Brow Beat

What Was Hands Across America, and What Does It Have to Do With Us?

The human-chain stunt has mostly dwindled to a punchline, but Us brings it back as a potent metaphor.

Four people wearing red jumpsuits hold hands while on top of a roof, in the film Us.
Us. Claudette Barius/Universal Studios

Horror movies traditionally open on an ominous note, but Us, the second film from Get Out’s Jordan Peele, seems at first like it’s heading in the opposite direction. Instead of foreboding suggestions of what’s to come, we get an upbeat promo for Hands Across America, the much-hyped 1986 event that aimed to raise awareness about homelessness by forming a human chain from coast to coast. As the camera zooms in on a TV screen surrounded by period detritus, things do get a little more ominous, since the VHS tapes piled around it include both C.H.U.D. and The Man With Two Brains. But it’s the cheery, brightly colored ad that really draws the eye. This Hands Across America thing could really make a difference in the world!

For those too young to remember Hands Across America—or who’ve forgotten it, since it began to vanish from cultural memory the moment the last hands unclasped—it was part of a string of high-profile charity events in the mid-1980s that included things like Live Aid, Farm Aid, and Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! tour and charity singles like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Hands Across America had direct ties to the most famous of those singles, “We Are the World.” Recorded in 1985 by a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of musicians that included Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Dan Aykroyd (!?!), the song was co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie and credited to USA for Africa. (The USA purportedly stood for “United Support of Artists,” and the organization it spawned still exists today.) Emboldened by the success of “We Are the World,” which raised more than $60 million for humanitarian causes, the organization decided to take on homelessness and hunger in the U.S. by creating a hand-holding chain that stretched across the entire country, and a date was set for May 25 of the following year.

Organizing began in October, an effort that soon enlisted more than 700 sponsors, starting with Coca-Cola, whose branding would be all over the lead-up to the event. The relentless promotion included a Super Bowl video, the appointment of celebrity co-chairs Kenny Rogers, Lily Tomlin, Pete Rose, and Bill Cosby, and the March 28 release of another single called “Hands Across America,” although instead of “We Are the World’s” star-studded gathering, this one, credited to Voices of America, featured a group of session singers working with Toto.

Though wretched, the song became inescapable in the weeks before the event, thanks in part to a music video that included Robin Williams holding hands with C-3P0 and an extremely 1986 assemblage of celebrities: Whoopi Goldberg, Jane Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Oprah Winfrey, and the stars of Miami Vice. For $10, the charitably inclined could reserve their place in a chain of people that would snake its way from Los Angeles to New York by way of Albuquerque, New Mexico; St. Louis; Cincinnati; and Washington, and include everyone from Jerry Lewis to Emmanuel Lewis. And then, at 3 p.m. ET, they would all sing “Hands Across America” as one.

People hold hands in a line through a park in Philadelphia.
Hands Across America at Eakins Oval along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on May 25, 1986. Sam Cali/Wikipedia

And it worked! Sort of. USA for Africa estimated that 7 million participants turned out, and even President Ronald Reagan, whose record on homelessness and poverty invited a great deal of criticism, turned up as the chain stretched across the White House lawn. That’s in part because USA for Africa presented it as an aggressively nonpartisan outpouring of goodwill. Fred Droz, the event’s project director, described it thusly: “Democrats see it as grassroots activism and Republicans see it as private sector volunteerism.” The day itself went as smoothly as could be expected, given its scale, and though the chain had more than a few missing links, particularly in its desert stretches, that did little to harsh the mood. People wrote at the time, “By Thanksgiving, when the distribution [of funds] begins, few will remember the gaps in the chain that was supposed to stretch unbroken.”

Distribution, however, had its own challenges, in part because of how little remained after paying the event’s costs: $16 million. That’s not exactly a small sum, then or now, but it’s not one that could come anywhere close to fixing the problem. Furthermore, USA for Africa’s slowness to disburse the donations attracted concern before Thanksgiving rolled around, dimming some of the initial enthusiasm. For the Los Angeles Times five years later, founding chairman Ken Kragen, emphasized USA for Africa’s intangible effects, saying, “What we did inspired the American public to respond to the needs shown in ‘We Are the World’ and Hands Across America. We were able to galvanize interest and to focus that interest on serious social problems. Volunteerism rocketed in the last five years and has stayed high.”

As the years went by, Hands Across America mostly surfaced as a punchline, serving as a running gag in the movie Beerfest and making an appearance on The Simpsons (“Except for huge gaps in the Western states, Hands Across America was a complete success”). So what’s it doing in Us, apart from establishing that a portion of the film takes place in the summer of 1986? Quite a lot, really. (Spoilers for Us follow.) The final moments of the film reveal that the Tethered, the underground society of doppelgängers at the heart of the film, have spent decades planning to resurface and hold hands in a violent restaging of Hands Across America inspired by a vintage T-shirt.

Us isn’t powered by quite as clean a metaphor as Get Out. The Tethered serve several roles, including standing in for the parts of our personalities we try to repress. The ones with the most screen time serve as a grotesque parody of the film’s central family, headed by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke (though, as the film’s final twist reveals, the relationship is more complicated than it seems). On a larger scale, however, they’re reminders that, in a nation of winners and losers, prosperity comes at the expense of others. They’re stand-ins for society’s forgotten: the hungry, the homeless, the unlucky, and those who never got a chance. The sort of people, in other words, that Hands Across America was designed to help. Although the event was a modest financial success and a larger one in terms of raising awareness, the issues it was designed to address remained. The people in need only got a moment in the spotlight before being driven back underground—symbolically speaking, except in the world of Us.