The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Claire Jesson.

Photo from the article My ‘alternate take’ on Jordan Peele’s Us aims to show that it tells a story about Trump’s America by means of its visual design. Like all thrillers, Us achieves its effects by deploying narrative twists and turns and by manipulating time to create a sense that all is far from right with the world on screen. I will therefore begin by giving a plot synopsis which is as brief as I can make it, but which is pertinent to the later discussion. The latter two thirds of the review will be an analysis of iconography, colour and politics. Within that I will examine the motif of the human chain and the use of red. Both this motif and red intersect in representations of the Reagan era and of the present day. I will argue that Us intimates that 1980s’ America was the crucible in which that of Trump was forged.


Us centres around the Californian city of Santa Cruz, which is where a young Adelaide - on a visit to a funfair with her parents in 1986 - is drawn towards a hall of mirrors where she not only sees herself in multiple but meets an ‘identical twin’ or doppelganger. We cut from this encounter as we comprehend its traumatic nature. We learn later that Adelaide is reunited with her parents after this, but that the event left her temporarily mute and in need of therapy.

We skip forward from 1986 to the present day in which Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is an adult with a family of her own - the Wilsons - who are on their way to vacation at their Santa Cruz holiday home. On the first night there, after she has put the children to bed, her son reports that there is a family standing in front of the house. Despite husband Gabe’s (Winston Duke) increasingly irritable and fraught attempts to ascertain what the family wants and to compel them to leave, they force their way in. The intruders are identical to the Wilsons except that they are dressed in red boiler suits and are mute - with the exception of Adelaide’s double who speaks in a wheezing rasp. In the action that ensues, it becomes clear that the Wilsons’ doubles are out to kill them. It also emerges that people are simultaneously being murdered by their doubles all over America in what seems to be the collective uprising of a mysterious zombie-like race.

The Wilsons’ attempts to escape eventually lead them back to the Santa Cruz hall of mirrors, which is still there more than 30 years later. When Adelaide enters for the second time in pursuit of her son, who has been taken by her double, we discover that the hall of mirrors is the point of access to a kind of underground prison that accommodates a legion of the ‘twins’ of those who live above ground. Adelaide’s double, who is called Red, tells her that these underground people are known as the Tethered, and that they were created by the US government as an experiment to control the public. When the experiment failed, the Tethered were abandoned and had nothing to do but to mimic their above-ground counterparts until Red organised their escape.

Adelaide prevails by killing Red and rescuing her son from Red’s clutches. As the reunited Wilsons drive away from a devastated Santa Cruz, Adelaide thinks back to her original encounter with her double in 1986. In this flashback a plot twist is revealed: Red dragged Adelaide down to the dungeon and handcuffed her so she couldn’t escape while she (who was taken for the traumatised Adelaide) was ‘reunited’ with Adelaide’s parents and lived Adelaide’s life instead. This means that the ‘Adelaide Wilson’ of the present day was originally one of the Tethered, and ‘Red’ is none other than the original Adelaide trying to reclaim that life she had before Red confined her to the underground realm. In one of the final shots of the movie, ‘Adelaide’/Red looks across at her son who eyes her apprehensively. She smiles conspiratorially at him as if to confirm his suspicions about her true origins and identity.


The first image of the America of 1986 is that of a TV. The programme playing is a report on Hands Across America. Staged in 1986, Hands Across America encapsulates the sort of charity-as-spectacle event that seemed to gain traction across the West in the mid-1980s with phenomena such as Band Aid, USA for Africa and Live Aid. Hands Across America was seemingly a patriotic charity-begins-at-home spasm that is acknowledged as having been triggered by earlier events in aid of famine-struck Africa. The diegetic TV report shows sections of a human chain of Americans which, it was hoped, would span the US mainland from coast to coast, with participants donating money to the cause of ameliorating domestic poverty.

Us references a second pop-cultural happening of the 1980s: Michael Jackson’s Thriller, a song (from the best-selling album of the same name) accompanied by an extended music video featuring Vincent Price’s voiceover. Surely the immediate mental image most would conjure of the Thriller video is of Jackson leading serried ranks of zombies, who have emerged from the bowels of the earth, in a dance formation in which their direct address, as they thrust rhythmically towards us, implies that they’re coming for us. Little Adelaide is only too glad to wear the T-shirt her father wins for her, which bears the Thriller logo of dripping blood and an image from the video. She sports it as she proceeds from the hoopla, through the funfair, and towards the hall of mirrors where she, as we find out much later, is pulled down into the Hades where the Tethered languish.

In the present day ‘Red’/Adelaide and her family of jumpsuited doubles first appear outside the Wilsons’ holiday home as a chain of four as they hold hands and are black human shapes silhouetted against the streetlight behind them so as to plunge distinguishing facial features in shadow. As a black formation they visually invert the Hands Across America logo, which is a white human chain, again in outline only, against a background of the shape of the American landmass which is coloured red and blue as well as white. When the Wilsons’ doubles are seen at closer quarters, their visual uniformity continues in the red jumpsuits they wear. Due, in part, to images of Guantanamo Bay and TV shows like Orange Is the New Black, the prison jumpsuit - albeit orange rather than red - has formed an iconography of incarceration redolent of the United States. The pair of handcuffs ‘Red’ uses to restrain ‘Adelaide’ is yet another representation of the chain or the tether as it relates to detention. We are later apprised that handcuffs are the means the original Red uses to detain Adelaide in the realm of the Tethered. The underground environment of the Tethered is very much one of a detention centre in which people’s sleeping quarters are cell-like dormitories with rows of bunkbeds. The inhumanity of incarceration is compounded by the presence, in the same space, of row upon row of hutches detaining single rabbits in solitary confinement.

Tethering has a historical dimension. One thinks of the chain gang, which is, once again, a feature of American criminal justice and was a practice - particularly prevalent in the southern states - in which prisoners were chained together to perform menial tasks as part of a punishment regime. It was a continuation of slavery-related practices. Us prefers to foreground connections between the respective eras of Reagan and Trump in its suggestion of how the past influences the present, yet its iconography of incarceration is deeply historically rooted.

Us ends on an aerial shot of another human chain: the ‘hands across America’ formed by the red-suited Tethered, almost as if instinctively. This spectacle makes an overt political statement. This final chain isn’t simply the counterpoint to the Hands Across America of the beginning of the film but its counterpart. In other words, while 1986’s Hands ostensibly celebrates American generosity of spirit, patriotism, virtue at the individual and collective levels and unity of purpose, it simultaneously writes large America’s being founded on, and its perpetuating, the systematic exclusion of increasing numbers of its people. Thus the chain formed by the Tethered makes a spectacle of what 1986’s chain both reveals and attempts to conceal: not just gross inequality but its widespread acceptance. 1986’s Hands is a paradoxical attempt at disavowal. It stages a charitable spectacle in order to deny the reality of a system which is historically based upon inequality in its most extreme form: that of slavery. In order to do so it ‘chains’ people together.

The framing of Us with the two large-scale human chains also suggests that the final chain, which is constituted by an underclass that has risen up, is somehow rooted in the first. It seems to me that what links them is the doctrine espoused by Ronald Reagan, whose presidency spanned most of the 1980s. He believed that government existed to facilitate the activities of business, particularly big business. He wanted to extricate government from its responsibility to provide or foster social programmes that might be funded by taxing those classes he saw it as his mission to help instead. ‘Red’ explicitly tells ‘Adelaide’ that the US government abandoned the Tethered when their experiment failed. This element of the plot echoes Reagan’s keenness that government relinquish what might previously have been regarded as its domain: its provision of a safety net for the poorest in society. The consequence is that the poor, when not ignored, become increasingly dependent on charity. That Reagan himself took part in Hands Across America isn’t the paradox it might seem to be. It tacitly acknowledges, perhaps even blatantly states, that government ought no longer to seek to support the poor through social spending. Thirty years later, Donald Trump’s election was a kind of logical, and somewhat poetic, conclusion to what was started in the 1980s given that Trump’s ‘qualification’ to lead America wasn’t a track record of public service but, rather, his being its best known CEO and the poster child for the primacy of corporate interests.

As the above analysis already suggests, red is a prominent part of the design of Us and is expressive in a number of ways. As young Adelaide drifts further away from her parents and towards the hall of mirrors, her mechanistic - almost zombie-like - trance is heightened by the shiny red toffee apple she holds aloft like a torch but then suddenly drops on the sand as she is compelled to enter. The red of the toffee apple isn’t the luminescent scarlet of Coca-Cola’s branding or of the stars and stripes. It is the darker hue of blood. The Thriller logo and the iconic leather jacket Michael Jackson wears in the video use a similar darker red. The werewolf mask worn, in the present day, by the Wilsons’ son is another allusion to Thriller, a breakthrough moment in Jackson’s career which encapsulates different perspectives on the 1980s. (The same boy also wears a ‘dickie-bow and dinner jacket’ T-shirt that also evokes one of Jackson’s signature ensembles.) For me, as someone who grew up in that decade, the lustre of childhood nostalgia is heightened by icons such as Jackson and spectacles like Live Aid. (As I’m British, my first acquaintance with Hands Across America was through Us.) Yet Jackson, who ascended to worldwide pop-cultural domination in the ’80s with Thriller, represents a dual aspect of that time even before allegations of child abuse raise other questions about who he might have been. Thriller not only shows his obvious genius as a performer and impresario of the spectacular, it simultaneously, if playfully, raises ambiguities around whether he is all he seems. He represents a mode of excess that, in itself, seems to signal its hollowness, if not a sinister underbelly, even as it proclaims its confidence. This was the spirit of the 1980s: grand gestures that become akin to whistling in the dark in order to dispel the unease - perchance about growing divisions in society - that one senses in spite of the ballyhoo. Though Adelaide whistles her way through the hall of mirrors, disaster isn’t averted.

It need hardly be stated that blood-red predominates in the scenes in which the Wilsons’ white friends - the Tylers - are brutally stabbed to death by their doubles. When the Wilsons attempt to find sanctuary from their own would-be murderers with the Tylers, they are then besieged by the Tylers’ doubles instead. Though the Tylers try to summon the police, they fail to arrive. Yet for a time one imagines that if the police turned up, they would be greeted by the sight of strewn and bleeding white corpses presided over by a group of blood-soaked, but essentially unharmed, black ‘intruders’. Us thus shows us a crimson spectacle that plays on racial stereotypes and underpins the paranoid fantasies of the wealthy. The Tethered, who are multi-racial in that they are the doubles of all those exist above ground, represent a middle-class nightmare: that another group could prise what they have away from them.

The Tylers’ glass-fronted home is undoubtedly grander and more impressive than that of the Wilsons. This subtly signals something of a disparity of wealth between the middle-class families that conforms to the notion of African-American advancement being somewhat curbed even in more elevated circles. Gabe Wilson’s seeming fixation with his newly acquired speedboat hints at a preoccupation with status symbols. Both the black Wilsons and their wealthier white counterparts are attacked. This suggests that although race is one of the structural factors of inequality, the problem transcends race as well: all are victims. This is expressed in visual terms over the course of the scenes in which ‘Adelaide’ kills several of the white doubles. Her white shirt is spattered with their blood so that her appearance echoes that of ‘Red’. The blood-red garments of both women allude to the human cost of a society which locks many out of prosperity while measuring people’s worth in terms of their capacity to partake in consumerism.

In the final scenes of the movie, the ambulance the Wilsons commandeer as their means of escape provides another way in which dark red is present. This is no doubt an ironic comment on the likelihood of their survival as the line of the Tethered is revealed to form a deep red scar across the ‘flesh’ of the Californian desert.

Jeremiah 11:11 is quoted several times. Firstly, the seriality of 1111 echoes the human chain in visual terms. Chillingly, the relevant biblical verse is, ‘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’. The Republican party’s colour is a slightly lighter and more garish red than the ketchup-red that visually inscribes blood and, by extension, human suffering into the world of Us. Yet, as I have tried to show, red nonetheless both characterises, and forges a link between, the Republican eras of the present and of the 1980s. As 2020 approaches, and the prospect of Trump’s second term heaves into view (supported, to a significant extent, by a religious right adherent to the god of Jeremiah), it seems to me that Us is a plea for a government that won’t abandon, or worsen the lot of, the people it is elected to serve.

This Alternate Take was published on April 12, 2019.

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