We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.
Suffice to say this quotation was not written by a Hollywood producer looking for the next big hit. Driving an axe into the deepest fears and anxieties of audiences is not a recipe for success—perhaps not even in the horror genre.
The words of Franz Kafka will likely provide cold comfort to those who already know and understand the black American experience firsthand—those for whom the disaster and the suicide that Kafka references may be familiar to the point of being banal. To those of us who do not share the exact same experience, but who might know it from some kind of family resemblance—people from the Latino/a community, who find themselves marked for renewed and cruel scrutiny today, or the Arab-Americans, South Asians, and other brown people who also know what it is like to inhabit a body that is marked as dangerous or Other—it feels like a song hazily remembered but recognizable. And to white Americans who do not know what it feels like to “be a problem,” it might be a new piece of evidence.
That is what the new film Get Out offers us, and has apparently and improbably served up to audiences across the United States in its robust first weeks at the box office.
No, No, No… Yes, Yes, Yes: American History in a Nutshell
It is, of course, almost a cliché to say that slavery is America’s original sin. (Clichés, after all, can be true and still remain clichés.) Along with the murder and dispossession of Native Americans, the great crime of enslavement has been coded into America’s political and cultural DNA at almost every level—from centuries of violence imposed on African people to a bloody civil war that killed hundreds of thousands, and on a pop cultural level from black minstrel shows and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to The Birth of a Nation (1915) and 12 Years a Slave (2013).
Indeed, slavery has become pervasive once again as a theme in American artistic works in the twenty-first century: in Quentin Tarantino’s ludicrous 2012 pseudo-empowerment fantasy Django Unchained, Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, and most strikingly in director Jordan Peele’s surprise commercial and critical hit, Get Out, the first great film of 2017. Whereas Tarantino—of which this blog has been an unabashed fan—seemed to imagine his Django as a righteous, bad-ass avenger along the lines of Shaft or Sweetback, his vision of slave agency bears an uneasy and likely quite unintentional resemblance to the appalling scenario that unfolds in Get Out. In my view, Django is not a daring protagonist who throws off his chains and sticks it to the man. Rather, he is almost as much a pawn or catspaw of a privileged white person in Tarantino’s film as are the black victims in Peele’s work.
But let us not get off track.
The story of Get Out is relatively simple. A young black photographer, Chris, is the boyfriend of a bougie young white woman, Rose, played with glorious insouciance by Allison Williams. (How great is it that the actress’s own extraordinary privilege as the child of a true Rich and Famous Person™, like most of her co-stars on HBO’s Girls, becomes rich fodder for her performance in this film?) She wants to take him home to meet the family after five months of dating, and he is wearily leery of the prospect—do they know I’m black? Did you tell them? Rose offers a breezy response that puts her colorblind bonafides on display—what? Am I going to tell them I’m bringing my black boyfriend home? Obviously, she is far too enlightened for that.
The performance of liberal piety continues when Rose and Chris have a car accident and interact with a police officer who arbitrarily demands Chris’s ID, even though he wasn’t driving. Rose gets to be the liberal in good standing who righteously, and at no cost or risk to herself whatsoever, stands up to a racist cop. (Interestingly, Buzzfeed has a different spin on this moment in the film, which seems correct.) In what turns out to be an ominous aside, she assures Chris that “I’m not going to let anyone fuck with my man.”
Rose’s family continues the pantomime of awkward, NPR-listener-style expressions of racial solidarity. Her dad tries to be cool, says “my man,” expressed his opposition to the Nazis’ white supremacist “bullshit” (as if that were even necessary), and vows that he would vote for Obama a third time if he could. At this point in the film, it appears that it’s all going to be a cringe-inducing comedy of manners about white people overcompensating for their liberal guilt. I could have killed the dad character (played by Bradley Whitford) a thousand times and it would not have been enough.
In short, Chris is lured into a weekend far beyond anything he (or frankly the audience) could have imagined. What seems like a hokey garden party turns out to be a grotesque slave auction, of a sort. A bunch of rich old white people show up in menacing black limousines to drink cocktails and (supposedly) play bingo. But the truth is that Rose’s family business involves kidnapping, brainwashing, and lobotomizing black men and women to serve as hosts for their clients to colonize and take over, once their own frail bodies have given way. They are part of a strange cult founded by Rose’s grandfather that entraps victims like Chris and turns them into the vehicles that enable white people to live on by grafting themselves onto black bodies, where only a sliver of the victim’s original consciousness remains, stuck forever in solitary confinement, watching their body move through the world yet trapped in what Rose’s mother, a hypnotherapist, calls “the Sunken Place.”
(In this regard, the subjugation of the Sunken Place seemed to parallel the horrifying “White Christmas” episode of Black Mirror, a TV series that resembles Get Out in its disturbing social satire but for the most part lacks the film’s sense of humor. In “White Christmas,” digital facsimiles of one’s consciousness—known as “cookies”—are created and coerced by brute force into serving as electronic managers of their owners’ everyday lives, whiling away the endless hours in a similarly desolate and lonely space. In Black Mirror, of course, white characters are turning white imitations of themselves into slaves—quite different from the naked aggression and literal dehumanization on display in Get Out.)
Microaggression, Meet the Macroest of Aggressions
In any case, Chris suspects from early on that something fishy is going on, but he puts it down to mere passive-aggressive white discomfort: an avalanche of preening microagressions from clueless white folks. Even as his friend Rod warns him that all the talk of hypnosis is a dead giveaway of sinister, ulterior motives, Chris tries to interpret what is happening to him through the heuristic of his own daily encounters with white people over a long life of unease.
There is, naturally, a lot going on here. The idea of inhabiting another’s mind and body as an unwelcome tourist or pilot—Being John Malkovich (1999) comes to mind. The idea of achieving immortality by transferring one’s consciousness into another body echoes the film The Skeleton Key (2005), what seemed to me to be a schlocky hoodoo-cum-Southern Gothic potboiler but that, apparently, has its fans. (The parallels with Get Out’s plot and premise are striking.) The creepy “perfection” and gentility of the white characters evokes The Stepford Wives, while the disorienting feeling of being trapped in a topsy-turvy, seemingly incomprehensible and cultish microsociety harks back to the television show The Prisoner (1967-1968) and the horror classic The Wicker Man (1973).
But the most obvious and resonant symbolism has to do with slavery. Europeans and Americans trafficked in human bodies during the era of enslavement, disdaining black people as inferior while sizing up and even fetishizing the black body for its valuable characteristics, real and imagined. Hence the queasy way that the white guests in Get Out feel free to squeeze Chris’s muscles, inquire about the size of his penis, and riff on the cool quotient of his blackness. They are like every white person who ever wanted to have a cool black friend, except they want to be the cool black friend—or, if that’s not possible, to sleep with him.
Peele’s brilliant conceit is a metaphor on steroids. Whites do not just want to control, own, and take advantage of the black body—they literally want to become it, as the otherwise abhorred and feared black flesh becomes so desired that the white mind wants to inhabit it, rather like Buffalo Bill and his skin suit in Silence of the Lambs. The metaphor works so well because black talent and achievement has always been traded on by the dominant elites, from the slaveowners who took advantage of African slaves’ knowledge of growing rice and indigo to the appropriation of black music in the twentieth century and the ongoing exploitation of black athletic talent (wickedly alluded to in a scene late in the movie that equates Rose’s sexual adventurism with the NCAA’s unpaid use of black bodies).
The Bingo Game scene in Get Out is perhaps its finest. Bradley Whitford, as Rose’s father and the ultimate WASP, conducts a terrifying spiritual ritual like a Nazi pastor, gesticulating and waving so that the white people in attendance can get their prey. To me it seemed foreordained that the art dealer (Stephen Root) would get to “win” Chris in the auction—he had to cope with a degenerative sight disorder, and he even admired Chris’s own work. So by taking over his body, he would get his “eyes” in both a literal and figurative sense.
Root’s character is, interestingly enough, the least explicitly racist of all the white characters. He knows that the rest of them are squares and, in fact, monsters. But he does not care as long as he will get to steal Chris’s identity from him and inhabit his body. It’s all business as far as he’s concerned. Other participants may want to be artistically talented or more athletic by taking over a black body, but to them it’s always a self-serving calculation: not only will I get to live on, but I get to live on as a black person, on the assumption that being black actually gives you some privileges in life.
The fact that being black could make you susceptible to kidnapping, lobotomy, and brain rape does not seem to enter into the conversation.
Another noteworthy theme in the film is white fragility itself. In a telling moment, Rose’s father notes that his own father raced against Jesse Owens in the notorious 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin, and lost. At first he seems to be bragging about his own racial hipness and his tenuous connection to a great black American, but as the film progresses one realizes the “tell” in his wording—his father, who launched this whole twisted scientific project, almost got over losing to Owens. It felt like a throwaway line, yet it told the entire story. His own failure to match the black body led him on a quest to take it over and control it by force, out of his own sense of inadequacy.
Of Agency and Afro-Pessimism
Of course, the sci-fi premise that white minds could be implanted in black persons goes well beyond the mere analogy of slave masters using and controlling their human property. The process of implantation means the erasure of black will, consciousness, and—that word that historians, particularly of slavery, can’t get enough of—agency. Scholars have debated for decades about the capacity of slaves to effect their own will and “negotiate” with a labor system that reduced their own volition to virtually nil, at least in legal terms—yet slaves could always maneuver within a very constricted political and economic space. But when whiteness literally colonizes the mind, there is almost no room for agency, let alone negotiation. There are one or two remarkable scenes in the film in which the skimpy remainder of individuality that persists in the mind of the black body surfaces and resists, but those moments are ones of poignant tragedy and existential despair.
The colonization of the mind works metaphorically on multiple levels—not just that of violence and bodily violation, but of mental incursion as well. Peele analogizes the whiteness that forces its way into the victim’s mind to the weight of white or European-American cultural hegemony, the concept of racial superiority, and the way it invades the mind of people of color, the way persistent fear insidiously works its way into the quotidian consciousness of Chris and his fellow characters. This dimension is perhaps best represented by the extraordinary fact that, even when his ordeal is at an end toward the close of the film and he has undergone an experience of mind-bending barbarity, Chris instinctively puts his hands up when a police car pulls up, and his erstwhile white girlfriend is lying on the ground, meekly and disingenuously crying, “Help… help.” To the very end, both he and she know what roles to play—defenseless white girl and black guy liable to be shot in an instant, even though he is the victim. White hegemony already occupied a large piece of real estate in his mind, whether he escaped the lobotomy or not.
Peele’s Get Out is, then, an extraordinary entry into the boutique genre known as body horror, and perhaps one of the richest and most disturbing of its kind, since it connects physical violence to far broader themes of agency, inequality, and systemic injustice. I have been on the record in the past making the case that the academic fetish for talking about people as “bodies” is problematic, to say the least. But the idea that humans could be treated historically as bodies—as mere corporeal entities, as property, as merchandise, as farm equipment—remains important for discussing issues such as gender, sexuality, and the grinding reality of continued racism, as this film makes powerfully clear. Get Out takes the free-wheeling disregard for the integrity of the human form of the Bodies exhibit that I detest to new and stratospheric heights.
When we saw Get Out in an Atlanta theater, the response from audiences was uproarious and palpable. When Chris gets to exact revenge on his white persecutors, it was cathartic on a deep level—after marathon and seemingly endless years of police violence and Black Lives Matter and the smirking, racist demagogue who now sits in the White House, watching those scenes felt like notching a win. As the historian Walter Greason recently pointed out about the film, it refuses to offer a convenient and reassuring “white ally,” a character of good faith willing to aid and assist the black protagonist in his resistance against evil forces. Films like Hidden Figures, of course, are more than willing to give white audiences this noble character they can identify and relate with, to alleviate any sense of their own complicity with the sins of racism that unfold on the screen.
Peele quite consciously appears to have chosen not to throw viewers this psychological rope. Get Out, then, might be the first true film of the Trump era. It says to viewers of color, and especially black audiences: yes, resistance may be possible, but let’s be honest. You’re on your own.
For more coverage of Get Out, check out Ranier Maningding’s piece on the choice to include an Asian character in the film, the LA Times on the “milk” issue, and Jacobin’s review. And if you’re feeling really masochistic, you can read National Review’s beautifully tone-deaf take on the film, one so ideologically blinkered that the author appears not to understand basic plot points (such as the fate of the man abducted in the opening scene). In fact, it took the august conservative magazine-of-ideas to put the only tiny dent in the film’s otherwise perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes–a fact that supporting actor Lakeith Stanfield, um… took note of.