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What Is Hands Across America?

The Chilling Significance of the Hands Across America Imagery in Jordan Peele's Us

US, Lupita Nyong'o as doppelganger Red, 2019. ph: Claudette Barius /  Universal / courtesy Everett Collection

Jordan Peele's Us creeps into theaters this weekend, but young fans of the Oscar-winning director may be scratching their heads about the opening scene, which takes place in 1986 and features a television commercial for Hands Across America.

Although modern critics deride its overall impact, Hands Across America was a real charity event designed to raise awareness about famine in Africa and homelessness in the United States. The event took place on Sunday, May 25, 1986, and involved 6.5 million people linking hands in a human chain across the continental United States. The benefit raised $34 million, although less than half that money went to the cause due to the rather significant promotional costs. Of course, Peele's motives for the commercial go much deeper than testing our pop culture knowledge.

Hands Across America is the thread that tethers the past to the present in Us and acts as the allegoric backbone for the doppelgänger mythology we encounter throughout the tale.

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Warning: HUGE spoilers for Us ahead! You have been warned.

Moments after the Hands Across America imagery, the film settles on the boardwalk of Santa Cruz, California, circa 1986, where we meet a childhood version of our protagonist, Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry). Adelaide soon wanders away from her parents into a funhouse hall of mirrors that acts as a waystation between our world and the underground domain of the Tethered. Inside the funhouse, Adelaide meets Red, her identical twin counterpart, and Red cleverly swaps places with the innocent young girl.

This sequence lays the foundation for the film's conflict. Essentially, the Tethered are the byproduct of a government-funded nationwide cloning project. While the experiment successfully replicated human subjects, the science failed to capture the mind and spirit of the original specimens. As a result, the government scrapped the effort and left millions of mute clones to live out the rest of their existence in a dismal series of underground tunnels.

When Red steals young Adelaide's identity and dooms the girl to live among the Tethered, she triggers a deadly chain of events. The original Adelaide grows up in the underworld and rallies the doppelgängers to storm the surface world, kill their counterparts, and assume their place in a celebratory human chain that mirrors the 1986 Hands Across America demonstration — presumably, the last real human event the original Adelaide remembers from her childhood.

Peele takes us full circle by ending the movie with a macabre aerial view of thousands of the Tethered clad in their ill-fitting red jumpsuits linking hands across a mountain range in California. The imagery subverts the thematic intention of the original Hands Across America to demonstrate how we often turn a blind eye to the poor and disenfranchised who struggle to rise above their station. In essence, Us acts as a warning to our country. We must be brave enough to acknowledge and expose our problematic history of subjugation in an effort to make amends and move forward together. If not, we run the risk of self destruction.

Image Source: Universal Pictures
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