**This article contains spoilers for Us.**
Jordan Peele’s latest horror film, Us, is a multi-layered narrative that, for some, is a complex Hitchcock-esque masterpiece that demonstrates Peele’s excellence as a writer and director. For others, it is disappointing at worst, and confusing at best. Whether you enjoyed it or not, Us is filled with layered themes of social mobility, comparative economic philosophies, and equity that critique who we are as a nation and people, and from where we’ve come. The most real and dynamic perspective from my viewing is the spiritual reality of God’s judgment on “Us”—the title working as a double entendre for the both the U.S. and me and you (Americans).
But what is an American? This question has become even more important following the 2016 election cycle, and it is posed early in Us. Most people probably presume traits of an American to be moralistically driven, middle-class empowered, humble, patriotic citizens. But as the movie’s narrative progresses—just as our cultural narrative has progressed from our country’s founding to now—the answer becomes a little more obscure. This answer becomes even more ambiguous if you’re a Christian living in America, because it addresses the more important question of “Who is my neighbor?” And how we respond to that question could have eternal implications of God’s judgment on us.Us critiques who we are as a nation and people, and from where we’ve come.
The manner in which Peele poses the question—“what” rather than who is an American—seems dehumanizing at first, yet it’s an important frame for the film’s portrayal of the way we see others and how God judges us in light of that. Peele makes this clear in one of the opening scenes when the camera pans and focuses on what appears to be a beach prophet holding a cardboard sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11” written in red. That verse reads: “Therefore, this is what the LORD says, I am about to bring on them disaster that they cannot escape. They will cry out to Me, but I will not hear them” (HCSB).
The mid-nineteenth century concept of Manifest Destiny is particularly important in Us while exploring the question of what an American is and why God would cast judgment on us. The notion of Manifest Destiny spread among expansionists who believed the United States had a “God-given” mandate to push its borders to the Pacific coast of the continent. By that time, Thomas Jefferson had initiated the Louisiana Purchase, President James Monroe completed the acquisition of Florida, the government was considering annexing Texas, and other citizens were eager to claim and settle the Oregon Territory. Under the banner of this “God-ordained” destiny to move westward, chattel slavery expanded and many lives and homes were destroyed, leaving Native American and Hispanic people groups permanently displaced or deceased.
Today, we live with the manifestation of this self-proclaimed “destiny” without much thought about its history and broad-ranging effects. The values and principles of the United States—democracy, independence, capitalism—have undoubtedly had a positive global impact in history, but as with any human ideal, there are costs and casualties to its fulfillment. Sin infects everything, including the unintentional consequences of our individual and collection actions. Some of those consequences affect us fiscally, while others impact the way we see and interact with our neighbors. Without offering a full dissertation on the history and effects of slavery, we can clearly see the far-reaching reaching consequences of unrestrained capitalism and individualism on African Americans in this country. This is where Us aptly and parabolically explores God’s judgment on whomever, or whatever, we assume an American to be if we fail to love him and serve our neighbors.
In the film’s opening scene, we meet a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) watching an advertisement for the “Hands Across America” benefit urging millions of Americans (literally from coast-to-coast) to hold hands for fifteen minutes to raise money for the nation’s homeless. Then we see Adelaide (Addie) with her parents on a pier in Santa Cruz celebrating her birthday, where she wanders off to the beach and discovers a Native American shaman-themed funhouse with the words “Find Yourself” lit across the top of the entrance. Soon after entering, Addie panics, running into mirrors before eventually coming face-to-face with a real look-alike version of herself. Since that night, Addie has never been the same. She is cautious, calculated, and quiet, even into her adult years.
If you’ve seen the movie trailer for Us, then you at least know that the film is about a family, the Wilsons—Adelaide (Lupitia N’yongo), Gabe (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Joseph Wright), and Jason (Evan Alex)—who are haunted by a monster-ish version of themselves while on vacation in Santa Cruz, California. These “other” people are like the main characters—they look, move, and act similarly—but they maintain a freakish difference from the Wilsons.We live with the manifestation of this self-proclaimed “destiny” without much thought about its history and broad-ranging effects.
On the first night of their vacation, Addie is spooked by some eerie coincidences and she tells Gabe about her childhood trauma. Very soon after her confession, mysterious figures break into the Wilsons’ lake house and hold them hostage. When they meet face-to-face, Addie asks her look-alike the question everyone is wondering: “What are you?” Red (the name of Addie’s doppelgänger) answers in a raspy voice, “We are Americans,” with a contrived smile. She then explains that they call themselves the “Tethered” and are the result of a failed government-funded experiment that cloned virtually every American citizen. Though the cloning was successful, the program ultimately failed and the clones were left with no real purpose, abandoned underground in a vast system of tunnels and classrooms to be forgotten and eventually die-off. Only they didn’t die. Their souls were somehow tethered to their clones above ground, and they organized to arise from the depths of America and revolt.
As the film continues, we learn the Wilsons aren’t the only people with doppelgängers. Their friends face-off with their counterparts, completely unsuspectingly, and later the local news reports that nearly everyone in the area has someone identical to them sporting the same red jumpsuits and gold scissors, killing their above-ground counterparts. After they kill, they join hands with the others to form a human chain in the streets—a flashback of the “Hands Across America” commercial young Addie was watching at the beginning of the film.
The idea of God’s judgment on America is a reasonable takeaway in Us, especially considering the legacy of Manifest Destiny—the “God-ordained” reason Americans occupy the lower-48 states today. In scripture, similar to what we see in Us, God often operates in ways opposite of the world to dole out peace and justice. He chooses the foolish things of the world over the wise, the weak over the strong, the younger over the elder, and the poor over the rich (1 Corinthians 1:27). In Us, we see the poor overcome the rich, the forgotten rise against the self-obsessed, and the marginalized dethrone the privileged.The irony of Us is that haunting and killing ourselves is an exhibition of how God can reverse America’s self-attained “blessings,” allowing our self-indulgent aspirations to become our own undoing.
Paul speaks of God inflicting judgment on people who disregard him by giving them up to a debased mind, their own wants and desires, and in essence destroying themselves. For Us, the imagery is clear: Americans destroy themselves as they seek comfort in the vainglories of the “American Dream” at the expense or marginalization of others.
There’s nothing explicitly sinful about human flourishing, but if we’re not careful, the pursuit of such flourishing can devalue (or destroy) the life of our neighbors; the pursuit of the treasures of the American Dream may cost the dignity, or lives, of our neighbors. Denigrating my neighbor’s life only cheapens the value of mine as we both share the image of God. So the irony of Us is that haunting and killing ourselves is an exhibition of how God can reverse America’s self-attained “blessings,” allowing our self-indulgent aspirations to become our own undoing.
This depiction is carried out further at the end of the film, when an expansive human chain of the doppelgängers stand hand-in-hand, stretching in the opposite direction of Manifest Destiny, from west to east, showing a reversion of this so-called destiny in an act of judgment by our—Americans—own doing.
Interestingly, the shaman-themed funhouse Addie entered as a child is re-themed in the present as a mystical forest. This subtle change illustrates Peele’s point that we (Americans) believe we’ve reconciled the sins of our past, when in reality, we’ve only tried to bury and forget them. But when America decides to enter and take serious the dark and shameful parts of its history and find itself, we will find it far from the funhouse Addie thought it would be.
As with any great horror film, Us has a tantalizing twist at the end that will leave you second-guessing everything you just watched. But to move the needle beyond the trivialities of what happened and what meant what, the film becomes more mind-bending and introspective, especially as we ask the deeper question of who we are and what that means in relation to God’s judgment on us. Like Addie, when we decide to “find ourselves” and explore our history, it will be scary, messy, and injurious. And if we seek honestly, we’ll find that we’re deftly deserving of God’s wrath rather than the pleasures and riches we’ve enjoyed. Perhaps America will one day, too, find itself and repent, not only to God, but to this land, the natives it was stolen from, and those who were enslaved to build it.