This is ‘Us.’ And It’s Horrifyingly Spiritual

This is ‘Us.’ And It’s Horrifyingly Spiritual March 25, 2019
Lupita Nyong’o in Us. Picture courtesy Universal Pictures

Jordan Peele’s smart, terrifying new film Us is tethered, you might say, to the Bible—specifically the verse Jeremiah 11:11.

Adelaide (played for most of the movie by Lupita Nyong’o) first sees the Scripture reference when she’s just a little girl. It’s scrawled on a piece of cardboard, held by the sort of guy who’d preach about the end being near.

And the verse points to exactly that.  In the King James Bible, it sounds particularly impressive:

Therefore thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.

The English Standard Version tells us that the Lord’s bringing “calamity” to the people. The New International Version says “disaster” is coming. The Contemporary English Version says, simply, “suffering” is on its way. No matter the translation, it’s pretty obvious that God’s ready to do some smiting.

The verse serves as a nice biblical table-setter for the chaos that follows in Us. But I think that Peele had a deeper, and deeply spiritual, message in mind when he chose the verse.

Jeremiah lived in the kingdom of Judah and was actively prophesying right around 600 B.C. These were difficult days for the little kingdom, stuck as it was between the era’s two superpowers, Egypt and Babylonia. If the book of Jeremiah was set in 20th-century Europe, Judah would be Belgium.

And Jeremiah is tasked to bring the people of Judah some difficult news: Their little nation isn’t going to make it. And it’s their own fault.

For centuries, the people of Judah had been the apple of God’s celestial eye. He brought them all out of Egypt in the time of Moses, preserved them through tons of difficult times and, judging from the Bible, molded them into a nation that was more than a match for its neighbors. During the times of King David and Solomon, we’re told, the kingdom’s fame spanned much of the known world.

But that was then. These chosen people were, as the Bible repeatedly tells us, a “stiff-necked people,” prone to wander away from God at the least little provocation. By Jeremiah’s time, apparently God had had enough (at least for now). And in chapter 11 of Jeremiah, the prophet makes pretty clear that the covenant between God and Judah has been shattered.

Take a look at Jeremiah 11:10-14 for a little extra context:

They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words. They have gone after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their fathers. Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah, and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to make offerings to Baal.

This is interesting when you toss this into the context of Us. Peele seems to suggest that we—we as in the United States, we as in, well, Us—have also broken covenant with something sacred, forsaking the vision of who we could be and, arguably, should be for false gods and idols.

About the first thing we see (besides a bunch of caged rabbits) is a commercial for Hands Across America, a real event that took place in 1986. The effort was as idyllic as they come: Millions of Americans were supposed to hold hands, forming a continuous link across the country, to raise money to fight hunger. Nice idea, but it was a bit of a bust: After factoring in the $16 million it cost to organize the thing, Hands Across America earned just $15 million, far less than its organizers hoped.

Fast-forward to the movie’s present day, and the spirit of Hands Across America is long gone. Most of the folks we meet are consumed not with the desire to help others, but to feed their own desires and vanities. Gabe, Adelaide’s husband, buys a boat that they don’t need. Daughter Zora spends hours with her phone, grousing about the internet service at their lake house. Adelaide and Gabe’s “friends,” Kitty and Josh, seem to care for nothing except for what they have, what they want and where their next drink is coming from.

Gently, Peele paints a picture of a nation lost in its own altars and idols, “gods that have become as many as your cities.”

When Adelaide’s doppelganger, Red, and her creepy family come out of nowhere, they come at 11:11 p.m. They come clothed in prison-like jumpers. She talks of eating bloody rabbit while Adelaide and her family ate as they pleased; how Adelaide’s children played with soft stuffed animals while Red’s kids were forced to amuse themselves with things sharp and terrible. Peele paints a picture of the haves-and-have-nots in Red’s diatribe (or, more fittingly, her jeremiad, named after the prophet Jeremiah himself) and his meaning seems clear: We’ve broken our covenant.

Maybe the covenant is that we made with and for ourselves when the U.S. (Us) was founded: The idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Through the soulless “tethered,” Peele seems to suggest that not all Americans have the same access to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness, or even to life—at least, not life as we “haves” might understand it.

But the Declaration of Independence makes it clear that those rights were “endowed” by our Creator. And lest we let ourselves off the divine hook, Red makes sure we hop right back on it. While Adelaide and Gabe don’t seem particularly religious, Red says, explicitly, that she was sent by God. And it’s not just a passing thought Red offers just once. She sees herself as an instrument in the Almighty’s hands: A weapon of divine wrath.

Red’s role in what comes after is further contextualized and, in some ways, complicated by a spoiler we won’t get into here. I could write another blog just on the nature of the “tethered” themselves—how they were created and why.

But for now, let’s leave it here—with Peele’s message of righteous wrath for a people gone astray. Perhaps he’s acting a little like an Old Testament prophet himself: Repent before it’s too late.

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