In ‘Us,’ the Tethered Lives That Prisoners Would Recognize

You know what the movie is about.

A black family goes on a beach vacation. The mother has suffered a past trauma that the beach conjures up for her. A family just like, but starkly different from, this first family shows up, and all hell breaks loose. That’s the plot of “Us,” Jordan Peele’s latest horror thriller. It plays like an extended episode of the newly rebooted “Twilight Zone,” for which Peele serves as executive producer and narrator, and much goes unexplained, leading to endless interpretations online.

For example, the clothing of the doppelgängers (“the Tethered,” the film calls them) has been a source of much speculation. These are people who are angry, violent and largely speechless, so there are many questions about how they got the jumpsuits and gloves they wear — and the scissors they wield — without anyone noticing. What are the motivations of the Tethered? What is their ultimate goal?

These are the wrong questions.

As with his previous horror thriller, “Get Out,” an allegory for black fears in a white world, Peele seems to have ethical considerations in mind. That there are questions about “Us” isn’t surprising. Peele probably expected them and is choosing to not answer them because the film has a deeper point to make: one about the nature of the U.S. as a country and us as a people, about the black experience of the underside of American democracy and mass incarceration.

The tethered exist in an underground, skewed version of our reality. Whereas the Wilsons (Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke) and their children see the sun and breathe fresh air, the Tethered live similarly but do not have access to nature the way they do. The Tethered are alive, but not truly, because they are restricted. They cannot move about freely. They are forced to live in a bunker. They are not able to enter our world and interact with people like the Wilsons — and I think this essential fact of their existence is an important part of what Peele had in mind.

According to findings released in March by the Prison Policy Initiative, this country houses “almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails.” Like the Tethered, these people are alive, yes, but we would be stretching credulity to call incarceration living.

Convicts are imprisoned in an alternate reality with its own code of ethics and notions of justice that mirror our own, but it is a skewed version of our world. Those behind bars are restricted in where they can go, how much sun and air they can enjoy, and, of course, like the Tethered, they are forced to wear jumpsuits as a sign of their condition. Many prisoners, when they are released, are disenfranchised — essentially voiceless in a democracy.

The film’s silent, angry, jumpsuit-wearing marauders can be read as symbolic of Americans ensnared in the legal system. Like the Wilsons early in the film, and the other aboveground characters, many Americans are unaware that there is another reality for prisoners and their loved ones. And while many of those convicted are rightfully behind bars, too many are there because of this country’s flawed war on drugs, a war that has destroyed many black families since the 1980s.

This is a crucial point because with “Us,” as with “Get Out,” Peele is using mass entertainment to address the concerns of African-Americans. While there are legitimate economic takes on the film — as an allegory for the one percent vs. the 99 percent, for instance — and while “Us” is not a black film, per se, incarceration is an issue that is, heartbreakingly, all too familiar to many black Americans.

“Us” is not as beloved as “Get Out” — at least for now — partly because the expectations for Peele’s sophomore effort were so high, but also because “Get Out” was an easier film to dissect. “Us” offers no easy answers, but indicts us all.

Lawrence Ware is co-director of the Center for Africana Studies at Oklahoma State University.

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