Inside the mind of Jordan Peele: the man who takes a bruising look at the American psyche

The directer says ‘Us’ is a little more of a Rorschach test. He tallks us through its sinister undertones

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 14: Director and screenwriter Jordan Peele attends UK exclusive screening of "Us" at Picturehouse Central on March 14, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Universal)
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The new film from Get Out director Jordan Peele is another indication that he might just be the American version of the great French film director, Jean-Luc Godard.

That's high praise indeed, especially given that Us is only Peele's second film. The comparisons are pertinent because the American director displays a fascination with semiotics and makes use of cultural references with the same adroitness as the French New Wave director.

The good news for cinema audiences is that while Godard references academics and theories that most of us have never heard of, Peele references ingrained pop cultural phenomena including Michael Jackson, The Lost Boys and Jaws.

The 'Twilight Zone' episode that inspired 'Us'

Us tells the story of a ­middle-class African-American family who go on holiday to Santa Cruz, California. Mum Adelaide Wilson, played by Lupita Nyong'o, is not happy about this, as back in 1986 she went missing on the very same beach after wandering into a haunted hall of mirrors. She's right to worry, as on their first night there, the family are attacked by their doppelgangers.

On the surface this is a straight home-invasion movie, but look closely and there's something much more sinister and crafty at work. It was while watching an episode of The Twilight Zone, titled Mirror Image, in the fifth-floor apartment of the Manhattan brownstone where he grew up, that Peele first became exposed to doppelgangers. Mirror Image stars Vera Barnes, and it tells the story of a young career woman who encounters a lookalike while waiting for a bus, and becomes convinced it is an evil entity from a parallel universe. The storyline haunted him so much that he used it as the basis of Us.

An obsession with duality

Peele, 40, first found fame in front of the camera as a comedian working on sketch show Key & Peele. His life seems to have now come full circle, as he has been tapped to produce new episodes of The Twilight Zone.

This follows on from the success of him producing Spike Lee's Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman. His directorial efforts in Get Out and Us also demonstrate his obsession with doubles and dualities. Part of the black experience in America is about dual identity, code switching and double consciousness, so it's an influence that is both individual and communal across society. Even the title of his new movie recognises that and has a double meaning – it also refers to the acronym for the United States. In fact, Peele says Us "is about the duality of the United States, first and foremost".

Writer-producer-director Jordan Peele on the set of his film, "Us." Courtesy Universal Pictures
Jordan Peele on the set of his film 'Us'. Courtesy Universal Pictures

Peele explains that he was looking to make a film that worked on many different levels. "If you have just had a hard day of work and you just want to sit back and eat popcorn, you can, but it's also for those who want to sit up on the tip of their seat and start analysing and finding some of these little treasures."

And it's true, even if the layers make it a less immediately gratifying watch than his Oscar-winning race drama Get Out, arguably the best American film of the past decade.

Us also takes a bruising look at the American psyche, and what it sees is pretty horrific. "This movie is different to Get Out in that it's a little more of a Rorschach test," Peele says, referring to the psychological tests in which subjective perceptions of inkblots are analysed. "Us is kind of subjective; you can probably look at it and define it in many different ways and analyse it how you choose."

The hidden references 

Some of that imagery can be seen on T-shirts that its characters are wearing, which have references to Thriller, Jaws and the California punk band Black Flag. These give notice that Us is all about our inner demons. Take Michael Jackson's Thriller for example, which itself is an ode to the late singer's love for horror movies. The famous music video directed by John Landis is full of horror references and features Jackson appearing as a seemingly nice guy on a date, who then turns into a werewolf and a zombie – a suggestion of his inner demons, perhaps. Peele draws parallels between Jackson's vision and his own.

Us is kind of subjective; you can probably look at it and define it in many different ways and analyse it how you choose.

With Us arriving just a few weeks after the airing of the documentary Leaving Neverland, it is also a test of how much audiences can stomach pop-culture references being made about a singer whose personal conduct is under such a dark cloud. Yet Peele just sees the whole furore adding to this film, rather than detracting from it.

"I didn't know that this documentary was coming out, but in many ways, the duality of Michael Jackson has been well documented," he told UK music website NME. "I think it [Leaving Neverland] addresses this idea of the shadow self and when we talk about the collective shadow self, which is what this film is about. It involves an ability for us to ignore the truth and the darker side of ourselves. That's the perfect symbol for what this movie is."

Us is the latest part of a promised series of four films from Peele, all of which are social thrillers in the vein of Get Out that look to hone in on contemporary society so the good news is that even more doppelgangers are on the way.

Perhaps by the time the fourth film arrives, everyone might be saying Peele is the American Godard.

Us is in cinemas across the UAE from today