Jordan Peele Makes Movies That Go Back to His Roots

He’s not the “new” anyone. He’s without a doubt, completely, 100% Jordan Peele and the mix of influences on 'Us' proves it.
'us' Thumbnail

Jordan Peele is back! With his sophomore effort, Us, Peele has once again become the talk of the town—and for good reason. Expectations were high following the phenomenon that was Get Out, but based on its critical acclaim and box office success, the new movie proves to be a worthy follow-up.

With two solid films under his belt, Peele has been given “new” monikers left and right. He’s the new Hitchcock, the new Spielberg, and (to those with a less forgiving view of Us following the greatness of Get Out) the new Shyamalan. But let’s not get hung up on deciding who Peele is shaping up to be the “new” version of. We’ve been gifted the first Jordan Peele, someone who makes films that are a unique hodge-podge of the man himself.

That’s not to say that Peele is shying away from big names in cinema; on the contrary, he’s eager to discuss the influences on Us, including—you guessed it—Alfred Hitchcock. Peele describes taking a page from Hitchcock’s book in regards to setting in a Little White Lies interview:

“I wanted to not only revisit [Hitchcock’s study of place in the Bay Area], but to put a Black family in the center of it… I often ask myself, ‘what if Hitchcock worked with Black actors?’ Those are my favorite movies that have never been made so that’s kind of what I’m here to do.”

Making this sort of film brought together other influences in horror tropes and themes. A big trope Peele capitalizes on in Us is the creation of a monster. “When you see a charismatic and well-designed monster, it is magnetic and in the tradition of monster stories, I think empathy lies beneath it,” Peele said in a Collider interview. “With Frankenstein, for example, you are terrified of him but you are also invited to relate to him and empathize with him, which I think is such a fascinating subgenre.”

There are other elements common in horror films that Peele enjoys, little fascinations that truly reveal his admiration for the genre. “One of my favorite tropes in horror movies is the improvised weapon and the found object,” Peele told Little White Lies. Naturally, he works this detail into Us with a weapon-of-choice that his main character is hardly seen without, a fire poker.

Apart from the horror-specific winks in Us, Peele includes some broader cinephilic touches: little things in the set design, costume Easter eggs, and even lines from quintessential films. “I have an iconic line from The Goonies in the movie… ‘It’s our time now,’” Peele revealed to Uproxx in another interview.

Perhaps even more impressive than the plethora of cinematic references Peele makes is the fact that he’s already in a place where he can reference himself. (Wasn’t it Hitchcock who said that self-plagiarism is style?) “The Man with Two Brains, for me, was that other thematic connection. The idea of two intelligences sharing a soul in a way. And was probably a little reference to Get Out in there, too,” Peele said in the same interview.

Although he clearly loves a good reference, Us is evidence that Peele isn’t standing still in referencing history. His films have evolved, most obviously in the fact that this one isn’t about race, but also in terms of how the film is to be interpreted. Get Out had a more clear-cut message, but Peele alludes to the ambiguity of Us. “It’s a bit more of a Rorschach than my last picture,” Peele said in an article from The Ringer. “It really is about looking within.”

What’s more, Us looks to completely upend audience expectations of who a protagonist can be in this kind of film. Peele has no intention of allowing those expectations to go unchallenged and addresses them by putting Lupita Nyong’o in the lead. Peele said of the actress in a Gizmodo interview:

“The same way I wanted to just absolutely stab the white savior trope in ‘Get Out,’ with this one, I wanted to take you along a journey that you haven’t seen a black, female protagonist get to take. When you look at what I’m doing with the racial tropes, I’m trying to bust out of those boxes and go the other way.”

Nyong’o is a central figure as both the protagonist and the monster, her own doppelgänger. This idea of doppelgängers isn’t just something Peele got from numerous other successful doppelgänger-centered films; it’s an idea from his past that he’s workshopped to become the film we see today. “I started with [the idea of doppelgängers being scary] when I was younger… Just about every mythology has some version of the doppelgänger tale, and there tends to be a harrowing menace attached to the mythology as well,” he said in the Collider interview.

He incorporated these ideas from his past into other elements of the film as well, like the recurring Hands Across America theme. Despite the fact that the 1986 charitable event involving people holding hands across the US had gaps and that the whole ordeal didn’t actually raise that much money, Peele recalls the Hands Across America effort as something that a generation could convince themselves was effective in some way. “It made us feel like we had accomplished something. And we could go on about our ‘80s lives,” he told Uproxx.

When he later stumbled on a Hands Across America commercial on YouTube, it scared him. “The tone of this commercial just had that sort of ‘80s ‘Everything’s Great!’ quality… And that pit in the stomach… just virtue of being in that time… vulnerable as children,” Peele recalled to Uproxx. Naturally, he forces his audience to feel that unnerving quality of the chain in Us.

As audiences file into theaters to witness the newest addition to the slate of Jordan Peele films, it’ll be interesting to see what other references and Easter eggs come to light. Until then, we can continue to admire the man himself, someone so invested in the genre of horror that he can entertain us as a walking reference.

From his references to his influences, it’s clear that Peele put a lot of thought into bringing Us to life. The result is a film that is a little bit of everything—references and themes from iconic cinema mixed with personal ideas and fascinations— that could only have been made by Jordan Peele. As long as he keeps making films as fascinating as those we’ve seen from him so far, who really cares who he’s the new version of?

Aliya Jones: Studies film and its relation to society at NYU Gallatin. Still hurt that 'The Florida Project' got snubbed.