“Us,” Jordan Peele’s newly released horror film, raises questions about American identity that will appear very different to viewers outside the United States. Peele has claimed that “Us” aims to hold up a mirror to American society, showing “us” how “we are our worst enemies.” But for international viewers, especially those who have experienced overseas oppression from the United States, the questions of violence and otherness that this film raises will have a special resonance.
The film begins in 1986, when a young Adelaide (Madison Currie) wanders off into a haunted house called “Vision Quest” while on a beach vacation with her parents. The sign at the entrance of the attraction invites the visitor to “find yourself.” Wandering in a hall of magic mirrors, Adelaide finds a living reflection of herself, and is traumatized.
Years later, Adelaide is an adult: wife to Gabe (Winston Duke) and mother of Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Although her memories of that day by the sea are foggy, Adelaide dreads a family trip to her hometown of Santa Cruz. She reluctantly agrees, in response to family pressure, to join some friends at the beach. Later, ensconced in Adelaide’s parents’ home, the family discover four figures lurking in the driveway. They look eerily like copies of themselves -- and as their actions soon reveal, the lookalikes are intent on murdering them and taking their place.
When Adelaide asks her double “Who are you people?”, she responds “We are Americans.” It is tempting to imagine that the film’s title “Us” refers to Americans, and that the audience is meant to feel implicated by its representation of the Wilsons’ killer doppelgangers as “Americans.” But does the film in fact equate Americans with all of humanity, and exclude all those outside the US borders from its equation?
There is something uniquely American expressed by the contrast between the Wilson family and their murdering, barely human counterparts. The orange jumpsuits of the doppelgängers – who call themselves “the tethered” – recall the outfits worn by inmates of Abu Ghraib. The contrast between their situation – living a subterranean existence, existentially “tethered” to their above-ground others – and the consumer-driven bliss of their counterparts draws attention to the cruel dynamics of the haves and have-nots that characterize the United States’ interaction with the Global South. The repeated references to the “Hands Across America” campaign, organized in the United States in 1986, can also be read as a critique of uncritical solidarity between Americans.
However, other resonances, perhaps unintentional, may stand out to viewers in the rest of the world. Another interpretation draws from Islamic spiritual traditions that postulate the soul’s duality; in this way, “Us” inadvertently resonates with a number of important religious ideas. In Islam, people believe in the existence of the “companion”: an evil spirit that accompanies a person from birth until death, when it leaves the body for an unknown destiny. The companion is considered a source of evil that may lead its human into sin and suffering. Some Muslim communities, in the Middle East and beyond, also believe in a form of reincarnation that is understood to be proven by experiences of déjà vu. In the Arab world, these beliefs materialize in everyday idioms such as “may your angel be with you” and “damn your Satan.”
Drawing on these religious, popular and philosophical beliefs, the Middle Eastern viewer understands the “we” in Jordan Peele’s phrase “we are our worst enemies” to encompass all human beings, regardless of time, place, race, religion or gender. Because everyone has a potentially evil “companion,” “Us” can include all human beings, and all our evil actions.
Middle Easterners may also understand Peele’s critique as a warning against apostasy; a weakening of faith will unleash a corrupting force by whispering into the heart of its companion. This interpretation finds support in a repeated reference to a Biblical verse (Jeremiah 11:11). As this Bible verse advises, “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape, although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.’” Calamity will occur if humans lose control over the dark side within them. As victims of American imperialism, we may interpret this scriptural reference more specifically: the evil created by the United States will haunt them, and will be turned on them through the revolution of “the tethered.”