Warning: Spoilers for Us ahead.
Hands Across America holds a special place in the annals of peculiar and quirky ’80s pop-culture history. Over 30 years after the event took place, Hands Across America is now an oft-forgotten punchline—a factoid often referenced in comic fashion, if anyone happens to remember it at all. But with Jordan Peele’s latest horror film Us hitting theaters this week, Hands Across America will return to the collective consciousness as it plays a small, yet vital, role in the film’s premise.
If you are too young to remember the event, or just need a refresher on the campaign that united Americans on a single day in 1986, here’s everything you need to know about its history and how it fits into Jordan Peele’s Us.
What was Hands Across America?
Hands Across America was a benefit campaign, sponsored by USA for Africa (the organization that produced the 1985 charity track “We Are the World”), in which people within the continental United States joined hands in a human chain for 15 minutes. The event was organized by Ken Kragen, a music manager; Kragen had also helped organize the “We Are the World” recording session (the song was co-written by his client, Lionel Ritchie). He credited his late client Harry Chapin for his activism, saying, “I felt like Harry had crawled into my body and was making me do it.”
The event took place on Sunday, May 25, 1986. Major cities across the United States formed the event route, with participants donating between $10 and $35 to reserve their spots in line (and to receive a commemorative t-shirt)—funds that were delivered back to USA for Africa in order to distribute money to the hungry and homeless. While USA for Africa planned to raise between $50 and $100 million, Hands Across America raised $34 million; only $15 million was distributed to charity after deducting the costs to produce the event.
Who participated in it?
Lots of people! 6.5 million people, in fact, joined hands in various locations across the country at events that also boasted celebrity participants. While the most star-studded locations in places like New York (where Brooke Shields, Liza Minnelli, Yoko Ono, and Harry Belafonte all turned out to hold hands), there were other notable locations that featured famous face: President Ronald Regan and First Lady Nancy Regan in Washington, DC; then-Governor Bill Clinton in Little Rock, Arkansas; Kathleen Turner in St. Louis, Missouri; Walter Payton in Champaign, Illinois; George Burns, Dudley Moore, and Richard Dreyfuss in Santa Monica, California.
Beyond internationally recognized stars, Hands Across America also boasted some more local, idiosyncratic celebrities: 50 Abraham Lincoln impersonators clasped hands in Springfield, Illinois, while 54 Elvis impersonators joined in on the event in Memphis, Tennessee.
Did it really stretch across the United States?
Let me refresh your memory when it comes to the geography of the U.S.: our country is quite large, and it includes so many different regions and climates. With that in mind, there were in fact some breaks in the human chain across the states—particularly in the more arid parts of the Southwest. While a line of people holding hands in the desert would certainly have been a sight to behold, the temperates in May were way too hot to keep the change going—although mini mile-long chains were formed in parts of Arizona.
The official route, however, did cross through 16 states and Washington, DC. The line began at Battery Park in New York, and stretched through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, with the chain ending in Long Beach.
Was everyone on board?
Weirdly enough, no. Because New York City was the official start of the chain, none of the states in New England were officially included in Hands Across America—which sparked an official protest led by Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy and representative Edward Markey. Other protests took place in various regions of the country, like the South, the Upper Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest. Actor Tom Selleck and senator Daniel Inouye started a Hawaii-specific event called Hands Across Hawaii that featured the slogan “Hawaiians are Americans, too!”
Was there a theme song?
Heck yeah, there was. Prepare to have this stuck in your head for the rest of the day:
What does this have to do with Us?
That’s a good question, and I assume that’s what brought you here. (If you just happen to be curious about Hands Across America and haven’t yet seen Jordan Peele’s Us, be warned: spoilers ahead!)
The first reference to Hands Across America is early in the film, in the section that’s set in 1986—just before young Adelaide Wilson (played by Madison Curry in the 1986 segments) visits the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California, with her parents and encounters her doppelgänger, Red, in the house of mirrors on the beach. We don’t know exactly when this takes place in 1986; because Hands Across America took place on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend that year, it’s possible that Adelaide and her parents went to the beach the day before the event, or possibly sometime in the summer afterward.
That early encounter between Adelaide and Red sets up the premise of Us—that there is a system of underground tunnels beneath the continental United States, and living there are millions of disturbed human beings who are the doppelgängers of every person living on the surface of the country. Adelaide and Red are presumably the only two people who know this to be true, as Red outlines in the third act of the film. Adelaide experienced PTSD after meeting Red, so she doesn’t piece together the larger picture. Red, however, plots a mass uprising in which the doppelgängers—known as the Tethered—come to the surface to kill their counterparts and take their place in a contemporary human chain that mirrors the 1986 Hands Across America event.
While Red doesn’t explicitly reference Hands Across America in her third-act monologue, it’s clear that imagery from the event made a big impression on her in 1986 (which makes me think, at least, that the 1986 scenes take place after Memorial Day weekend—meaning that Adelaide/Red definitely saw and/or participated in Hands Across America). Red admits that her plan to bring the Tethered to the surface included a big symbolic act, which is how Us ends: with a long, haunting image of thousands of red-outfitted members of the Tethered holding hands across a mountain range. It brings new symbolism to Hands Across America, an event originally intended to raise awareness about homelessness and hunger across the world; in the final shot of Us, Jordan Peele reframes the awareness campaign to show that Americans often turn a blind eye to the social ills that exists—quite literally—just below our country’s surface