by Gabriel Alejandro
By now you must have seen or read it: Jordan Peele’s latest cinematic venture is a masterpiece that involves a doppelgänger trope to speak about the darkness within us, allegories of racism, metaphors of unfettered inequality that span through numerous social classes and races, family dynamics, and much more. Nevertheless, there is one aspect that has been, at least to my knowledge, largely unexplored, and that is the film’s commentary on the state of contemporary social protests. If one were to apply the film’s violent-but-ultimately-futile portrayal of a subaltern’s uprising to recent social struggles, one would find parallels in regards to their beginnings, public coverage, and inevitable normalization. And it is precisely this idea, the one that contemporary social protests have been “tethered” to past models which are destined to fail, that the film warns us against repeating.
Through this perspective, Us is a film about the tethered, a group that was made to live underground in the shadows of an upper society. After a number of decades experiencing subhuman conditions, they decide to make the upper society aware of their existence through violent and then “peaceful” means. The symbolism behind both group’s physical settings are meant to state the obvious: the society that lives above is better off than the one below. This is evidenced when Adelaide’s doppelgänger explains how, when the upper society ate, played, or did anything good, all the lower society had was a degraded version of it. The underground society was deprived of better quality of life because their plight was invisible to the upper-world dwellers.
It is important to note that many —if not, every— cultures have an underground group or various, depending on the case. These change according to temporal, social, historical, political, and even religious factors. Although the United State’s history has largely involved the African American experience as the subaltern, one should not restrict oneself to that sole interpretation for this film. Us’s portrayal of the disenfranchised can be a representation for many other experiences worldwide. Yet there is one element that still ties the film to the American experience and that is Red’s (Adelaide’s doppelgänger) idealization of Hands Across America, a 1986 fundraising event that intended to help mitigate the rapid growth of homelessness and hunger in the United States. But as with many other initiatives that begin with good intentions, the end result left many with more gaps (pun intended) than the bridges it intended to create.
Recent articles have resurfaced the contrasting opinions of Hands Across America thanks to Us. In The New York Times, Erik Piepenburg establishes that “By infusing Hands Across America with malevolent power, Peele is cinematizing one of the main criticism it faced in 1986: that it was a ‘superficial gesture that offered no long-term solution to poverty in the United States.’” Almost as an echo, Corey Plante writes in Invest that "Hands Across America essentially became a feel-good distraction for America in a time when homelessness was steadily becoming an epidemic thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s policies.” Both articles alude to the consequences of rampant symbolic gestures and superficial attitudes towards a problem that requires concrete action. More often than not, these types of initiatives place the actual problem in an abstract or unattainable plane and focus on the immediate satisfaction brought about the idea of helping others. In the case of Hands Across America, people paid a fee in order to participate and join hands with a person. After the event, there was no push towards policy change by lawmakers or the very same people who participated. Everyone felt they had already done what they could on the matter and even felt good about what little they had contributed.
So, how does this bode for the tethered and their movement? Well, the fact that Red wished to model their uprising after Hands Across America meant that her uprising would follow some of its ills. In regards to public perception, a similar “superficialization” of the tethered’s wishes was witnessed in the film. Soon after the attack on the surface world begins, Adelaide’s family turns on the news to find that there are other attacks happening nation-wide. While the news anchor speaks, Adelaide’s family notices that the information being shared is inaccurate and that no one else has noticed that these attackers are doppelgängers or much less learned where they come from or what their needs are. This scene can be taken as a allegory for what usually happens during instances where a subaltern or oppressed group decides to turn their concerns into action through protest. The surface-dwelling media can only grasp the shock and violence of the oppressed group’s immediate actions, but fail to deliver more in regards to the substance or needs behind them. If one were to take this into the real world, we would find striking similarities with recent protests such as Ferguson and Baltimore. In both cases, the actual concerns of the people where ultimately muddled by media coverage that decided to focus on the more striking aspects. This, in turn, distorted public perception and furthered the viewers' understanding from reality.
In addition, one can also find commentary on the longevity or effectiveness of contemporary protests. As we saw before, Hands Across America offered no long-term solutions and served more as a temporary distraction from hunger and homelessness. In that respect, we can infer that the second part of the revolt, the part where the tethered hold hands and spread across the nation, will end in a similar manner. Red’s revolution, although justifiable, seems to have no real concrete goal besides public recognition. Once they begin linking to each other, the violence stops and all that is left is a symbolic gesture for the cameras to see. This is seen in the ending of the movie, as we see miles and miles of tethered joining hands together with helicopters flying above them. These helicopters are not piloted by under-worlders, they are above-world military and, probably, some are even recording the images for others to see. If we continue comparing this to recent events, we notice that, after a protest’s shocking beginnings, what follows is an idealization of the issues that are brought forward. People and policy makers begin discussing the topics in a distanced and idealized fashion, putting off any real talk of solutions. The whole event then becomes swallowed by the 24-hour news cycle until it is replaced with whatever comes next. This will be the sad fate of Red and her tethered’s uprising.
Aside from it all, the film also reflects an over-encompassing notion of what happens when we model our social movements after others from the past. Time after time, we see how, after a protest breaks out, opinions from the right and left sides of the political spectrum race to compare it to past movements. For example, whenever a racial struggle breaks out, the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties is brought forward. People from the right conjure up Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence approach to condemn the initial shock and violence while people from the left remind everyone that, in moments of radical change, violence has made its presence to some degree. This conversation just steers the people’s attention in the wrong direction. The possibility of working towards a solution is replaced with historical debate, another distraction from the actual problem that only benefits a news channel's content. The final result is, again, not that different from what we have seen in recent years. A problem comes, is televised, is normalized, and then quickly forgotten.
Many of you may ask for a resolve to this cycle of indifference. Peele does not really present a definitive answer, but he does offer us a symbol. The pair of scissors, the weapon of choice by the tethered, acquires much more significance in this aspect. While for Red and her movement it represented attaining disconnection from their upper-world counterparts and from the capitalist tradition of subjugated groups, it could also very well mean that we must untether our narratives of social struggle from those of the past in order to create new, more effective ones for the future. Perhaps this would be a first step in ending the cycle of indifference.