How Jordan Peele's 'Us' Navigates Michael Jackson In A Post-'Leaving Neverland' World
Although Jordan Peele was unaware Leaving Neverland would be released shortly before Us, the film examines the duality of the late pop icon from the moment it starts.
The scene happens shortly after Us begins.
A young Adelaide Thomas (portrayed by Madison Curry) tells her father that she wants the Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt as her prize from a carnival game. The shirt is slightly oversized. But she puts it on as soon as it's handed to her, walking alongside her parents as she eats a candy apple.
In a post-Leaving Neverland world, it's difficult to not be taken aback by the scene. If the documentary, which is centered on Jackson's alleged sexual abuse of two children throughout the '90s, didn't exist, the scene would've probably evoked a more endearing recollection of our own first experiences with Thriller. The first time witnessing the late pop star transform into a yellow-eyed werewolf or decrepit zombie, as him and a horde of other zombies surround his terrified girlfriend, only for her to wake up and realize it was a dream.
The fear is relieved, but it's brief. Jackson wrapping his arm around the girl to comfort her, only to turn and face the camera with those same glowing yellow eyes, made even more menacing by his Cheshire cat smile.
Now, it's difficult to think of that impressionable and innocent fear without considering the harmful and real fear James Safechuck and Wade Robson — the two at the center of Leaving Neverland — allegedly endured from Jackson. This ultimately leads to a re-examining and reckoning of this fear — that maybe Jackson wasn't the hero he made himself out to be. Maybe he was a werewolf, a zombie — a monster. Us has inadvertently become the first film to reference and provide a commentary — albeit subtle — on Jackson post-Leaving Neverland.
"Michael Jackson is probably the patron saint of duality," Peele said in an interview with Mashable. "The movie starts in the '80s — the duality with which I experienced him [Jackson] in that time was both as the guy that presented this outward positivity, but also the Thriller video which scared me to death."
"The irony and relevance is not lost on me now that the discussion has evolved to one of true horror," Peele added.
Duality is an integral part of Us. The film is centered around the Wilson family — Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), Gabriel (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and Jason (Evan Alex) — who are confronted by a group of doppelgangers known as the Tethered. The Tethered distinguish themselves from their counterparts not only by how they act but what they wear — a red jumpsuit and a solo hand glove. The Tethered's uniform seems to be a subtle nod to both Jackson's Thriller outfit and the sequined white glove he wore (although Jackson first wore the glove on his left hand most pictures tend to show it on his right hand), something Peele spoke to during an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
"It's no mistake, it's no coincidence, that the Tethered are wearing red and have one glove, either," he said. "We address a few of the phenomena that were happening at that time. For me, growing up, it was a very confusing time."
"The jumpsuits are a very impressionistic kind of realization of [Adelaide's childhood memories]...also, that particular song and the visuals it brings back," Kym Barrett, Us' costume designer, said in a separate interview with Fashionista. "...The jumpsuits are a visual embodiment of something that is prevalent in everyone, in everything."
The Thriller outfit, as well as the glove, were significant aesthetics for Jackson in the '80s. The latter was first debuted when he reunited with his brothers for NBC's television special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. Initially, Jackson turned down the invitation but at the request of Motown founder Berry Gordy, he agreed to appear in exchange for time for a solo performance. He did "Billie Jean" and debuted his moonwalk dance during his set, the performance earning him his first Emmy nomination.
The glove appeared throughout other notable moments of Jackson's career, including the video for USA for Africa's "We Are the World." The song, originally written by Jackson and Lionel Richie, featured 46 vocalists including Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Tina Turner,. But Jackson stole the show, not only for his solo vocals but his extravagant wardrobe. There's actually a scene that starts at his feet and ascends to his face, capturing everything from his sequined socks to his glove.
Jackson's "We Are the World" moment further contributed to his transformation into a God-like figure by his fans. Following his death, BBC News spoke with fans across the world about Jackson's impact. Elias Kifle Maraim Beyene was one of them, speaking about how he and the rest of the residents of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, named a bread they made after the artist.
"I won't ever forget Michael Jackson because his contribution to the song 'We Are the World' had a very significant effect on my life," Beyene said. "...If you speak to anyone who was in Addis Ababa at that time they will all know what Michael Bread is and I know I will remember it for the rest of my life."
That Peele chose these two items and assigned them to the antagonists of Us, provides a commentary that is timely. What Jackson means in 2019 and moving forward is different from what he meant in the '80s.
"That topic right now after the documentary is so…complicated right now, on how to consume legacy," Winston Duke said in an interview with BET. "But I think that follows us into the movie. Because the movie is about what legacy do we leave? And if your legacy could visit you at your door, with your face, are you prepared to see it and deal with the repercussions? So I think Us is speaking to so many things in our society today."
The Tethered Jackson has been around — a lot of us are beginning to see that for the first time. Although in interviews Peele and Duke have been noticeably diplomatic in their responses to Jackson — likely to not deter fans as well as spoil the film — how the former confronts the late pop icon without explicitly condemning him in Us, offers a re-examining of who Jackson was and the complex duality he left behind.