Professor Aviva Briefel discusses hobbies in Jordan Peele’s Us – The Bowdoin Orient

On Wednesday, Edward Little, Professor of English Language and Literature and Film Studies, Aviva Briefel, gave the Chair’s inaugural 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 pursued by look-alikes who attempt to “break away” from the original family by killing them.

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

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

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

“Amusement rides such as roller coasters and Ferris wheels have turned the insecurities of real work into pleasant, temporary fears. Since the late 19th century, these synthetic fears have been carefully and often violently guarded as white privileges,” Briefel said.

Briefel linked “Us” to the 1959 melodrama film “Imitation of Life,” which depicts the life of a black mother and her white daughter. As the girl ages, she grows to reject her black identity, denouncing her relationship with her mother.

Briefel emphasized the similarity of the opening scenes of the two films which both show a child getting lost on the boardwalk at a fair and finding his doppelganger. She discusses the division of “working me” and “playing me” that is associated with amusement parks and carnivals and how the two films physically embody this phenomenon.

“The very elements that provide an opportunity for escape and recreation turn into something much more disturbing: a radical transformation of the self,” Briefel said. “Separating the work ego from the play ego, as capitalism has long demanded of us, is to prolong the rupture into a collapse.”

She emphasized this division of labor and leisure while examining this comparable experience between white and black characters in both films. However, she acknowledged that while subtle compared to “Imitation of Life” and Peele’s previous film, “Get Out,” the discussion of race in “Us” is still very much present.

“It’s a movie that doesn’t overtly address the issue of race, but I think the movie itself is really about racial difference in America. So I was interested in thinking about how it talks about race without really talking about race,” Briefel said.

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

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

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

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