If you have not seen Get Out, well…get out and go see it. As our own Suzanne Bell notes in her review, “Get Out relies on a lot of misdirection and it’s fantastic.” I couldn’t agree more. The film is smart and fun, and strikes more than a few chords that exemplify a deep and troubling rift in our divided states of America. Box office numbers are proof. Jordan Peele - with the backing of powerhouse horror studio Blumhouse – exploits the various signifiers that are causing audiences to act out their racial and political frustrations in the form of cheers and claps, and you may find yourself doing the same. It’s what conservative critic Armond White has called the “death-to-whitey- film,” as if that were less criticism and more damning with faint praise.
But let me state an obvious and inconvenient reality that inferential and overt racism are the norm in a post-Obama, Trump era where disparate groups are warring for the soul of America, a soul that is as fractured and ideologically driven as a Twitter feed. When Trump was elected, many liberal artists (musicians, actors, etc.) exclaimed that the arts are needed now more than ever. A fair point. But if one is to look at Get Out as an overtly political fantasy in the same realm as Django Unchained, a film about an ex-slave shooting his way to way to revenge, then one must be cautiously optimistic about Get Out’s escapist message. It walks a fine line that spending $10-15 to reinforce your politics is akin slacktivism, the idea that dissenting via hashtag translates to meaningful change. One, including yours truly, can only be so hopeful.
Allow me to elaborate…(SPOILERS)
The story of Chris and Rose, a young and beautiful interracial couple, has the setup of Sidney Poitier’s classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, with the exception that Rose’s white parents are liberal in every sense of the word: open-minded and ardent Obama supporters. Despite such rhetoric meant to put a skeptical Chris at ease, the plantation-like estate with only black helpers – a robust groundskeeper and a submissive, smiling maid – are off-putting signifiers that remind our character, and the audience, of a racially marked setting.
Chris continues noting subtle idiosyncrasies. Phone calls to his friend Rod, a black, comic-relief character who works for the often mocked and derided TSA, is Chris’s frank and earnest conscience, reminding his seemingly naïve friend that these white people are up to no good. That becomes obvious when Chris is hypnotized by Rose’s mother then later tied up by the neurosurgeon father in a plot twist that is logically absurd but figuratively poignant. It turns out that Rose purposely dates black men, lures them to her isolated country estate, and the small town congregates and competes – in a game of Bingo, nonetheless – for who will be able to transplant his or her brain into the body of the kidnapped black person. The transplant is an obvious metaphor for a new form of slavery, where black bodies are not controlled by white chains, but white minds.
This overt social commentary speaks to the racial animus that affects all people of color and amplifies real social movements. Take the film’s opening scene, one that many critics have compared to the killing of Trayvon Martin. The scene shows a black man walking late at night through an affluent neighborhood, only to be tailed by an unidentified driver who will kidnap this man and drive off into the shadows of the night. This “walking while black” opening already sets a tone that has a deep history in white hegemony, a power structure that perpetuates the myth that black people in seemingly white neighborhoods are dangerous predators and should be met with skepticism and settled with polite, racially motivated expulsion…or violence.
Or take the help, the mammy figure and the groundskeeper. Peele is clearly exploiting the house and field negro trope, one popularized by such classics as Gone with the Wind. You know that character: the subservient black who is always smiling and happy to do menial jobs for the upkeep of the white estate. When Chris realizes that their submissiveness is likely masking their true feelings, it illuminates Peele’s repackaging of W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness, “a concept in social philosophy referring, originally, to a source of inward ‘twoness’ putatively experienced by African-Americans because of their racialized oppression and disvaluation in a white-dominated society” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). That consciousness in the film, however, is quite literal: the taking of the brain and transplanting it, thus removing any semblance of black identity and usurping it with that of a white one.
Later, in a scene where Chris is tied to a leather chair and awaiting his “consciousness transplant,” he is forced to watch a 1950s era television set (a clever nostalgic symbol of suburbia and white society) that serves to tell what will happen to him (all villains love to spill their plans), but also as a medium for the mother’s hypnotization, the sound of a stirring spoon in a porcelain cup of tea. In a tendentious move by Peele, Chris is able to extract the cotton (yes, cotton) stuffing in his chair to make ear buds, thus avoiding the hypnotizing sound that will allow him to escape his captors. He quickly carries out his vengeful, murderous rampage, echoing the harrowing violence of Peckinpah’s ironist film Straw Dogs. The crowd I witnessed in a packed theater are clapping, cheering, yelling at Chris like he is competing in a sports event.
Near the end of the film, Chris confronts Rose, who has been shot and is in the throes of death. Suddenly the lights and sirens of a police vehicle appear, and Rose immediately feels salvation is near: “Help me, please!” she screams. The audience in the theater gasp, knowing what the cop car signifies. Images of Black Lives Matter, the Facebook Live stream of Philando Castille’s death, Fergurson, Trayvon Martin…recent history serves up the inevitable and the impending tragedy (and reality) that allows for Rose to call out for help, but leaves Chris physically (and metaphorically) silent. But there’s a twist: The police vehicle is driven by Chris’s TSA buddy, and for a moment the audience can breathe a sigh of relief, then clap for the wish-fulfilling fantasy we see on the screen.
While I, too, felt a sense of calm to not see a likeable and victimized Chris die on the screen, I felt an eerie sense of hopelessness as the theater lights illuminated the faces of the multicultural, Angeleno audience smiling and reveling over the film’s conceit. Peele is a great artist, with a successful feature film to add to his repertoire. His post-Key and Peele satirical show may be over, but there is much in America to be lampooned and critiqued. But while Hollywood is stepping in as our nation’s moral compass, America’s rift continues to contract.
We may all gloat at similar examples, like the recent Best Picture win of the fabulous Moonlight, but its respectable indie box office gain of $25 million dollars is not a sign of respect and inclusion for gays in America; it is limited to the bubble that is popular culture. (A $25 million dollar box office, divided by the average ticket price of $8.61, equals an audience of about 2.9 million people.) Never mind that our states are still fighting over bathrooms and transgender rights, along with plenty of other signs that Congress and the President are working to dismantle other protections for the LGBT community. The Culture Wars never seem to end.
Or forget that our president recently addressed the nation and signaled that the tensions between cops and communities should be solved with more policing and surveillance, the latest form of hegemony that turns minority communities into de facto police states. While not the fault, or responsibility of Peele, I cannot help harken back to the call by artists for a greater push in the arts. Perhaps if Chris were to die at the end, moviegoers would likely be upset and the film would not be as popular. (Peele recently revealed that he penned this ending, which was later nixed: “There is an alternate ending in which the cops actually come at the end. He gets locked up and taken away for slaughtering an entire family of white people and you know he’s never getting out, if he doesn’t get shot there on the spot.”) But his survival, however cathartic, is a dangerous fantasy that reveals a dissonance in the arts and reality. However entertaining, Get Out is ultimately a self-serving film, and ignores any challenging arguments and uncomfortable realities in favor of pandering to its audience.
The horror genre is a purposefully uncomfortable genre, testing not only our senses but our morals. I am afraid that such a politically-charged film that serves as mere wish-fulfillment does little to challenge our perceptions and only reinforce how a segment of the population sees the world. So perhaps the responsibility should not be only to our artists, but to us, the passive consumer of entertainment who will cheer when our hero stabs ideology in the gut, only to walk out the theater and realize the ideologues are winning. How does one get out of that sobering reality?
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality