Adelaide and Red: The dichotomy between Diaspora and African Blackness (Spoilers)

Ever since Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ slashed its way into cinemas around the world, multiple theories and interpretations have abounded about the film’s themes and its characters. People have been theorising, in particular, about the twist regarding Adelaide and Red. At the end of the film, we are shown the flashback to that fateful night when Adelaide met Red for the first time. In the final minutes of the film, it is made clear that everything we’ve witnessed has been a tale of revenge. Adelaide was strangled and imprisoned by the girl in the funhouse mirror and left underground to live amongst the Tethered and become their messiah. All the while, the Adelaide we’ve been following throughout the film and rooting for to save her family has been the mirror girl. What makes ‘Us’ unique is that it is not just a film. It is a call to action, for industrialised countries in the global North to come to terms with and accept responsibility for their exploitative colonial histories. The Tethered represent the children of colonisation for whom the drive for technological, socio-political and economic domination among European powers, forcibly turned them into an underclass left to pick up the pieces after their colonisers (here, represented by the long absent American scientists) abandoned them. 

Photo: The Mary Sue

The divide between the Surface people and the Tethered can be understood through the lens of the global North’s historical relationship with the global South. And ‘Us’ serves as the inevitable reckoning that must come with addressing the world’s history of colonisation and dehumanisation. Perhaps it is especially significant that the Tethered are literal mirror images of the people on the Surface since the Tethered are believed to not have souls (eerily reminiscent of the scientific and religious racism that was used to justify the colonisation of the world’s non-white peoples). Given how we see them behave throughout the film, the case can certainly be made that this assessment of the Tethered is false. The actions of young Adelaide in the funhouse would certainly lead audiences to believe that she has a soul and the rest of the Tethered along with her. The desperation to claw at, fight for and seize the slightest chance of liberation as and when it represents itself is certainly indicative of the presence of what most of us would call a soul. But; if the Tethered are not as soulless as we are, initially, led to believe, and the struggle that we see in the film is one for freedom, then who is the true villain of the piece? This is the equal parts burning and baffling question that the re-contextualisation of the twist at the end of ‘Us’ left me with. 

Photo: Universal/Everett Collection

We initially think that it’s Red and the Tethered, but they were simply an exploited underclass desperate to be afforded the same privileges as their Surface counterparts as evidence by Red’s assertion, “We are Americans”. Then we think that its Adelaide when she killed Red in a desperate bid to hold on to the life that she fought for. But that’s not, strictly, true either. The real villain of the piece is the third party that we only ever hear about but never see - the third party that forcibly underprivileged the Tethered to the point of making the film’s confrontation an inevitability. The real villain of the piece is white supremacy (here, exemplified by the scientists that created, and later abandoned, the Tethered). To fully understand the scope of ‘Us’’ villain, we must look at Adelaide and Red as avatars of two differing black identities formed out of a white supremacist history and the conflict that exists between them. The scientists that created the Tethered, like a colonial Victor Frankenstein, had the long term goal of control and domination over life itself. And when it became apparent that the domination they sought could not be fully achieved and sustained, they abandoned their creation and left them to fend for themselves and create their own identity (but not before, sowing the seeds of the Surface’s undoing through subjugation). Red and the Tethered represent modern Diaspora blackness while Adelaide and the Surface are representative of modern African blackness. The mirror girl choking and imprisoning little Adelaide underground is analogous to the history of Africans selling other Africans to slave traders in a bid to secure a life for themselves – complicity in the colonialist machine as self-preservation. If Red’s revenge against her aggressor is the struggle of Diaspora peoples to assert their own identity and culture in the aftermath of slavery, Jim Crow, the economic revenge against Haiti and the just anger that is felt at that initial betrayal by their own, we must look at Adelaide’s fear of retribution as African people who are still living in the aftermath of their colonisation while struggling to reckon with their complicity in the enslavement and oppression of Diaspora peoples.

Ultimately, both are inextricably linked as children of the same colonial and white supremacist history. As we watch them dance and struggle in the film, we are seeing both of them be molded and shaped by the actions and choices of a third party with a view to domination over both. And when the Tethered rise up to kill their Surface counterparts, we are seeing a manifestation of the rage that is felt, not towards the abuser, but towards the beneficiary of abuse and the outcome of the inevitably, painful (but no less necessary) reckoning that must come when we face ourselves. And when the dust settles from the initial night of terror, both are left to reckon with extensive manipulation and violence, the painful and traumatic fallout of which is and will continue to be felt for many more generations to come.  

The real twist of ‘Us’ is not that Red and Adelaide switched places as children and are enemies, but rather, that they are two sides of the same colonised coin.

Article by Tariyé Peterside. To see more from Tariyé here


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