Jordan Peele’s ‘Us': Yes, Hands Across America Was a Real Thing in the ’80s

In “Us,” Peele uses the event as a brutally poignant metaphor

Last Updated: March 22, 2019 @ 4:31 PM

For those of you who just saw Jordan Peele’s “Us” and wondered where the writer-director got that ingeniously insane idea for Hands Across America in the 1980s-set portion of the film, wonder no more.

It came from history. Hands Across America was a real thing that totally actually happened in 1986. Like, for real.

The idea was hatched in 1985 by Ken Kragen, a music manager and film and TV producer. Kragen was a founding member of USA for Africa, of which Hands Across America was a part. It followed the famed charity single “We Are the World” that featured artists such as Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and a host of other popular musicians during that era.

USA for Africa, as the name suggests, was established to ease the pain of poverty in Africa and the U.S.. The idea behind Hands Across America was that by gathering roughly 6 million people to join hands across the continental United States — across four time zones through 16 states and Washington, D.C., from Long Beach, Calif., to New York City — they could raise awareness for poverty and homelessness.

Participants donated money to reserve spaces in the line, which stretched 4,124 miles from coast to coast, and the benefit raised $15 million for the cause, after costs, according to the New York Times.

President Ronald Reagan, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and a host of celebrities from Michael Jackson to Robin Williams to Kathleen Turner all took part.

Peele’s film begins with a commercial from 1986 promoting Hands Across America — and the idea resurfaces later in the film as well as a brutally poignant metaphor about poverty, homelessness and the discarded.

“Us” isn’t the first film or TV show to mention the event, which has been referenced in movies like the 1989 Shelley Long comedy “Troop Beverly Hills” and on shows like “Cheers,” “The Golden Girls,” “Seinfeld” and “30 Rock.”

The point is, Hands Across America really did happen.