruz.
Monáe’s work is proudly and explicitly in the tradition of Afro-futurism, a progressive genre that imagines the future with African Americans occupying the narrative center. An argument can be made that the Wilsons have achieved this progressive goal. After all, they are at the narrative center and occupy a space historically defined as White. But Peele’s brilliant filmmaking undercuts this reductive interpretation. When they arrive at their lake house, Gabe kills the engine and the song abruptly stops, signaling the wide distance between the promise of Monáe’s critical project and the Wilson’s narrative of upward economic mobility.
In this world of Whiteness and wealth, African American signifiers are everywhere, but in postmodern fashion, these signifiers randomly play, untethered from their historical, material conditions.
This cultural untethering is perhaps most explicit late in the movie when we enter the Tyler household, a space of conspicuously wealth and Whiteness. Not only is the family white but nearly everything in the house is white as well. In this space, Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) pleads for her Alexis-like device to call “911”. The device responds by playing N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police“. This song is a radical critique of police brutality and systemic racism and simultaneously, a form of black resistance and empowerment. However, as exemplified by this scene, it has become a free-floating signifier that can play on any streaming device in any context.
In the aboveground America, there are African American signifiers everywhere, yet they are deracinated from their referent. Racial untethering is the norm in wealthy, white America.
The Wilson family is proudly black and their black identity is displayed everywhere. Gabe Wilson, for example, wears a Howard University sweatshirt throughout the movie. However, rather than signify a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), in this white world, this signifier is free-floating and substitutable with any other college or university. It circulates without impinging on the dominant narrative of Whiteness and wealth. This same logic applies to the myriad references to black culture and history throughout Us.
The central conceit of Us is that everyone has a shadowy double living in the underground tunnels. These doppelgängers are dressed in jumpsuits that resemble prison uniforms. However, rather than signify the prison industrial complex that functions as a “new Jim Crow“, these jumpsuits become free-floating signifiers of horror.
The signifiers of systemic racism and systemic economic exploitation are everywhere, but subjects successfully interpellated by postmodernism are enculturated not to read these signifiers in their historical, material context. Us urges audiences to untether themselves from the mass-mediated postmodern machine that gives us “history”—aboveground history—while simultaneously keeping us in the dark about the repressed, underground history that implicates us all.
In the opening scene, the anachronistic television plays a prominent commercial from 1986, “Hands Across America“, advertising the coming spectacle of millions of Americans holding hands and forming a human chain that will stretch from sea to shining sea. “Hands Across America” was founded and spearheaded by Ken Kragen who, a year earlier, helped organize dozens of celebrity performers to record “We Are the World” in an effort to combat hunger in Africa. Similarly, “Hands Across America” would create a televisual spectacle that was supposed to generate tens of millions of dollars to combat hunger and homelessness in the US. Pervasive structural violences endemic to capitalism, according to this logic, would be alleviated through private donations generated by a televisual spectacle of national unity.
This is postmodern America, simulacra America, which Peele suggests remains the America reigning today.
“Hands Across America” was an exceedingly expensive spectacle that was supposed to signify that a united nation-state could overcome anything. More than six million people joined hands on 25 May 1986, creating a human chain that stretched across the continental US. Despite being “good television” though, this national symbol of unity and hope proved hollow. While the objective was to raise $100 million, the organization only raised $34 million; and only $15 million was distributed due to the high cost of organization and advertising. To highlight how paltry $15 million dollars is to fight hunger and homelessness in the US, when Us opened in US markets on 29 March 2019, it grossed a whopping $29 million in one day and in its opening weekend, it grossed $70 million in US ticket sales.
“Hands Across America” was a colossal failure. By including the commercial into his film and including the television in the opening frame after the title card, highlighting how the medium is the message, Peele foregrounds how postmodern culture remains the dominant culture.
On a narrative level, the horror of Us is that we all have shadowy doubles called “The Tethered”, armed with scissors seeking to sever the ties between the aboveground and underground doppelgängers. These scissors uncannily resemble the rabbit ears of a television set that opens the movie.
The horror of Us is that such an untethering has already happened. Signifiers are untethered from their referents. We live in a culture in which cultural signifiers bombard us randomly and chaotically, masking the historical, material horrors of capitalism and racism.
To untether signifiers from their referents, Us suggests, is a form of US capitalism and US racism.