Us (2019) Film: Hands Across America Event Illicits a Strong Time & Place

Hands Across America was a benefit event and publicity campaign staged on Sunday, May 25, 1986 in which approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the contiguous United States.

Director Jordan Peele uses the time period of 1986 to show a younger version of the main character. Peele utilizes the famous Hands Across America event to bring us into the urgency of the moment.

It’s an oft-used but very solid screenwriting nugget to help flesh out and bring to life a scene: use some sort of promotional material from the recent past, such as when – for example – modern day films sneak in Bush-Cheney campaign posters in the background of shots in order to illicit a certain emotional response or bring up memories of said event.

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” did this well, utilizing a myriad of tools (including but not limited to presidential campaign lawn signs) to re-orient us into a particular time and place, a much-needed tool given the fact that the story moves through many years (decades) of time.

We remember really impactful presidential campaigns (if we were alive and self-aware enough to consciously live through and experience it). Every audience member isn’t going to have the same response to these tokens as the person sitting beside them but if the filmmaker picks a bold and memorable cultural artifact we should at least be able to recognize it and be able to identify where/when it was born into existence in relation to our lives.

It seems like an easy and super obvious storytelling trick to orient the audience to a time and place, but so often it is ignored, misused or underused as an effective filmmaking tool (especially in horror films). Too many movies go the dull and easy route, simply slapping white text across the bottom of the frame and labeling a time as 1976 or Twelve Years Earlier, as easy to pull off as just simply listing ingredients on the side of a soup can. Try harder…

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