Hands Across America: 'Us' Shows Why It Was Always Creepy and Hypocritical
Huge cultural events have the power to shape your childhood and impact the rest of your life. That’s something Jordan Peele acknowledges intimately in his latest horror film, Us. The story ostensibly begins as a doppelgänger home invasion story but blossoms into something much larger. Of all things, 1986’s Hands Across America charity event comes into sharp focus as one of the creepiest events in American history. Peele transforms a feel-good publicity stunt about unity and homelessness awareness into an unfathomably violent act of rebellion, all to highlight the obvious:
Hands Across America was always weird, and its inherent creepiness derives from the rampant hypocrisy behind the event.
Us uses Hands Across America as a perfect reflection of how everything that outwardly seems so positive and optimistic in American culture is often naively ignorant of the darker, more misguided reality of our nation’s history.
Spoilers for Us follow.
Aside from that uncomfortably long shot of rabbits sitting in cages, Us begins in 1986 with a young girl named Adelaide watching a commercial on TV about Hands Across America, a very real event that happened that year.
It was a massive fundraiser created to raise awareness for homelessness. The idea was that anyone who paid $10 could hold hands with other people in a theoretically continuous chain of solidarity reaching all the way across the contiguous United States. Participants included R2-D2, Mickey Mouse, Robin Williams, President Ronald Reagan, and the grand total reached an estimated 6.5 million people.
The 4,125-mile route traced through 16 states and Washington, D.C. on May 25, 1986. Everyone clasped hands as radio stations across the country blared a song made just for the event, also called “Hands Across America,” ultimately raising $34 million in donations.
The stunt was coordinated by Ken Kragen, a music manager and non-profit consultant who took the whole “sea to shining sea” thing a bit too literally. It took 400 people nine months to plan the final event, so ultimately, only $15 million in proceeds went directly to helping curb homelessness, with the remainder being used to cover those promotional costs.
Hands Across America essentially became a feel-good distraction for America in a time when homelessness was steadily becoming an epidemic thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s policies.
“We resent him standing there grabbing hands like he’s part of the effort to eliminate homelessness and hunger,” social activist Mitch Snyder told ABC News of President Reagan. “He’s part of the problem.”
Reagan’s policies were notorious for neglecting impoverished Americans, especially when he deinstitutionalized mentally ill patients by the thousands, causing a massive increase in homelessness nationwide.
Jordan Peele examines the two-faced nature of Hands Across America in his own fantastical way with Us, especially its inherent hypocrisy and two-faced nature.
After watching the TV ad for Hands Across America in 1986 at the start of Us, Adelaide encounters her doppelgänger at a beach carnival in Santa Cruz. Decades later, she encounters the doppelgänger again, but this time her look-alike has assumed the name “Red” and leads an invasion from a society of underground-dwelling clones with telepathic connections to their counterparts. Wild, right?
The ethos of Red’s revolution is a hyper-violent twist on Hands Across America. Later in the film, we see that Red hung her Hands Across America t-shirt on the wall as an icon of their movement. The mission of each “Tether” was to kill their surface-dwelling counterpart (or just any other humans they could find) and then form a hand-in-hand chain across America. It’s tough to discern why Red planned it this way until the final twist of the film: The original Red swapped with Adelaide in 1986, so the adult Adelaide is actually “the bad guy.”
One of the last memories young Adelaide had from her above-ground “human” life was probably watching that Hands Across America commercial, so she spent the rest of her subterranean existence planning a revolution that was an ironic and violent with the total opposite aim.
Jordan Peele himself was 7 years old when Hands Across America happened — around the same age as young Adelaide — so you can imagine a young Peele’s fascination with the event at the time as he watched the same commercial from his living room. Peele’s confirmed as much an interview with Vanity Fair.
“Hands Across America was this idea of American optimism and hope, and Ronald Reagan-style-we-can-get-things-done-if-we-just-hold-hands,” he said. “It’s a great gesture — but you can’t actually cure hunger and all that.”
Peele recounted that despite the feel-good nature of the event, it occurred during a tumultuous time in America — and in Peele’s own childhood.
“That was when I was afraid of horror movies,” he said. “That’s when the Challenger disaster happened. There are several ‘80s images that conjure up a feeling of both bliss and innocence, and also the darkest of the dark.”
As a publicity stunt, the aim of Hands Across America was to convince people that things were okay, that American society was in a peaceful era of prosperity and joy. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Even at the global stage, the Cold War subsisted.
For Adelaide — and Peele by proxy — to use a twisted inversion of Hands Across America to demonstrate American hypocrisy in a film where doppelgängers brutally murder their counterparts is nothing short of brilliant. It’s the ignored repressed U.S. population literally rising from the miserable depths of the Earth to enact their revenge.
Hands Across America is the perfect representation of something that on the surface appears so righteous and patriotic but is ultimately a dark reflection of our capacity to ignore the darker truths.
What could be worse than denying the darker truth behind something that’s only righteous on the surface? In Us we learn the answer: That dark truth emerging from its hole to engage in murder and mayhem.
Us is now in theaters.