James Batcho, PhD | All of “Us” is All of Them
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All of “Us” is All of Them

VIRGINIA BEACH. It is a beautiful thing when one’s impression of a film changes—from the lingering thoughts of the hours that follow to the days that continue, and alter, the thinking. This happened to me with Jordan Peele’s new film Us. It is a very good horror film. I can understand the mentions of Hitchcock, even if that is probably employed for the sake of media hyperbole. He is deft in the methods of tension—the breaths, pauses and silences that tension requires. His use of lighting pulls the viewer into literally trying to see to understand dark things—holding back the faces of them/us, revealing the glint of the scissors; his use of framing that constricts freedom of movement, etc. Great stuff. But of course what really matters in a Peele film is not the matter but the political beneath the surface. It’s hard to keep the question out of one’s mind as it unfolds: What is Peele trying to “say” here? I thought, in the initial 24 hours after seeing it that it was an exercise in psychological allegory. In the days ahead it become something else.

It was very interesting to me that it took place in Santa Cruz, CA. I lived in SC for three years in the late ‘90s and I remember thinking at the time: sure you’re all very progressive, but you’re also all very white and don’t have to confront issues of poverty and racism that are prevalent in urban realities. I like how Peele cast almost everyone except the family as white actors, including all the stand-ins (I recall only two black girls in one cutaway). Santa Cruz really is that white, and I wonder how much of that was a conscious move to build the undercurrent of these demons returning as the family lives within a world of mid-upper class white privilege.

There are so many psychoanalytical tidbits to suckle on here: the doppelgänger and the fear of the more pure other, the mirror stage (even if a little late in life), repressed trauma and its revisitation, the Jungian shadow as the repressed but always present aspect of the self, even the basement-unconscious-as-therapy bit, which by now has become cliché but for whatever reason it still works. What’s original is that all of this is done at the level of family rather than the individual. That’s the thing that sucked me in: neglect and repression of the shadow coming back to affect family psyche.

I was hoping this would get teased out more. What is the family hiding? What are they repressing? I was hoping that some of these more difficult aspects of class and race would hit this family through some neglect of the “impoverished” aspect that they have buried. We instead emerge into daylight to find a universal human condition, a universal plague. “All lives matter.” This is where the film lost me a bit. And the twist was both predictable and I thought worked against this idea of repression. It explains too much, and indeed there was far too much exposition at the end. (I was excited early on that the “shadow,” as primal, has no language—note their grunts and silences early on—that language is for the world of the superego. Alas, in the end she must speak so we may understand: a cinematic cop-out.) So OK, she’s not the psychological shadow that one must confront but is an actual, corporeal person of the bad people who conformed to normal to live as an imposter. So then the message here is… what? Any “normal” can become bad (and vice/versa) through social conditioning of poverty (or privilege)? I thought this odd, and I wasn’t sure what to take from it.

But a few days have passed. I think now as I keep thinking that I was injecting into the film something it wasn’t offering. It begins with the vitality of the title “Us,” which is very telling in that perhaps the implicit political call is that all of us as members of a side, designated by not being the dreaded “other,” become wrapped up entirely inside the shell of this concept of us-ness, non-otherness. Within this is the tendency to remain fallen AND the tendency to remain above ground. A split: us and them, but also another us and them. Both depend upon a state of ignorance, but even more, that the above-ground us are far more ignorant because there is no need to consider the other, except as a concept, an “I’m not them.” In other words, living among the privileged class ossifies “us” into inaction. I was originally seeing this as a misstep, a universal, Humanist thing. But I’m now thinking of it in the sense of a criticism of the way we together build realities of and reasons for inaction.

Bringing this to contemporary politics then, Us is not about racism, but race becomes the allegory of sorts through which we may examine other privileges that eviscerate the other for the comfort of certainty—economics, class, deplorables, Trump voters. This fosters inaction—by this I mean an incapacity for change—because we don’t care to peer into the darkness to see that all of it is ourselves, us. Through this perspective Us shines light on something that progressives still fail to see in themselves: the inaction born of a presumed correctness and superiority of background, an intellectual righteousness, and how that attitude buries others who are left out of the discourse. If we are not recognizing the otherness that is uncomfortable, eventually this will rise up in brutal ways.

Of course, three days from now, I might have another opinion. This is the joy of philosophical cinema.