*Spoilers for the movie Us below:
It was all right there in the trailer.
There was Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) looking, dressing and acting like a regular degular Black mom in a car with her husband and two kids, headed to the beach. Then, Luniz’ “I Got 5 on It,” comes on the radio and she tries to get her young son Jason to…snap along with the song. “Get in rhythm,” she tells him, but sis, which one? She’s snapping on the one and the two and the three and a half. Adelaide is a fraud.
If that scene from the trailer wasn’t enough, the creepy poster reveal that dropped last month revealed the twist.
The smiling Adelaide mask is moved to the side and the doppelganger Red’s face is the one revealed beneath it, crying, in Peele’s now signature horror aesthetic.
But is Adelaide the villain or is Red? The answer depends on perspective. Just as Peele designed it, the question is really for our own introspection.When asked “who are you people?” by the humans, Red answers, “We’re Americans.” We created the monsters. The monsters are Us.
In the opening credits of Us, Peele alerts the audience to the network of abandoned, underground tunnels that exist across America. The average American resident doesn’t even know of their existence, let alone what they were designed for. Red tells the story of the U.S. government creating doppelgangers in a lab deep in the earth, for the purpose of controlling humans. It doesn’t work; the clones don’t have their own souls, so the government abandoned their experiments, leaving the doppelgangers to sludge around in these underground tunnels like zombies, eating only raw rabbits and mimicking a distorted version of the lives of their human counterparts above ground. They’re in a Sunken Place, if you will. But, not for much longer. The apocalypse has come to America, and it’s time for the doppelgangers to get their revenge on humanity for this banishment and abandonment.
But–like many a Good White Person™ might say when confronted with the responsibility of righting systemic racism–the humans are asking: Why should I have to be punished for something I didn’t even know about, let alone do?! Judgment is not always about what you specifically or even consciously do; it can also be about what you should have known, what you didn’t do, and what privileges you received at another’s expense.
Red knows all about those privileges and what the humans have done and aren’t doing. She knows and she speaks what she knows. (In an amazing performance by Nyong’o that she told Variety was based on a condition called spasmodic dysphonia) Red’s voice is startling, full of starts and stops. But it is still far more advanced than the growls of her Shadow Family and the other doppelgangers. That’s because Red is human, but she’s been out of practice speaking with others in a human voice for decades.
As a child in the ’80s, at the Santa Cruz boardwalk amusement park, all she wanted to do was to get away from her parents’ fighting for a little while. The brief joy she had when her father won her a Thriller T-shirt and proudly placed it over her boring (but symbolically important Hands Across America T-shirt), is gone once her parents devolve into arguing. Little did she know, she would never see them again.
She wanders off alone at night, past a very scary-looking white man who is holding an actual warning sign. Jeremiah 11:11 is scribbled on cardboard in the man’s hand, but lil sis must have missed Vacation Bible School because the citation doesn’t register: “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.” Whew.
Nonsensically, she leaves the boardwalk and stumbles onto the beach, in the dark, while putting up a bat signal for creeps: she whistles. At no point is she more bothered by being alone and whistling at night than she is of her parents arguing, so she keeps walking until she sees an illuminated but otherwise abandoned-looking funhouse that literally says “Find Yourself!” She.goes.in.side.!
An automated prop jumps out at her and startles her but she thinks it’s all fun and games so she keeps walking through the house of mirrors, whistling. When she finally gets scared and wants out, she’s in too deep. She runs into her doppelganger, who seizes the chance to attack. Shadow Adelaide drags Real Adelaide down into the depths where the doppelgangers live, removes her Thriller shirt and leaves Real Adelaide chained to a bunk bed in the lab, wearing her original Hands Across America shirt. Shadow Adelaide takes her place above ground.
Off-screen, Shadow Adelaide rejoins Adelaide’s parents, who have been frantically searching for her for a relatively short period of time, but everything has changed, and the parents know it right away. Believing she’s traumatized from getting lost, they eventually take her to a child psychologist to figure out why Adelaide stopped talking and is behaving so differently than before. Shadow Adelaide isn’t traumatized. She doesn’t talk because she doesn’t know how. But she learns, grows up, marries a goofy Howard man with great thighs named Gabe, and snaps offbeat.
But she knows what she’s done. She doesn’t regret taking her chance at freedom, but she fears the day when Real Adelaide might rise up from the hole in the ground, like a cloned bunny loosed from its cage, and take everything back from her. When she loses sight of her son for a few moments on the beach, she completely flips out, thinking he has been swapped out by his doppleganger.
Shadow Adelaide is right to fear, but her fear doesn’t go deep enough. It’s not until Real Adelaide-“Red” shows up outside her door with a whole gang of Shadow People, that Shadow Adelaide really starts to understand. Yes, Red has chained Shadow Adelaide to a coffee table like Shadow Adelaide had chained Red to that bed all those years ago, but it’s not just Red’s revenge she has to fear; it’s the revenge of all of the Shadow People.
Shadow Adelaide left them all behind to eat raw rabbits’ feet in the dark, while she was eating her good cooked meals with her good family in the daylight. Adelaide confessed to Gabe that she thought about her shadow self all the time, but what about the others? If she did ever think of the Shadow People, it wasn’t enough to stir her to action on their behalf.
Shadow Adelaide knew what it was like for them down there: the lack of agency, the lifelessness, the torture of being an abandoned science project. She may, in fact, be the only one in Santa Cruz who did know (though whoever constructed that funhouse has some explaining to do).
She sided with the privileged a long time ago when deciding who actually deserves humanity. Perhaps she reasoned that she was just smarter than the other Shadow People; she pulled herself up by her bootstraps! Made her own way out of hell. Why should she be responsible for the lives of the Shadow People she left behind? It’s a common thought process when people move up a rung or ten on the privilege ladder. Comfort trumps revolution.
Shadow Adelaide only hints at a bit of survivor’s remorse once the Shadow People have begun their killing. Twice she jumps out of the relative safety of her car, away from her human family, to try and reason with both of the Shadow Children, perhaps to show them that she is still one of them so they’ll stop the attacks. Since the audience doesn’t yet know that Shadow Adelaide was once one of them, when she sees Shadow Zora’s back broken over a tree limb and Real Jason making Shadow Jason back himself into flames, her tears seem just like the tears of a mom, sad over the gruesome deaths of kids who look just like her own. But no. Shadow Adelaide is grieving the kids that could have been hers, the ones she should have tried to protect from the cruelty of the Shadow World.
Instead, she walked through life like Angelenos walk through Downtown LA, over the legs of the homeless who sleep in tents on the side of the road. We all know it’s unconscionable, that the existence of homelessness is an indictment on us as a civilization. But still, we carry on, peripherally aware of the Skid Rows of the world, the uninsured ill, the systemically disenfranchised–until, of course, they say or do something to make us look up from our phones and be on our guard. Then, we can’t ignore them, so we clutch our purse, move quickly aside, maybe even call the police. But like Elizabeth Moss’s character learned the hard way (in one of the most iconic uses of NWA’s “Fuck The Police” to date!): the police aren’t coming to save you, Sharon. It’s time to settle up.
But Shadow Adelaide isn’t ready to pay the piper. She tries to tell her husband a bit of the truth so he can help her escape what’s coming just a little while longer. He initially dismisses her concerns before reluctantly agreeing to leave in the morning. But it’s too late for them all.
Again, justice is not just about deciphering who knew what and when. It’s also about how our actions, intentionally or otherwise, impact others. Jason is deeply connected to his doppelganger. On the beach, instead of building a sandcastle, Jason is building a tunnel. He’s also drawn to the funhouse but doesn’t quite seem to know why. He speaks English far too well for a doppelganger switch to have taken place, or for him to have adjusted to human life in just a year (or for an Original Jason to have devolved into a creature who walks on all fours…unless eating raw rabbit would do that to you!). And surely Shadow Adelaide would have recognized the signs of a switcher. Jason and his double seem to just be tightly bound. Perhaps his lighter won’t work because down below, he caused his mirror image to burn his own mouth off. Consequences.
Justice is also about people facing consequences for the utter lack of curiosity about what our government is doing, supposedly on our behalf. “The government is putting fluoride in the water to control us,” Zora suggests and no one bats an eyelash. Likewise, hundreds of millions of American residents had not the faintest curiosity about what was going on in the ground beneath them. So everybody’s getting got.
The Shadow People are emerging from the ground to kill their human counterparts with scissors in a bloody revolution, the Untethering that will free all Shadow People and finally give them agency — and sunlight. And, for god’s sake, cooked food. Red has been planning it all for years.
Shadow Adelaide didn’t realize it when they first got to the beach, but the creepy man with the Jeremiah 11:11 sign from Real Adelaide’s childhood might have been the first to fall in the revolution. He was dead on a stretcher in an ambulance and very bloody, like a victim of a scissor stabbing might be. But Shadow Adelaide and the human family drove on by to enjoy their day at the beach. The son Jason didn’t realize that it’s the Shadow Jeremiah 11:11 man he sees on the beach, victorious, wearing a trench coat over his revolution red uniform, standing right where Red told him to stand, in front of the infamous boardwalk funhouse. Blood dripping down his fingers, his hands are outstretched, waiting for more Shadow People to join him. He must realize he jumped the gun, though, because soon he disappears and Jason is left to wonder what exactly he saw.
But not for long. Shadow Adelaide and her human family discover that the entire country has been taken over by the Shadow People. When Red lures Shadow Adelaide back through the funhouse and down into the lab, she explains, in that long-winded way that villains exposit before they kill you, that while Shadow Adelaide was only out for self, Red is about that life.
A community organizer and a revolutionary, Red shares how she spent years plotting to overthrow the unjust system and to teach the world a lesson in the process. She gained the trust of the Shadow People when, while they were stumbling around in a trance, she gracefully danced like the ballerina she was trained to be. Who knows why it was the dancing and not her speaking English that got them to see that she was “special,” but nevertheless, they did. They laid hands on her and anointed her Red Jesus, the savior of their world. Red gave them purpose, Red gave them a window into a different life. Red gave them a choice, and a blueprint.
The blueprint was laid out in the very beginning of the film. Real Adelaide’s reflection is visible in the very ’80s commercial that she’s watching about Hands Across America. It was a real-life, 1986 charity event where people donated money ($10 each) to join a human chain, a group of people who would stand together outside at the same time, for 15 minutes, holding hands across America, essentially. The money raised was supposed to go to local charities in the participants’ cities that fought homelessness and hunger (are you getting this?!?). And the images of chains of people holding hands in every city was supposed to send a message to the world that hunger and homelessness would be eradicated. Real Adelaide remembered that message when she was banished down in the lab, and as soon as she gained their trust and became their leader, she told them how they would spread their message to the world: by killing their human counterparts and holding hands across America. Thankfully, she was wearing that handy Hands Across America T-Shirt still, so she had a visual to show them.
She’s also pretty good with scissors and construction paper…
News reports of the people in red jumpsuits with scissors holding hands on land and literally in the sea were already spreading when Shadow Adelaide and her family were trying to escape their own doppelgangers. Red’s plan was working. Unfortunately, she never saw how Hands Across America ended.
The event raised $34 million for local charities, but after “overhead fees,” less than half of the money raised actually went towards fighting homelessness and hunger. One could say, they had “five on it.” Thanks to the non-profit industrial complex—yet another system of oppression—the people in need didn’t actually get all that they were due. The event was a stunt, fleeting from the American consciousness as quickly as it had come—until a horror mastermind dredged it up as a metaphor in an iconic new film.
Similarly, the Shadow People appear, for a moment, to have won. They have taken over America. They’re holding hands through the hills and the valleys, as the three helicopters overhead are documenting it all, likely to the rest of the world. But what’s next for them? Surely they’ve been standing there longer than 15 minutes. What was part 2 of the revolution? Standing around in those hills, they look like a border wall. Wearing those red jumpsuits, they just look like redlining. That couldn’t have been the plan. Unfortunately for the Shadow People, their leader Red was too busy expositing instead of killing Shadow Adelaide, so now Red is the one who’s dead and Shadow Adelaide is Untethered.
“Didn’t your momma teach you not to play with fire?!”
But Shadow Adelaide’s relief at killing Red before Red could kill her seems short-lived. Shadow Adelaide’s son Jason actual heard his mother kill Red—and he heard his mother let out that guttural, signature scream of the Shadow People. Now Jason knows his mother’s secret. And the evil grin she gives her son as the whole family drives away from the wreckage of Santa Cruz, suggests she knows he knows.
But what will Jason do with this secret? Shadow Jason wore a mask because his mouth was burnt shut; he didn’t have a choice but to keep quiet about what he knew. (And what did he know?! Did he know Red was a human? When Shadow Adelaide was teaching her son to snap offbeat, was Red lighting up her son’s mouth to keep him quiet?! Dammit, Jordan Peele!!)
Jason’s mouth, on the other hand, is undamaged. But after making eye contact with his creepy mother, he drops his mask slowly over his face. Perhaps, it’s his way of showing he accepts his shadow self, and his scary ass momma too. They are a part of each other, after all. Perhaps he puts on the mask for protection against her, and he’s crying behind it, like Red is in the film’s poster, knowing things could never be the same between them. Either way, it’s evident that he’s keeping his mouth shut.
And the cycle of deadly silence continues.
Brooke Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.