The Theology of Jordan Peele’s Us
Jordan Peele’s latest movie, Us, is an intense horror film that confronts issues of duality, identity, sameness, otherness, sin, and judgment, just to name a few. Part of what makes Us so rich is not just its carefully crafted storytelling, but its strategy of navigating weighty topics from different approaches: philosophical, social, psychological, and theological. This makes Us an excellent resource for theological reflection, with theological claims that are as bold as they are relevant. So let’s dive into some of the prominent theological themes that provide the overarching framework for Us.
[This review will only spoil major plot details (already shown in the trailer) and prominent themes.]
Sin and Judgement
Us brings up a host of issues: race relations in the US, the unacknowledged violence of upward class mobility, how charity often serves to ease the consciences of the prosperous, the consequences of failing to confront our own demons, the arbitrariness of affluence, and so on. But while Us abounds with an array of themes and ideas underneath its surface, it wears a fair amount of its theology on its sleeve.
At the beginning, the film references Jeremiah 11:11: “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.’” Besides being a clever reference to the movie’s motif of duality and mirroring (as the chapter and verse are both “11”), this verse sets the theological framework through which to interpret the narrative: Us is a story about judgment. But what for? The previous verse, Jeremiah 11:10, provides a clue: “They have returned to the sins of their ancestors, who refused to listen to my words. They have followed other gods to serve them. Both Israel and Judah have broken the covenant I made with their ancestors.” The main characters of our story (the Wilson family) are subject to the horrific consequences of their sins, the sins they have inherited from their ancestors.
As the narrative progresses, we learn that the Wilsons’ successes and joys were at the expense of their doppelgangers. While the Wilsons climbed the social ladder, enjoying the benefits of an idyllic middle class of the American Dream, their doppelgängers were imprisoned to a hellish underground existence, unable to lead lives their own. This is a symbolic representation of the “Two Americas”: One America which flourishes in nice homes and vacation houses, while the other America must scrap for a living in under-resourced, exploited, and disenfranchised neighborhoods.
The Wilsons are therefore forced to acknowledge that their privileged life is not innocent. Affluence is largely a matter of which zip code you were born in, and it is established on the broken backs and bodies of the less fortunate. The Wilsons have attempted to shield themselves from the prevalent injustices operating under the ground they walk on. They could only climb upward if they refused to look down, but now the foundation they have failed to acknowledge is threatening to swallow them whole.
Us and Them
The Wilsons must reckon with their neglect of the other, but the film doesn’t stop there. The film interrogates the very division of self and other, or, as the film’s title hints, the division between “us” and “them.” The motif of doppelgängers immediately blurs the tidy divisions that we take solace in: heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists, self and other.
According to Peele, there are few things scarier than the self. In an interview, he explained that the doppelgänger “is a representation of the guilt, the trauma, the fear, the hatred that might be buried underneath layers of pleasantry. All that stuff that we don’t deal with: When it comes out, it’ll come out in crazy ways.” When we stop to consider ourselves, we are confronted with a paradox: we are simultaneously intimately familiar and profoundly alienated from ourselves. We relate to our preferences and points of view, but are terrified by our demons. When confronted with our darkness, we repress, ignore, and (attempt to) untether ourselves from it. The lines drawn between self and other not only run between persons, but within them.
The Wilsons (and the audience) are thereby indicted for the sin of disintegration. They have failed to properly integrate their pain, past, and the consequences of their actions into their own selves. This highlights another biblical theme that Us echoes: When we fail to reckon with “the sins of our ancestors,” we are doomed to return to them, and incur the judgment that eventually follows.
In my reading, Us does not clearly prescribe hopeful paths forward, which is understandable: Peele’s goal was to present a mirror to the audience, forcing us to reckon with the darkness we prefer to ignore, and on that front, he clearly succeeds. Nonetheless, when viewed theologically, I believe that the film subtly points to integration as the means of redemption.
Us shows that hatred of the other is hatred of the self. We hate aspects of ourselves, repress them, and project them onto others. This demonstrates the notion, especially prevalent in psychoanalysis, that what we most despise in others is a mirror image of what we hate in ourselves. In a refusal to reckon with our own darkness, we transmit it onto others, polluting everyone and everything around us. In order to do this, we generate unnecessary divisions which perpetuate injustice and oppression.
But if the hatred of the other is hatred of the self, then the converse is also true: love of the other is love of the self. And if exclusion is a consequence of disintegration, then embrace is a consequence of integration. The path forward, therefore, is acknowledging that we are not bound to repeat our sins as the tragic hero is bound to their fate. Rather, our darkness can be confronted, and even redeemed. For, as Betsie ten Boom declared, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”
The path forward, as I understand it, is to take the process of integration seriously, eschewing false and self-serving divisions. And in so doing, we explore the depth of what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).