The Meaning of Us: Rabbits, Race, and the Rise of the Outsider in Jordan Peele's Horror Film
From the dark underbelly of pleasant beach town Santa Cruz, through the lens of American immigration debate and consumerist escapism, let’s decipher the symbols in Jordan Peele’s enigmatic followup to Get Out and figure out wtf those rabbits mean after all.
Cinematic references in Jordan Peele's Us
If being forced to take an art history class in college taught me anything, it's the ways in which art references itself, or more specifically other artists, iconography forming over the years and centuries. In Us, Peele shows that he is well-watched in the genre of dark arthouse films that exist so far on the edge of horror as to be uncategorizable.
The opening scene involves a long take reminiscent of Austrian filmmaking genius Michel Haneke’s 1980s work, in particular The Seventh Continent, which includes many long takes of everyday actions. And in both films, we the audience watch a dated TV along with the characters. Haneke’s Funny Games is brought to mind as the doppelgangers descend upon the family’s summer house, temporarily disabling the father by hitting him in the leg with a bat, instead of a golf club as in the Haneke classic, and Peele actually instructed lead actress Nyong'o to watch Funny Games before filming.
The opening TV shot is also - perhaps more tangentially yet still oddly - reminiscent of the aptly-named band Twin Shadow’s music video for the song Saturdays, in which Nickelodeon plays on an old TV as a young black boy looks on in delight while the kids on screen join hands, and in which the similarly Santa Cruz-based ‘80s film Lost Boys is recreated briefly, Kiefer Sutherland’s vampire character remade with a different actor, as well as Twin Peaks. Moss's brief and creepy mirror-facing performance as Kitty, in which she seems to be practicing appearing human, reminded me of Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks as well. And the climactic end scene seems to pay homage to Black Swan through its use of ballet as a medium to express an eerie and unwanted connection to an evil-twin version of one's self as we saw in Darenofski’s masterpiece.
Yet in spite of all these derivations, Us manages to seem entirely original.
When you can't tell which twin is the evil one
Nostalgia and throwbacks in the Us movie
Adding to the references, Us is also rife with throwbacks, including the Thriller t-shirt that young Adelaide wears in the early flashback scenes on the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and the Jaws shirt her son dons when they return there years later. (Peele has cited Jaws as an influence on his earlier Get Out.) NWA, OJ Simpson, Home Alone, Luniz, and even The Beach Boys are name-dropped, but the most important seems to be Hands Across America, the ill-fated attempt of the rich to help the poor in ‘80s America, the program described in that opening scene. The event was planned as an actual interlocking of hands of Americans all the way from New York to California, a “logistical nightmare” in which less than half (only $15 million of the $34 million raised) went to charity. Later on, the long line of doppelgangers, with hands joined, mimics the Hands Across America imagery. Yet in the film, this display is described as a protest by the news, now a bottom-up movement rather than a failed top-down attempt at aid.
The dark underbelly of Santa Cruz
The choice of Santa Cruz as a filming location was an interesting one for me personally, the town I recently described as my favorite place in the world, my home for a combined five years. While crowds of tourists flock each year to the beach boardwalk, I imagine few know of the dark underbelly of this area, where violent crime is commonplace. You might not think so from looking at its lovely smalltown appearance and taking in the kindness of locals, yet the eastside in general and the boardwalk beach flats specifically have been known as a site of gang and other violence for years.
I was once walking near the boardwalk at night and a girl warned me that I might be sex trafficked. When I laughed it off, she insisted that this was an area where people forced women into their cars for that purpose. I've been street harassed a great deal in Santa Cruz and heard about local shootings from the first week I lived there. I recently learned it's an area where mental hospitals in other states send their patients once they are done with them. A friend once told me of an odd nightbeat collection of beach flats locals rushing out every time there were gunshots, no matter what the hour, and there would always be one girl with a Minnie Mouse shirt on, asking who got shot. More sinisterly, the beach flats were also quite close to the area where 15-year-old Adrian Jerry Gonzalez raped and killed his 8-year-old neighbor Maddyson Middleton, just to see what it felt like, before disposing of her body in a trash can.
Santa Cruz is seen as a place of privilege by some, yet its personality is as two-sided as the characters in the film itself. This makes Adelaide’s insistence on leaving the boardwalk before dark, because as she says “There’s weirdos at that beach,” more poignant, and - coincidence aside - it's not at all unbelievable that the sign-holding drifter she saw as a child ends up dead in an ambulance as they are driving by.
At one point Gabe even refers to the Hands Across America-esque gathering of doppelgangers as some sort of weird street performance. Santa Cruz would certainly be the place for such performances. I remember the umbrella guy, an independently wealthy man who walked slowly, only in good weather, carrying an umbrella. Overtime he donned more and more girls' clothing, bright pink feather boas and pink dresses, a subtle smile always on his face. He since seems to have disappeared, and more recently there was a guy who seemed to live in a van in downtown SC with his little family of rabbits, seemingly homeless yet somehow able to care for these sensitive animals who are known for their high maintenance. He would play music on the side of the street, a guitar, with a rabbit on his head, singing about rabbits. Perhaps you can connect anything to anything else (it's the job of a writer after all) but I can as easily imagine Peele on a vacation to Santa Cruz himself, walking by this rabbit guy as he decides where to film his next movie.
Is Us About Race?
a) Some weird (Twitter) theories
Weird theories arose in anticipation of the Us release during December of 2018, when its trailer came out. Fans of Get Out were eager to draw connections between it and Us. Jared Richards found a connection between the scissors imagery seen in the movie ad, and the dichotomy of doppelgangers, then went a step further to bring in W.E.B Du Bois. As he says:
“The repeated appearance of scissors suggests a severing between the two halves — one caused by trauma. Over on Twitter, fans are convinced the ‘severing’, as the dopplegängers are being referred to in press material, are another way for Peele to continue exploring ‘double consciousness’, W.E.B Du Bois’ influential race theory of how African Americans see themselves two-fold: as themselves, and as themselves through their oppressor’s eyes.”
Peele Admitted Us would take place in the same universe as Get Out, perhaps unwittingly encouraging viewers to make more connections than the director intended.
“But the biggest link between the two films, arguably, is the brief moment towards the trailer’s beginning, where the family’s son doesn’t understand that Luniz’s iconic 1994 song ‘I Got 5 On It’ is about weed. To some, that suggests the boy’s been sheltered from black culture — or that he and the family are actually white, and have undergone the transplant surgery in Get Out.”
"Hence, the scissors. Two identical sides. The split personalities. In this film, the black family obviously embracing the side of ourselves that conforms to white standards, yet ignoring the other personality which embraces self and their blackness."
(See more of Klay’s theories here.)
b) Imposter syndrome, capitalist consumerism, slavery, and the prison industrial complex
There’s a lot going on here, but let’s break it down. These were my initial interpretations.
After the family calls the police, we wait the supposed 15 minutes for them to arrive. I actually wondered if precisely 15 minutes later in the film, we would come to find so much damage done that once the police arrived, it wouldn't have mattered anymore. But they never show, and this seemed to be a reference to police unresponsiveness to black American callers. I was reminded of the story of Latina Herring, who was killed after repeatedly being told to stop calling 911 on her abusive partner. There is also the general sense one gets in the U.S. that certain disadvantaged neighborhoods don't receive the same responsive service as more privileged ones. I remember calling the cops in my own Downtown Oakland neighborhood when a woman was screaming at the top of her lungs in the hallway, being beaten by her boyfriend, but the police never showed as far as I could tell. It seemed in the film this is just a given, that they accept without question that the cops are never coming, though they do continue to call, and Gabe comments on it being odd that the 911 line would be busy.
Us has references to prison life, in the orange jumpsuits, described as red throughout the film though their similarity to prison garb seems undeniable, combined with the handcuffs used on Adelaide throughout the film, themes which I imagined speak to the prison industrial complex and its overzealous focus on black Americans, as described in the documentary 13th.
Luniz’s ‘90s hiphop hit I Got 5 On It serves as a map to point out key moments in the film. It first appears as they drive to the Santa Cruz boardwalk beach, when Gabe points out “That's a classic right there,” another throwback, to remind him of a previous life. The song manages to reconnect a stressed family on vacation, but it seems there's something deeper behind what serves as a theme song to the entire film and also appears in the trailer. As the family struggles to find their rhythm in the song, the scene has some undertones of the imposter syndrome some people of color face trying to fit into a white world. Later on, in their white friends’ luxury cabin, as the song - more quietly now - follows a killing soundtrack of NWA’s Fuck the Police and the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations. The family reunited once again, it seems they have been strangely put into a position where they are forced to into violence, against their white friends they once tried to one-up through possessions and accomplishment. In a sense, they now have turned into the evil twin versions of themselves, harkening back to the betrayal we observe toward the ending of Get Out. “I’m done with boats,” Gabe announces to his daughter, relinquishing the capitalist souvenir that he had once used as a weapon against his white friend, and the family seems somehow vindicated as Zora ends the scene with “So does this mean we get to keep their car?” I've Got 5 On It is a song about sharing, putting money towards the purchase of weed, not stiffing people and taking more than your share, which serves as a fine backdrop to this tale of capitalist struggles, not only among friends but among the other versions of ourselves as shown by the doppelgangers. The song has a history of being stolen and remixed as well. Personally, it reminded me of the Aphrodite CD that had his remix on it from 1999. Finally, there's the ballet scene in which I've Got 5 On It makes its final appearance, remixed and redone once again, now a classical version.
The film also contains the idea of one of the “real” family’s members as an imposter in a white rich world, somebody getting by or passing, Someone who didn't really belong but had to act different and try to fit in. This harkens back to the DuBois theory of a dual identity experienced by black Americans that is mentioned above. The tethered are also presented as slaves, and we learn that they were abandoned and continue to exist down there in the netherworld. We could draw a parallel between this and the treatment of black Americans after slavery, who like the doppelgangers were forgotten instead of being welcomed into a new, better world.
Us is not about race
Yet Peele himself said that Us is not about race. Nyong’o also found it “refreshing” that the family was “unremarkable” and the film’s horrors had “nothing to do with the color of their skin.” As she said, "I don't live my life always considering the color of my skin, so it was nice to have a family we could project our own understanding of a family on to, no matter what color our skin is.”
After all, just because the movie stars a black family doesn’t mean we need to look at it differently for that reason, anymore than we would read white meaning into a white family’s film. Peele already commented on race a great deal in Get Out, and while it wasn’t a sequel, Us was planned to be similar on at least some level - plus, there was his upcoming script for an updated Candyman sequel, another horror film that originally tackled racial issues.
Yet as Peele told Rolling Stone:
“It’s important to me that we can tell black stories without it being about race. I realized I had never seen a horror movie of this kind, where there’s an African-American family at the center that just is. After you get over the initial realization that you’re watching a black family in a horror film, you’re just watching a movie. You’re just watching people. I feel like it proves a very valid and different point than Get Out, which is, not everything is about race. Get Out proved the point that everything is about race. I’ve proved both points!”
So now I feel like a racist asshole, reading into things racially when that was not the director's intention. Though from some of the above theories, it seemed I was not alone. Perhaps it makes sense to expect such racial commentary after Peele's debut Get Out. Yet even the "prisoner" jumpsuits were said to be based on Michael Jackson's outfit in the Thriller video, rather than necessarily making a political statement (though we still know that's something Peele likes to do).
What a coincidence...
Immigration theme in the Us film
Even if Us wasn’t meant to be about race, Peele has still said he wants to tackle other “social monsters” in his films. In Us, coincidences signal bad things to come (similar to the Mothman legend). One trailer shows a clip where a red starred frisbee falls on a blue circle over a white blanket, seemingly a symbol of the American flag, hinting that there is in fact another social monster to tackle in this movie.
Maybe it’s because of my love of all things cozy, or the fact that I watched these movies back to back, but I noticed the word cozy arises in both Get Out and Us. It seems to suggest a privileged safety in both cases. In Get Out, Rose asks Chris if he has his “cozy clothes” in preparation to leave the city for the mostly white suburb where her parents live. In Us, Gabe's friend Josh doesn’t want to leave his “cozy spot” to go check if burglars have descended upon his home. The characters are comfortable yet become victims even in their supposedly safe worlds.
When the doppelgangers first come in, we see the family offering capitalist possessions to stave them off, even though it seems utterly ridiculous given the bizarre circumstances. There’s a dynamic of privilege, the “real” family having lived a parallel blessed life alongside the doppelgangers, who describe their suffering as they watched their twins have everything they couldn’t. It’s hard not to notice the way the jumpsuits (described as red, but which I thought of as orange) look like prison uniforms. The documentary 13th definitely drew a parallel between race and incarceration that’s hard for me to shake, but I’ll have to take Peele’s word he wasn’t trying to go there (even though I’ll still wonder if his subconscious was somehow).
Peele has discussed immigration, if vaguely, in Us related interviews. "As a nation we tend to fear the outsider," he says. "We point the finger at the mysterious invader, and that xenophobia has sort of been fueled... We also point the finger at people who aren't like us, who didn't vote like us, who live across the street from us. This movie is about the notion that maybe we are our own worst enemy."
The immigrant is an outsider, and the doppelgangers are those outsiders who share more with us than we realized. But as Peele says, even our own neighbors may be seen as outsiders, given the right (or wrong) frame of mind.
In the same way alien scifi films of the ‘50s, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, catered to American xenophobia, Peele tears down the coddling structures that enable these fears, to criticize current American anti-immigrant sentiments in a sometimes subtle and sometimes hit-you-over-the-head-with-it way. The so-called War on Terror is another target, as when Adelaide asks the shadow people who they are and her doppelganger replies with “We are Americans,” hinting that's the threat is less external then it seems. Her son even suggests “terrorists and perverts” as potential threats to his safety, following a scare at the same Santa Cruz beach where his mother Adelaide first met her own doppelganger.
The family briefly discusses the option of escaping to Mexico to get away from the doppelganger uprising. But Gabe insists “We're as safe here as will be anywhere,” harkening back to the very American idea that if you leave the country, you’re in danger, but if you stay you’re somehow protected, nevermind the crime, lack of social supports, and other social ills Americans face. In this same scene, the family rolls up their windows to protect them as many privileged Americans have done when driving through what they consider to be an unsavory part of town. If you watch with subtitles, you may notice their characters are labeled with the word “bad," as in “Bad Josh.” Yet the “real” family’s own white clothes become more red and blood-stained, closer to the doppelgangers’, by the end of the film, making them more guilty, committing more violence than their doppelgangers did perhaps. At the end of the film, the tethered face the prospect of a better life, and it’s actually celebrated in the film through joyous, uplifting music, driving off into the sunset as though this kind of happy ending could be possible for America’s true underclass as well.
SNL's Us parody
What do the rabbits mean?
Watching Get Out again in preparation for Us, I noticed the rabbit reference at the beginning of the film, when the song Run Rabbit Run plays, also a book by the author John Updike, which describes an irresponsible wayward journey through life (also referenced in Drinking Buddies, when it is gifted to the irresponsible girlfriend of Ron Livingston from Office Space's character, but I digress).
Peele says he’s scared of rabbits. "I make cameos in my films as dying animals," he says, including a rabbit screech in Us and roadkill deer in Get Out. Describing his rabbit phobia, Peele explains, "They're very cuddly but they also have a sociopathic expression, and they kind of look past you in a creepy kind of way."
So there’s the creep factor. I was also reminded of Kim Jong-il breeding monster rabbits to supposedly feed starving North Koreans. The kid cuts off the toy rabbit’s head in their house. There’s a rabbit on Adelaide's daughter's shirt when Gabe shows off his capitalist toy, the new boat. She’s also wearing camo, and if we’re reading that deeply into it (and because the rabbit on the shirt seemed a symbol), this could indicate a reference to American militarism.
I wondered about a possible prison connection again since the rabbits were in cages, but by the end scenes where the two women face off, the rabbits are jumping around free. The rabbits seemed to symbolize the tethered as an underclass, kept down by their privileged counterparts.
Rabbits are also test subjects, as the tethered were. Scientists are known to test cosmetic ingredients on rabbits, and in the film the twin underclass was its own cloning experiment. In a way, it seemed to make Us one of those films you realize is actually a scifi film at the end, ala Abre Los Ojos (Vanilla Sky).
Final thoughts after watching
After finishing Us, it was hard to know what to do next, wanting somehow to come up with a story as brilliant as this and execute it, or get my own thoughts on it down before they faded, influenced by others' opinions. As a writer, an artist myself, this was the kind of film that made me want to run out and create something as good as it, inspired by its powerful darkness, in the surprisingly uplifting end shots and music, a sort of twisted happy ending. But so it is with horror - at least for me - that my ability to enjoy it is kept intact by those emotional tools that brilliant directors like Peele know how to use to make it a pleasurable experience to live through someone else's pain.