by Dawnette Chambers and Christopher C. Thompson | 12 April 2019 |
SPOILER ALERT: Whereas it is not our intention to ruin the experience for those who intend to see the film, please be advised that what follows does contain information that may reveal some key plot details.
Given the strong biblical image that provides a backdrop to its story, we believe that film Us should be engaged from a religious perspective. Its story forces us to deal directly with judgment and reckoning, core concepts to the Christian faith. Furthermore, is it possible that despite the rhetoric of remnant responsibility, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is complicit with the failures of wider society to dismantle systems of oppression and lift the underprivileged from a second-class existence?
The plot centers around an American family whose vacation is horrifically interrupted when their vacation home is invaded by maniacal doppelgängers who intend to do them harm. With this chilling storyline we are forced to engage with issues such as poverty, classism, systematic oppression and the like.
A New Kind of Bible Movie
In the opening scenes we are introduced to the biblical center of the film when the main character walks past a doomsday preacher of sorts. Half hobo, half hippie, he isn’t yelling prophetic pronouncements. Rather, he stands silently holding a homemade placard cut directly from a cardboard box. The sign reads simply Jeremiah 11:11.
This simple message echoes throughout the film, and thus provides a philosophical frame for the conflict in the story. The text is a prophecy of impending judgment against God’s chosen people for their disobedience.
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.” (Jer. 11:11 NIV)
Judah has failed to hold to the divine precepts. They have followed after the ways of the world and the gods of the heathen nations that surround them. They have turned away from God, and thus God pronounces their doom.
The Power of Privilege
Privilege tends to make one oblivious to the plight of others. In Us, writer and director Jordan Peele shows us that there is more that connects us than separates us, and that by putting more effort into demonstrations than actual systems of change we will pay a great price for our continued indifference when God’s judgment comes, or more specifically, the mounting unrest of the voiceless, powerless, underprivileged.
For someone who may be wondering which category they fall under, whether privileged or underprivileged, let’s look to the film first. In Us, the underprivileged are those who live in the tunnels of the cities all across the United States. These people cannot speak, they eat raw rabbit meat, and they lack emotional intelligence. They are unaware of a life above ground and when they find out about the possibility of life beyond the tunnels, they attempt to take their new place by force.
America is a nation built from a desire for prosperity and religious freedom. It is a country where those that arrive spend their days working toward the grand ideal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” based on the premise that we are created equal. These come to realize that the dream is often unreachable. For so many, the American dream is just that: a dream.
It is here that many will respond that America is the land of opportunity. This is true. The crushing poverty of some foreign lands makes dreams of wealth and ease virtually impossible. Yet, a careful survey of American life would reveal that while America is more advanced and prosperous, most Americans are still bound by numerous systems of confinement and limitation that deprive them of social privilege and upward mobility.
As a body of believers that “keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus” the task is ours to work to lift the underprivileged, and dismantle systems that obstruct their progress.
We are doing a disservice to God, to ourselves and to the underprivileged masses by failing to ensure that the full extent of the blessed life is extended to them, beyond simply holiday food baskets and prayer when a need arises. It is sin to share the good news of the gospel in word only, or to only engage the underprivileged in an effort to increase church membership numbers. Jesus described his ministry when he stood up in church and read the words of the prophet Isaiah saying:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
(Is. 61:1-2a NIV)
We individually and collectively turn out to be the monsters in our society. As individuals, by neglecting those who suffer in our failure to eradicate systems that perpetuate their trauma and oppression. As a body, we are seemingly unfazed with those issues of the underprivileged. If the goal is to be like Jesus in the home and throng, we are missing the mark.
One the most powerful thematic references in the film is to Hands Across America (HAA), a 1986 demonstration and fundraising campaign to combat poverty, hunger and homelessness. Both authors are too young to personally remember the effort or impact of HHA, but Us highlights the project’s glaring hypocrisy. The goal was to raise $50 million and in the end it only raised about $15 million, which was about equal to the total cost of the campaign. The entire ordeal raised questions about U.S. government budget provisions for programs that were designed to meet the very needs HAA set out to address. Why didn’t HAA work? Why weren’t we able to raise more money to fight poverty? Why haven’t we been able to eradicate hunger in the most prosperous country in earth’s history?
Now there’s bound to be someone reading this who is going to attempt to answer those questions with the words of Jesus; and they’ll feel ultra-spiritual quoting him when he says, “The poor you will always have with you.” And with that quote they will demonstrate the extent to which they misunderstood Jesus’s words. Jesus did not pronounce poverty as an incurable scourge. Rather, Jesus was noting that our responsibility and opportunities to aid the poor will never waste away. Also, Jesus’ words beg the question of why from biblical days until now would it be so difficult to eradicate poverty. Us attempts (at least in part) to answer that question.
Abuse of Power
In one of the most jarring scenes, a wife enters the living room of their opulent vacation home where her husband is seated in his plush leather recliner with matching foot rest. He’s holding a glass of wine or some other alcoholic beverage. She enters the room and disrupts his blissful moment to tell him that she heard a noise outside, and that he should go and investigate. He responds saying, “I’m busy!” He is anything but busy, but this is the very heart of the matter in Us, as it is in the U.S. We are so busy enjoying the pleasures of this world, the spoils of war and the fruit of our labor that we are unable to hear the cries of the powerless and underprivileged—after all (as in the film), they have no voice to speak for themselves.
This echoes with the parable that Jesus told. “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ (Luke 16:18-20 NIV).
In Us, Gabe (Winston Duke) is the husband of the main character, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o). Gabe is also very preoccupied. While he has not reached the level of wealth of his white counterpart/coworker, he is obviously enjoying the trappings of success; he owns a Mercedes, a boat, vacation home, etc. It highlights the fact that there are so many people in this country who can’t even afford to go on vacation, much less purchase a vacation home. It is noteworthy that (generally speaking) the men in the film are the least aware of the impending threat and the extent to which their lives are endangered. They are too “busy” amassing wealth and basking in it to see the devastation around them or their own folly.
Let’s face the fact that due to sin abounding on Earth, we will constantly deal with the nuances of privilege and power. Scripture challenges us saying, “There will always be poor people in the land…“Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11 NIV)
We fail our members, communities and prospective believers when we fail to meet the basic needs of “the least of these.” When we do not make the effort to educate others we leave our fellow brothers and sisters voiceless and ambivalent to life in Jesus. God’s Word implores us, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7 NIV). It would do us well to remember who we were before the day we saw what our lives were like without hope, lost without a Savior. This is why it’s so significant that the assailants in the film are doppelgängers. They remind us that, if it were not for the grace of God, the tables could be turned and we too could have lived a life of deprivation.
Adventist education is a luxurious privilege, but it is inaccessible to so many people (including Adventists) who simply can’t afford the tuition. A vegan diet is the original diet, yet there are millions of Americans that don’t have access to quality, affordable food options. The quality of the healthcare you receive depends largely on where you work and how much money you make. The list goes on and on.
The film posits that the privileged class constructed this elaborate network of underground tunnels and living quarters and confined the underprivileged to live in them. This elaborate housing project manifests the kind of agency that could be used to eliminate poverty. Rather, our infrastructure is actually utilized to support systems that perpetuate inequality rather than eliminating it. In other words, we spend so much money building prisons, maybe we should be investing that money into elementary schools in an effort to prevent crime, by infusing the minds of youth with hope, purpose and meaning.
It’s possible that HAA spent about $15 million, and after all of the bills were paid, the net amount raised was about $15 million. So that’s $30 million. Could it have been possible to use $5 million to raise $25 million? More importantly, does an individual $10 donation and a fifteen-minute demonstration absolve me from my personal responsibility to lift up the poor?
Adventists have been preaching the health message for over a hundred years. Yet, it’s embarrassing that with all of the health food stores and vegetarian restaurants that have sprung up in the recent years, few of them are owned by Adventists. There should be a free health clinic run by Adventists in every major city. Every major city should also have a free Adventist-run family support and counseling center. But alas, the problem is us.
The End is Near
Jesus is coming soon. “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns” (Matt. 24:45-46 NIV). This prophecy is either bone-chilling or heart-warming, depending on where you stand. I am afraid that we are not ready to face ourselves, much less the Master of the Universe. This brings to mind the saying made popular by the old Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Dear God, please save us from us.
Dawnette Chambers serves as an assistant professor of communication and public relations program coordinator at her alma mater, Oakwood University.
Christopher C. Thompson works in Huntsville, AL for the Breath of Life broadcast and ministry. He and his wife Tracy have one son, Christopher II.