How Us uses images of Hands Across America to challenge our complicity
This article contains spoilers for the movie Us.
On the surface, Jordan Peele’s Us could be simply categorized as a horror movie depicting a home invasion: A family is suddenly under attack by a group of menacing, ill-intentioned strangers who delight in the infliction of physical violence and psychological terror. Yet the home invasion is only one part of the overarching allegory in Peele’s film, which is how society treats the oppressed and marginalized, the “Others” who are invisible, voiceless, and defined by their failure to adhere to the status quo.
Unlike films such as Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, Us uses the concept of doppelgängers to peel back the curtain on how evil manifests within “civilized” society. The “Tethered” in Us are not only terrifying because they are physical replicas of the people living above ground, but because their identical appearances illustrate how barriers separating groups or classes of people are flimsy, nearly imaginary. More often, these barriers are man-made constructs designed to enforce authoritarian control. Those forced into the lower parts of society’s hierarchy because of financial status, race, etc. are treated as unimportant shadows of human beings, rather than as actual, whole, separate people.
Trapped underground like rejected and forgotten genetic experiments, the Tethered have been robbed of agency, of literal and figurative voice. Their only true link to the world of the living is their seemingly liberated other half. The Tethered have been cursed with a shadow life, bound to their counterpart, sentenced to mimic their “Good Twin” without enjoying any of the benefits of freedom.
In the beginning of the film, young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) is not visible. Instead, the audience catches her reflection in a TV that is airing a commercial for humanitarian effort Hands Across America.
Conceived in the fall of 1985, the national fundraising event was a response to world hunger. The event was the brainchild of U.S.A. for Africa, the same charity responsible for the undeniably ’80s musical extravaganza, “We Are the World.” Ken Kragen, the president of U.S.A. for Africa and an entertainment-business manager, told the New York Times that year that the event was “a bipartisan effort, not a rap-the-government effort.” He explained, “If it demonstrates a unity of purpose, it will have accomplished its goal.” In spring of the following year, over 6 million people were expected to hold hands for 15 minutes and form a human chain that stretched from coast to coast. In order to be a part of the ceremony, participants were required to donate at least $10 to the charity. Major sponsors such as Coca-Cola would cover the related costs of advertising and staging, estimated at $18.8 million. While the star power perhaps wasn’t as flashy and glittering as “We Are the World,” celebrities like Robin Williams, Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields, Prince, and Oprah participated.
Unfortunately, for all the earnest intentions, it could be said that Hands Across America was nothing more than an example of performative activism.
The event, which originally had a goal of raising $50 million, netted “only $15 million for the hungry and homeless after all costs were paid,” the New York Times reported. It wouldn’t be entirely true to say that Hands Across America didn’t serve a purpose; it brought heightened public awareness to a problem that President Reagan refused to plainly acknowledge. But in terms of the event’s impact, it was a short-lived, short-term solution fueled by an idealized sense of civic duty.
In an interview quoted by the New York Times, Peele explained that while writing the movie, he came across a commercial for Hands Across America. He said, “There’s something cultlike about the imagery that makes me think of the Manson family singing folk songs as they leave the courtroom.”
The ’80s Reagan era, a time of claiming “trickle down economics,” mocking and ignoring the AIDS crisis until more than 20,000 lives were lost, and perpetuating the racist stereotype of the “Welfare Queen,” among other injustices, sharply illustrates this political and cultural blindness. Within the Us universe, people above ground were blind to the always present and oppressed Tethered, until the Tethered had to attack their own “reflections” in order to be seen. Then, once above ground, the Tethered stage a Hands Across America-type human chain, inspired by the actual event in history. The use of Hands Across America imagery in the film seems to be a fitting indictment of the school of thought that encourages us to pretend we don’t have a role in injustice—which is woefully naive at best and fatally ignorant at worst.
This idea that we ourselves are capable of evil continues to be examined when we learn the monstrous entity stalking Adelaide isn’t an outside force or even an otherworldly creature; the Tethered are still humans, made of blood, flesh, and bone. As the horror movie trope goes, the call is coming from inside the house. With their red jumpsuits and scissors, the Tethered are imprisoned within an upside down world that seems reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland. When the supposedly Good Adelaide follows the Evil Adelaide, or Red, into the underground to rescue her son Jason (Evan Alex), she learns that her other half didn’t have the luxury of making her own decisions—she was forced to do things out of both survival and compulsion. This includes learning to dance, marrying the Tethered version of her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and giving birth to Zora/Umbrae (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason/Pluto. Ultimately, her autonomy is an illusion; her life is tied to the actions of Good Adelaide.
The conclusion of Us doesn’t end in a victory for the Wilson family. Following the final fight scene, the audience is initially led to believe that Adelaide has vanquished Red and saved Jason. But that sense of relief is fleeting, as we soon learn that during her summer at the boardwalk in 1986, the real Adelaide was replaced by her Tethered counterpart. The Tethered Adelaide has lived above ground, while the actual Adelaide has suffered in captivity below. Neither of the real Adelaide’s parents noticed, believing their daughter’s sudden muteness to be the result of trauma after getting lost at the beach.
The real Adelaide spent years plotting and scheming to get back above ground, envisioning a time when all of the Tethered would band together and kill their duplicates. But there is no happy ending because, as Joelle Monique writes for The Hollywood Reporter, “There are no monsters in Us“; you can’t decidedly root for or against anyone. From there, the film rejects the idea that systemic violence and cruelty can be easily solved. Issues that plague society and dehumanize us are too complex, too thorny, and too multifaceted to be rectified through quick fixes—including performative acts like Hands Across America.
As we can see by the miles-long human chain formed by the Tethered in the movie’s final scene, even if you vanquish one malevolent force that is chasing you—whether it’s a murderous Tethered person or the dangers of social stratification—there are more forms of oppression ready, eager, and willing to take its place.