by Jonathan Craig
**Republished with permission from Tossed Observations Inc.**
Suspenseful, cinematically impressive, and majestically scored, Jordan Peele’s latest feature-length effort is, on balance, a triumph. Following 2017’s critically acclaimed Get Out, Us (2019) uses the template of a classic horror-thriller to spotlight the social ills of the modern day United States. Macabre humour and a steady trickle of 90s pop culture references keep the film balanced, mostly preventing its descent into sententiousness, while fine performances from lead actors (particularly Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide) carry Peele’s vision with both intensity and integrity.
Symbolically speaking, there is a huge amount going on throughout Us, in its just over two hours’ running time. The product of a clearly far greater budget than its predecessor, it does sometimes seem to over-stretch itself, however. In its latter stages, the movie’s allegorical play loses coherence, with multiple threads hastily pulled together in a way that seems not totally under control. This leaves the viewer anxiously attempting to decode the film’s symbols as they appear, reaching for precise thematic clarity that never really arrives. Viewers are better served simply absorbing the movie’s elegance and brutality as it unfolds. As much as it is an thoughtful coded expression of the contemporary American moment, Us is an affective juggernaut, projecting a palpable but imprecise sense of unease from its opening scene on.
Peele taps into millennial nostalgia through an array of playful references to feel-good American pop culture (notably music and film), which are often blended incongruously with the movie’s most shockingly violent scenes. This tendency compliments Us’s repeated references to ‘tethering’, which is an explicit metaphor throughout. The feather-light, feel-good affluence of middle-class America – a sunny post-racial holiday for those willing to work hard enough — is irrevocably ‘tethered to’ its antithesis, an underworld of Others, existing for the most part out of sight, yet posing an ever present threat to those above the surface. In this reading, meritocracy is reduced to a comforting and absolving myth that the well-off tout among themselves. Insofar as they fall short of an idealised Life Well Lived, the meritocratic ethos determines that individuals are deemed to have failed as a result of a lack of effort, a bad attitude, or some other personal shortcoming. However, appending moral virtue to affluence, and presenting a common-sense isomorphism between personal worth and professional attainment, in fact obfuscates deep structural inequalities, which, to a significant extent, predetermine access to the American Dream.
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A couple of summers ago, I had a job at a local community college, in which I sat in on a class the stated aim of which was to improve students’ ‘business professionalism’. The class contained many practical tips about, for instance, constructing resumes, preparing for interviews, or otherwise honing ‘soft skills’ of worth in their professional development. These tips were, on the whole, I think, of genuine value to students.
One component of the class, however, struck me as bizarre and misplaced. Toward the end of the two-hour sessions, the class teacher would often wind down the clock with a suitably inspirational video, the hot-air of a TED talk, for instance, filling the room and the remaining fifteen minutes or so. On one such occasion, chiseled entrepreneur, ‘philanthropist’ and all-round winner, Tony Robbins, lectured viewers on how they might, like him, develop a ‘money mindset’. The video clip we watched, like the energy guiding much of the current ‘self-improvement’ boom, made two things explicit. The first was that a failure to ‘credentialise’, to acquire qualifications and subsequently monetise them in a professional field, is the foremost marker of an individual’s value. If we are faithful to this assumption, human worth becomes synonymous with an ability to outwardly express affluence. Secondly, with enlightened philanthropists such as Robbins bestowing tried-and-tested ‘successipies’, it is within the individual’s — any individual’s — grasp to make such an ascent. Meritocracy, after all, doesn’t discriminate.
Except, as diligent observers have long-noted, hard work alone will not suffice. The glass ceilings which prevent an overwhelming sweep of humanity from attaining Robbins-level degrees of affluence are also glass floors on which the children of a global elite learn to walk. To a lesser but still significant extent this applies to the professional classes, emergent in 1990s social democracies of Europe and North America. ‘Meritocricy’ is the fetish, the magic word, absolving the affluent, maintaining their moral certitude, and ultimately preventing confrontation with the Others in whose destitution they are imbricated.
Peele, in his richly allusive and affecting sophomore effort, skewers such myths. Watching Us, one is jolted awake, forcibly made aware of inequalities inherent in euro-American societies, and indeed, on a planetary level. The recent cash for college-admission scandals which outraged, but perhaps didn’t shock, the American public, are but the most grotesque examples of the systemic shortcomings of US democracy. As Yale law professor Daniel Markovits puts it, “American meritocracy has… become precisely what it was intended to combat: a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations”. Us powerfully undermines the myths upholding this mechanism, making latent the American Dream’s brutal and obscene underbelly. While the movie lacks the masterful control and coherence of Get Out, it is a powerful follow-up effort.
Jonathan Craig completed an MA in Anthropology from the University of Sussex in 2017.