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Professor Aviva Briefel discusses leisure in Jordan Peele’s Us

April 15, 2022

On Wednesday, Edward Little Professor of the English Language and Literature and Cinema Studies Aviva Briefel gave the inaugural professorship’s lecture titled “‘We Want to Take Our Time:’ The Hard Work of Leisure in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’”.

Released in 2019, Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us” depicts a vacationing Black family being chased by doppelgangers who are trying to “untether” themselves from the original family by killing them.

Professor Briefel initially found inspiration for the talk after watching an interview in “Vanity Fair,” in which Peele explicitly states his desire to see a Black family at leisure.

“I want to see a Black family on the beach … I want to see a Black family buy a boat. That happens. And we’ve never seen it,” Peele said in the interview.

Drawing from this quote, Briefel investigated the fixation on leisure throughout the movie and the anxiety and stress it evokes in some of the main characters. She specifically focused on the carnival, one of the main settings of the film.

“Rides such as roller coasters and ferris wheels converted the precarities of real labor into pleasurable and temporary fears. From the late 19th century, these synthetic fears were carefully and often violently guarded as white privileges,” Briefel said.

Briefel related “Us” to the 1959 melodrama film “Imitation of Life,” which portrays the lives of a Black mother and her white-passing daughter. As the daughter ages, she grows to reject her Black identity, denouncing her relationship to her mother.

Briefel honed in on the similarity of the two films’ opening scenes that both show a child getting lost on the boardwalk at a fair and finding their doppelganger. She discusses the division of the “work self” and the “play self” that is associated with amusement parks and carnivals and how both films physically embody this phenomenon.

“The very elements that afford a possibility of escape and leisure reshape into something far more ominous: a radical transformation of self,” Briefel said. “To separate the work self from the play self, as capitalism has long asked us to do, is to extend the break into a breakdown.”

She emphasized this division of labor and leisure while also looking at this comparable experience between the white and Black characters throughout both movies. However, she acknowledged that while subtle in comparison to “Imitation of Life” and Peele’s earlier film, “Get Out,” the discussion of race in “Us” is still very present.

“It’s a film that doesn’t actually overtly address the question of race, yet I think the film itself is really all about racial difference in America. So I was interested in thinking about the ways in which it is talking about race without really talking about race,” Briefel said.

The talk itself drew on conversations Briefel had in her female gothic class, which compared the generational trauma in “Us” to Toni Morrison’s book “Beloved.”

“I thought it was really interesting that ‘Get Out’, like she was saying, was very overt in its racial themes, which was pretty easy to see, and I didn’t find it as easy to see in ‘Us.’ So seeing this [talk], I think it is a really interesting opportunity to learn more,” attendee Gabe Sarno ’25, who is in Briefel’s class, said.

This lecture and subsequent writing will be part of a larger collection of essays that Briefel is currently working on with Visiting Associate Professor of Cinema Studies Jason Middleton called “The Labors of Fear: Work in Horrors Cinema.”

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