I don’t really care about arguing with people about the quality of the movie “Us” and if you need a certain level of intelligence to understand it or that the movie went platinum with no features. What Jordan Peele has been able to accomplish in just two movies is an expectation that his projects will offer fans enough themes, motifs and double meanings to leave us talking for days and weeks after we step foot outside of the theater.
Just like with “Get Out,” I find myself revisiting so many scenes from “Us” to unpack what is being said. Peele never has just one theme for his movies and there’s never one exact allegory, but there’s a lot to unpack in “Us” in regard to how the movie comments on the failures of the American education system, nature vs. nurture, imposter syndrome and neurodiversity. I honestly couldn’t pinpoint just one subject I wanted to tackle so I wanted to touch on some of those themes and unpack them.
- American Education, upward mobility and nature vs nurture: If “Us” was directed by anyone but Jordan Peele, whose knack for creating metaphors and visual double entendres has become legendary already in his young career, then it would be easy to ignore the setting for the movie’s climactic fight scene between Lupita Nyong’o‘s character Adelaide and her clone, Red (or vice versa). But since it’s Peele, then there must be meaning in the fight starting in an empty classroom — where Red monologues about being fed scraps and having to rise up beyond a system that wanted her to stay ignored and ignorant — and ending in a room full of juvenile-detention style bunk beds. The fight then created a visual school-to-prison pipeline before our eyes and culminated in Red dying, chained to the same space that imprisoned her as a child.
In order to understand the film’s commentary on education and social mobility, we have to first look at the ending. As we learn right before the credits roll, the tethered version of Adelaide switched with the above-ground girl when they were both elementary school age. When revisiting the movie with that revelation in mind, we see a statement being made on nature vs. nurture and how our environments can determine the people we eventually become. When Red is moved from her subordinate position in life through a glitch in the matrix, she is able to achieve a middle-class living and the “American dream.” Conversely, when Adelaide is taken from her familial upbringing and moved to the underground slums with poor nutrition, no education and a limited form of communication, she grows up to be a murderer.
The two women have the same intellect, same drive and same abilities, but only the one who is thrust into a family of means is able to climb the social ladder. The version of Adelaide who is moved to the tethered world as a kid reminds me of Duquan from season four The Wire, the brilliant, impoverished high school student who could have done anything he set his mind to, but succumbed to the streets and is last seen choosing to join the vagabonds of Baltimore. If only he could have switched places with a version of himself that lived in more favorable surroundings, he could have lived out his dreams.
As Red delivers her monologue about the tethered area, we get a visual tour of a place that looks like the worst school imaginable – hallways full of zombies, cafeterias where the worst food (rabbit) is served and a population that had been abandoned, written off as useless. “Abandoned,” as Red explains, much like the shut down schools across the country. The tethered underground is a structure that took a more-than-capable little girl and turned her into the worst of us. Even with years of a head start, she still falls victim to her surroundings and has to break the law to break the system. If she couldn’t stand a chance then there was no hope for those born into that system.
- Neurodiversity: Early in the movie we get a glimpse of how Adelaide’s parents coped with her new behaviors after they believe she only got lost at the carnival for a few minutes. The scene and the conversation between the parents and the therapist were strikingly familiar. On first watch, I thought that Peele might be lightly leaning into the script for neurodiversity, especially in light of the fact that Adelaide had become nonverbal. Her parents repeating phrases like “I just want my child back” are stereotypical conversations in these instances (it’s actually pretty close to a direct quote to one of those pamphlets I got when my son was diagnosed), especially given how uninformed so many parents are when they get their children’s diagnoses. (Your child is still your child, of course). Then, on the second watch, I noticed a new detail: Adelaide was lining up toys as her parents were talking to the therapist. For decades, the idea of children “obsessively organizing” or “lining up toys” had been associated with an early sign of autism (though, thankfully, research has evolved beyond this for the most part). There’s also the fact that Lupita admitted to tapping into a neurological disorder called spasmodic dysphonia to create her now-iconic voice. There’s just too much there to say we are not looking at neurodiversity as a prominent theme. Now, I don’t think Peele is making “Us” a movie about autism, but I think he uses the concept of neurodiversity to show how Adelaide is forcing herself to blend into society. People with autism, women especially, often find themselves having to camouflage their diagnoses in order to fit in and follow societal norms. (Add in the fact that Blacks and Latinos are often misdiagnosed and overlooked when it comes to neurological differences and the fact the therapist dismissed Adelaide’s behaviors as PTSD, too). Adelaide’s camouflaging became apparent in the first beach scene when she is mimicking the inflections of conversation with her white counterpart before admitting that she has trouble communicating. So why is this important? Often the behavior of fitting in and blending with society can be taxing psychologically, the stress of suppressing stimming, for instance, or forcing themselves to make eye contact adds to their stress levels and anxiety. It really is a vehicle to show how difficult it had been for Adelaide to blend in with society after coming up from the tethered world.
“Us” is the manifestation of imposter syndrome, a phrase coined in 1978 by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes that revolves around the idea that no matter how much one has accomplished in school, in corporate America and beyond, there’s a feeling that they don’t belong. “They consider themselves to be ‘impostors.’ …in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”
The syndrome is treated as a psychological issue that’s self-inflicted with women, but with Black women it’s outside forces that constantly tell her she doesn’t belong, helping create that tension. Black women who are constantly told and made to feel like they don’t belong, whether it’s from being asked about affirmative action scholarships, being treated like they are unintelligent at work and more. This causes the women to doubt their accomplishments and right to be in these spaces; that eventually the whole facade will crumble and they’ll be exposed as an imposter.
Also, when I was googling imposter syndrome and black women, I stumbled upon this. Look at the image. Right?
Adelaide spends the movie facing imposter syndrome personified. She is an actual imposter and is the only person in the world who is living in constant fear that it’ll be exposed that she doesn’t belong. The difference, of course, is that Adelaide is an actual imposter in that she is pretending to be someone else, though it’d be hard to argue that she doesn’t have a right to belong in society.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.