Claudia M. Allen is a writer based in Maryland, MD.
Anyone who follows Jordan Peele’s work, either now as a director or even formerly as a skit comedian, knows that he’s committed to using film, comedy, and storytelling for social criticism. Us is no different. Gingerly stepping outside of the traditional horror film genre, Peele presents a thriller that challenges the viewer to wrestle with mental health, privilege, and even more subtly the dark underworld of racism. But what’s most fascinating is how Peele provides a challenging and even confusing critique of these concerns through the biblical lens of Jeremiah 11:11.
The film begins with Adelaide; a quiet, young black girl celebrating her birthday at a carnival with her parents. While her father is distracted winning prizes for her, Adelaide wanders off towards the beach. Along the way she passes a young man who is dirty and disheveled in his appearance. The cardboard sign in his hands reads, “Jeremiah 11:11.” When an adult-Adelaide (played by Lupita N’yong’o) returns to the beach years later, she sees the same man again. This time, he appears significantly older and is lying on a stretcher being carted away into an ambulance. His sign laying on his motionless body.
It would have been easy to dismiss these scripture references if they were the only two times the film paid reference to it. This verse appears several times throughout the film. The next time we see a reference to this text is when Adelaide’s husband Gabe, (Winston Duke) is watching a baseball game and hears the announcer say, “we’re tied at 11:11.” 11:11 soon returns again as the time stuck on the clock when the power in the Wilson’s home goes out just before their copycat family first appears in red, and then later, it is represented on a t-shirt worn by one of the daughters of the Wilson’s family friends. But why does Peele sprinkle 11:11 throughout the film so much, and what is the significance?
Listening to Peele discuss the importance of duality within the film caused me to guess that 11:11 might be a numerical representation of the Tethered. The Tethered is the name of the seemingly human copycats dressed in red jumpsuits. The film suggests that every human has a duplicate in this group. For this reason I believe the numbers serve as a metaphoric representation of the reality that there is a version of ourselves that we intentionally try to ignore, or that we may not even be fully aware of. Throughout the film, this is what the Tethered appear to be, versions of the humans that some are completely unaware of and others try to ignore and keep hidden.
However, 11:11 does not just carry metaphorical significance. Of even greater importance is the number’s attachment to the biblical book of Jeremiah. According to the New International Version of the Bible, Jeremiah 11:11 says, “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.’” By integrating this text into his film, Peele is suggesting that humanity’s deprivation has exceeded the point of redemption. The humans in this film represent the idolatry and blinding pride that Revelation 3:17 suggests often comes with privilege: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.’” We see this in the Tyler family. A rich, Caucasian family, who are close friends with the Wilsons. The Tyler’s represent what it means to be so rich that you don’t need anything at all and predictably, it’s not long before their oblivious disregard for the world around them ultimately catches up to them. Distracted while enjoying their various luxuries, the Tyler’s copycat family surprises them with their presence, killing them quickly because they were unguarded and unaware. Their death is a message to the viewer that destruction can quickly occur when you are blinded by pride and wealth and it goes to show that no amount of money or privilege can offer you absolute protection. There’s a verse in the Gospel of Luke that depicts this perfectly. The Gospel of Luke is a record found in the New Testament of the Bible. In chapter 12 and verse 20 God says, “’You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” In essence, the same Bible that warns of apparent destruction in the Old Testament also warns that a night may come where your life can be taken without warning in the New Testament. The Tyler family and their unfortunate death serve as a representation of the damning destruction that is set for those who have allowed pride and privilege to blind them to the cries and concerns of the undervalued.
This leads me to the how the film uses Jeremiah 11:11 to also critique how another “us” the “U.S.” intentionally segregates those less privileged by restricting them in location, diet, and social relations. As you watch the film you’ll notice the Tethered are forced to remain locked underground. They can only eat raw living rabbits, and can only interact with others just like them, which in a real sense, is Peele critiquing America’s practice of closeting and caging the disenfranchised, the disabled, and the deranged. Sound familiar? Jordan Peele’s Us uses the Tethered as a metaphor for African Americans and other minorities, the hungry and the homeless, the mentally ill, gender non-conforming and Trans-persons, and those labeled criminals or convicted felons. Our practice of locking these groups away from the larger society, restricting their access to proper nutritious food, and indirectly determining where they go to school, where they work, and how they live, is the sin of social exclusion and determinism. Such treatment is why the Tethered escape and revolt. And such is a cinematic portrayal of the potential revolt these groups will unleash on America.
For these reasons, Peele’s incorporation of Jeremiah 11:11 is to let the privileged viewers know that a day is coming when the disenfranchised will become fed up with their physical and social confinement. This frustration will cause them to come for the lives of the privileged, those who have constructed their subpar existence. And according to Jeremiah 11:11, God will not save them.