Jordan Peele is the only director who’s got buzz. He makes money, gets Oscars, earns adoring press for his daring stories about race in America, and has a new movie out. “Us” premiered earlier this month at South by Southwest, the trendiest festival in America. But while Peele is on top of the world, it should also be clear by now that he’s not the future of Hollywood, if there is one.
The left loves Peele because he seems sophisticated and ideologically strong. These days, political movies are mostly an embarrassment. Unlike most preachy liberal films, Peele’s “Get Out” made a lot of money, so he’s assumed to be a natural for the role of a leftist culture warrior. But his stories—which he also directs and produces—suggest there’s precious little reciprocity. Peele is far to the left of liberals and I’m not sure he’s really hopeful about the identity politics of rich white progressives.
Moreover, he seems reconciled to a future in which there are no popular films, or at least none that aren’t Disney blockbusters. Peele’s a niche film-maker and there’s little evidence he even wants to reach a larger audience. It’s not impossible; we’ll have to see whether “Us” proves popular, although I doubt it will. For a horror film, it’s not particularly scary or involving, and for a movie full of metaphors, it has nothing to hold your attention, much less be memorable.
There’s bound to be a great difference between the expectations for this movie and what it actually has to offer. (Of course, without such expectations, the movie wouldn’t matter to anyone.) Peele might be wise enough not to become a celebrity champion of prestige liberalism. So far, he seems to like making cheap horror movies boosted by the undying interest in race in America. Far more than Spike Lee, his predecessor as a provocateur on race, Peele can make an entire career out of American curiosity on the issue, precisely because we all know it’s shameful and fearful to talk about.
Now, as to the movie’s merits. First, the story: An upper-middle class black family on summer vacation in California encounters copies of themselves who try to kill them. Our protagonist, played by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, soon discovers that not only is her family endangered, but everyone in America is facing their doppelgangers as well, with some even being murdered by them.
This is a variation on “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.” Don’t worry about the plot explaining why, it makes no sense. But it means something—another you is another way of life. A path not taken. Two different Americas, one literally underground, have it out in Peele’s story.
Official liberal America is represented by a bit of TV-fueled insanity from the ’80s, “Hands Across America.” Harmless as it may sound, it looks like the epitome of arrogance from Underground America, which is full of a murderous people who in some way or another have been driven to madness by their deprivation or dishonor. The more respectable official America thinks itself, the uglier underground America becomes.
The story, therefore, is a strange idea of poetic justice. Finally, all the vapid and moralistic but content upper-middle class people get their comeuppance. The normal people are in some strange way guilty of neglecting the underground, but perhaps guilty beyond that as well.
Such a story can be told now because the mood in America is certainly not peaceful these days. Everywhere you look, there are reckonings. As visions of the future collapse, and liberal triumphs in society, culture, and technology become ever shakier, more and more revelations of the evils perpetrated in America come out. All the dark secrets are exposed. The liberal civil religion, the beliefs of America since the mid-20th century—all this is under attack.
Peele understands that violence, however little of it there is, comes out of desperation today. Such conflict has no future to bring into being and no past it’s trying to preserve by overthrowing the government. Along with the ugly rhetoric in our politics, it’s essentially destructive. This version of civil war between the underground and the official version of America is personal and individual. Each man, woman, and child has to face what the doppelgangers call the shadow. It’s less about the United States than about us.
This seems to be a nod to Jungian psychology: Each man has a shadow he must integrate within himself to be a full human being—a dark, seemingly monstrous side, that complements the official version of himself. There’s a suggestion that the shadow is actually more real than what we normally understand as ourselves. The shadow is who you are when official pieties are discarded. In “Us,” the shadows are by turns nihilistic killers and the embodiment of the will to survive.
As things get violent, that violence is revealed underneath the khaki shorts and polo shirts, the golf clubs, the luxury Mercedes wagons, and all the other items money can buy. Normal America isn’t just normal.
After the terror of home invasion (especially fearful to Americans, given the importance of one’s own home and defending it), all these instruments of upper-class lives become murder weapons. Luxury itself becomes a venue for horror. Hence the sense that somehow it’s guilty. Luxury makes the rich feel invulnerable, blessed by God or chance. Peele is here to take that all away, symbolically, and force them to live with the fears the less advantaged live with.
This is not meant to solve any of America’s problems, only to reveal how Peele thinks about the confusion of our times. We have turned with great anger against all sorts of social arrangements that seem unjust. This is not making us happy and it’s not going to help us come together. It’s only going to terrify us when we realize how much really separates us, and how little we are able to live down our dark passions. At least on this level, “Us” is a persuasive document of our crisis.