Holding Up a Mirror to Cinema in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

Cinema has long acted as a sort of house of mirrors for Black viewers. And this goes not just for Black viewers, but for all people of color. We would come across a version of ourselves proclaiming to represent us, who we are, what we want, and why we want, no matter where we turned. But time after time, said versions were twisted, false, distorted, created for the sole means to control how we are perceived and treated. These doppelgangers, reminiscent of the Tethered from Jordan Peele’s Us, are everywhere. Really, because they’ve been there since the beginning of the medium’s advent, portraying us as brutes, connivers, monsters. We, the Black audience that has been both ignored yet paradoxically obsessed with by the medium, had a real-life Tethered; where their movements and actions in whatever white fantasy they were cooked up in would control our experiences, as in how the world, our society, would treat and look at us. The reason for their creation, truly the reason for our first portrayals in film, was to fearmonger, to control, and to divide us even further. We’ve known this since we first gazed upon our television sets in our living rooms. We’ve always known this.

And yet, this country is set out to bury that past, to continue acting like such creations never happened. See with, say, Disney’s long effort to hide the existence of Song of the South, a grotesque display of not just the Disney company’s history and view of Black folk, nor just the founder’s, Walt Disney’s, own racist views of people of color. Rather, their continued burial is just a small, excerpted example of what the film industry and pop culture does at large, what our society has continued to do for a few decades now: to act like this media never existed, of how films were created just to spread demonization of Black folk, how their creations have had such wide-reaching effect that they continue to prosper even when we don’t know their origins, and more importantly, to bury how films were built on the vilification of Black Americans and really all people of color.

Seen with his horror debut Get Out, Jordan Peele is interested in the cinematic imagery of Black folk and our history. Peele has reclaimed racist imagery that had been long used in film and television to demonize, pity, and look down on Black Americans to instead reference said history and twist its inherent racist and toxic meaning. By being used by a Black creative, therefore reclaiming it as our own, it now represents the incredible long reaches of such imagery and how it’ll always be a part of not just America, but of every Black American. See Chris picking cotton from his chair to plug his ears, to not hear the brainwashing, the numbing, of his captors’ television and save himself from the clutches of a white family. The use of such an image, an image that I don’t think that I need to clarify on its power and weight, to instead save its Black protagonist is powerful. Chris’ subconscious memory of imagery that pop culture would try and make us forget even existed, that an entire society would constantly minimize and ignore the destructive and long-reaching power of such visuals…

Us, his second horror film, goes all-in on the ideas seen in Get Out. However, upon its release, it’s disheartening, and a bit confusing, to see that creative direction ignored by audiences, who instead focused on how the film is talking about our divided times in the United States, and how the Tethered represent an underclass revolting against the rich. While Peele has admittedly only made two features, he’s shown to be incredibly interested in Black representation in cinema and how it affects Black folk, both knowingly and unknowingly. That’s why, after the introductory text, the film begins with a POV shot (done through the eyes of a Black child, Adelaide) staring at her television set. The silver screen has a power unlike any other, and it molds the minds and eyes of everyone that gazes upon it, regardless of age. The ad for Hands Across America creates a veneer of equality, both in society and representation,  as we see hands of all races bind their hands together across the nation. The last quarter of the 20th century saw a push forward in portrayals of Black Americans. We witnessed real, tangible change, witnessed with the rise of Black-led sitcoms like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and The Cosby Show and the nationwide popularity of Eddie Murphy. See how at the carnival, Adelaide wins a t-shirt of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album; an album that made Michael Jackson a worldwide phenomenon. We were able to have figures of fame that everyone knew and loved. Again, we saw change, no, we saw validation: we are Americans.

And then Adelaide was given a reminder.

Stepping through the “Shaman’s Vision Quest” (an attraction blatantly racist towards Native Americans), above the door is the phrase “find yourself”. If her Thriller t-shirt was a symbol of legitimacy and social progress, this “vision quest” offers Adelaide a stroll through the past, of her and our, false mirrors: of illegitimacy, hate, bigotry, and control. Walking through this painted forest, Adelaide proceeds to walk further and further into the past; our past. “I want you to see what I have done. And I have done well,” says the attraction — and the proud voice of white creators. “…And went into the endless space and gathered substance to create his helper, the Spider Woman.” The Spider Woman, from Navajo religion, is the “constant helper and benefactor [of humanity].” Again, white Americans are appropriating this Navajo figure. Immediately upon its appropriation, its original meaning is lost, because those using it have no cultural attachment to the figure. Upon doing this, not only is the original meaning lost, but it’s twisted to represent something else, something heinous. Here, this Spider Woman, not the real Spider Woman of Navajo folklore, is instead the “constant helper and benefactor” of white Americans, and the persecutor, assaulter, of Native culture. It’s a mark of art’s racist past, and of Adelaide’s journey through it.

Adelaide rushes toward an exit, but she’s lost, surrounded by reflected versions of herself no matter where she turns. And soon, she hears a slightly different version of her whistling of “the Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” That’s not her voice. She stumbles across her twisted version that is an inverted, false, white-created tool to control her: her Tethered. We can remember when we became cognizant of those false depictions and cracked reflections of ourselves, so this experience that so many of us eventually go through is made manifest with Adelaide and her stumbling across her Tethered. Even with brief moments of legitimacy, of signs that such images are so far into the past that they have no bearing on the present, we’re reminded that the past is never far away. Instead, it’s always just around the corner.

In 1986, Michael Jackson was one of the few to be an icon of Black stardom and a pop culture figure the Black community could call our own. Flashforward to 2019, where Janelle Monae’s “I Like That” is playing on the radio, and the Wilsons are driving to their beach house. There’s a mirroring to the two images, of Adelaide accompanying her drunk father and exhausted mother at the carnival wearing her Thriller shirt with the upper-class Wilsons traveling to their beach house listening to “I Like That.” That was then, this is now. We’re much farther in positive depictions than we were two decades ago. Peele here is driving home how both times experience a push forward in media and culture. Such depictions are always afforded to white families, never Black ones. But here, we see a well-to-do, happy, Black family without the usual racial stereotypes accompanying this unit, like an absentee father, an overworked, working-class mother living near the poverty line. To see families like the Wilsons slowly become common in both film and television is heartening and encouraging.

In the film’s beginning, Peele allows us to feel as if the depictions we were solely afforded in the past— that which comforted, pat on the back, and fueled white audiences at the expense of Black folk— are gone. No traces of them exist, instead having died off decades ago. Displays like “Shaman’s Vision Quest” are no longer the norm and such terrible displays are gone and can be forgotten. But as Peele reminds us, this notion is false. Those racist creations are buried, like how “Shaman’s Vision Quest” is revamped as “Merlin’s Forest,” but such creations are never truly gone. Racist imagery still flies under the radar. Despite the redesign, a totem pole still stands outside the attraction. We pass by those kinds of images every day, never giving it a thought. Now, it’s subtle, accepted, normalized. So, they never fade away. They fester and pull strings on all of us; strings that, no longer visible, still manage to control what we see and do.

But we’ve forgotten this. These depictions have seeped into our consciousness so deeply that we can’t remember its source. So, we’re faced with this fact, with the media’s past representation of Black folk during the Wilsons’ first confrontation with their Tethered. Sitting symmetrically across each family member, Jason remarks, “It’s us.” Gabe (Winston Duke), who’s previously seen to be a loving, caring, goofy dad and husband —a far cry from the past decades of portraying Black fathers as abusive, neglectful, if in the picture at all— stares back at his Tethered, Abraham. In both pop culture and the general consciousness, we’ve long been indoctrinated with a fear of the Black male body, a body that’s been dehumanized, devoid of all human emotions, thoughts, dreams, fears, and then weaponized to be perceived as a “threatening presence” by white audiences. 

Such widespread, ingrained racism bubbles up from microaggressions, from commenting on how one was “made” for a sport, to how white Americans would feel threatened by the Black body, to drawing comparisons between a Black man and an animal. This creation, while having mostly disappeared in the arts, still lingers. While such depictions may have left cinema, it never left our collective consciousness, and Abraham is a representation of those notions. See how Abraham moves his body, grunts; he is those racist comparisons brought to life. And in the process, he shows how those notions have a basis in entertainment’s depiction of the Black male body. You may not stumble upon them on an attraction ride or a poster as it was in the past, but they resurface in conversation and action. 

Red (Lupita Nyong’o), her voice raspy, and fighting to announce her every word, bringing to mind the silencing and the exclusion of Black women and voices in media, is instead in charge and in control. As previously stated, now in the hands of Black creators, such imagery is retrofitted to speak something powerful and to give audiences something they’ve never had before. We’re forced to reckon how sadly familiar and pervasively present what Abraham represents, and Red is given the voice she was always denied.

The Spider Woman is sacred to Navajo folklore but was taken and weaponized by white Americans. This tactic was used for countless communities of color, like how white creators appropriated vodou against the Haitian people. But Peele sees that this tactic long used against communities of color can now be used to find a form of justice. Red, Abraham, and the imagery they hold, previously created by white Americans against the Black community, are now used by the Black community.

Taking us back to that fateful night in 1986, we learn that the Adelaide we’ve been following isn’t Adelaide at all. Instead, it is her doppelganger that had taken her place all those years ago. So Red (aka Adelaide) used the Tethered, which had previously been used to control the masses, to revolt and find justice in the world above. So what is Jordan Peele if not Red, taking the images of years past that had subjugated, controlled, and silenced us for decades to make the world face them. These creations never died, and their creation should never be forgotten. They are no longer symbols to belittle Black folk; now they act as reminders and as a reckoning. 

Jordan Peele’s Us is a reminder of those old mirrors, of those twisted shadows, holding their hands together across the nation. They are here to show how we, the Black audience, have always been portrayed, how they’ve existed, and how they continue to exist. We haven’t forgotten, and we should not forget. 

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