Last weekend, Jordan Peele set a record as Get Out brought in 100 million dollars at the box office. In passing this milestone, Peele became the first African-American writer-director to do so with their debut movie. Therefore, it now seems like the perfect time to have a discussion on the deeper meanings present in the movie. There were three reasons I knew I would be seeing Get Out in theaters. First of all, I am a voracious consumer of horror movies. Second, I am a Black male. Finally, though my relationships have never taken such a distressing turn, I have dated White women in the past. So it would be an understatement to say that the movie fell within my wheelhouse.
Furthermore, while there has been no shortage of movies that tackle racism (distinct from Blackness), few exist in the less lofty genres of comedy and horror. Dear White People is perhaps the other most recent film that comes to mind that attempts to display modern race relations in a smart, comedic way. Similarly, there is a severe lack of horror movies that center on a Black protagonist. The obvious exceptions being Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror (yes, really) and the BET original movie Somebody Help Me, starring R&B singer Omarion.
Finally, while being a horror-comedy, with a black protagonist that is also a commentary on racism already set Get Out apart, Peele goes the extra mile. Most noteworthy are the specific aspects of racism that the film seeks to explore, ultimately providing a critique of the hypocritical relationship American society has with Blackness and Black People.
No, Seriously, Get Out If You Don’t Want Spoilers
After the classic horror movie “stinger,” Get Out opens on Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), an African American photographer. Chris is in the middle of preparing to meet his Caucasian girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family for the first time. This prospect obviously makes Chris anxious, and he questions Rose as to whether she has informed her family that he is Black.
She explains that she has not, but that it would not matter to them because they are not racist. They have a brief exchange over the issue, but she is eventually able to put him at ease, joking that her father would have “voted for Obama a third time” if he could have. A fact that she promises him her father will bring up. Their drive up to her family’s estate is punctuated by a brief run in with a White racist cop, who requests Chris’ ID despite the fact that he was not driving. This leads Rose to defend Chris, arguing with the cop over racial motivations behind the request.
Upon arriving at her family’s estate, Rose introduces Chris to her parents, Dean and Missy Armitage. She briefly mentions that her father is a neurosurgeon and that her mother is a hypnotherapist. One that specializes in curing people of their addiction to smoking, something that she offers to do for Chris who is currently attempting to quit the habit. Also at the estate, are Georgina and Walter, the house cleaner and groundskeeper respectively, both of whom are Black.
On a tour of the house, Dean shows Chris a picture of his father, who lost to Jesse Owens in a qualifier for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. He makes the joke that his father “almost got over it.” As they walk outside, Dean openly addresses the issue that he has two Black people working for him, acknowledging the racial implications. He explains to Chris that they were hired to take care of his ailing parents and had simply become part of the family.
Soon after this point, the movie takes a more sinister turn, albeit broken up by comedic moments. At dinner, Chris has a confrontation with Rose’s brother Jeremy, an MMA loving medical student. Late one night, in a hauntingly powerful scene, Rose’s Mom hypnotizes him. While under hypnosis, she forces him to relive a traumatic memory and sends his mind to the ominously named “Sunken Place.” Chris also begins to notice strange behavior in Georgina and Walter.
This all culminates in him attending a garden party populated by the Armitage’s friends. Most of whom are White, except for one Asian man and one strange acting Black man of whom reference his being black in a variety of stereotypical ways, including asking Rose about his prowess in bed Eventually, the statements cause Chris to leave the party to go for a walk, where Rose eventually meets him. She apologizes for the behavior of both her family and their friends and suggests that they leave. While they are talking in the woods, the audience is privy to the Dean Armitage holding an auction for Chris to those in attendance.
In classic horror movie structure, what the Armitage’s have in store for Chris is purposefully left vague until the third act. However, Peele peppers in clues throughout the film, as well as theories from the characters. Most notably, from the point of view of Rod, a friend of Chris who acts as the comic relief and a surrogate for the audience.
Through his frequent phone calls with Chris, Rod has heard of the odd behavior of the residents and suggests that they are kidnapping and hypnotizing Black people. With the intention of turning them into slaves, or sex slaves, or both. In reality, the truth is much more surreal. Dean is transplanting the brains of the White residents of the community into the bodies of Black people who they have been kidnapping for years. The movie culminates in Chris being forced to fight for his life in order to escape.
A Liberal Sprinkle of Racism
Horror movies serve as one of the best vehicles to offer cultural critiques. To be successful, they rely on having a keen understanding of what makes people in a society uncomfortable and scared. Given how taboo a topic racism is in America, and its potential to make people uncomfortable, it is surprising that race and racism are not a central theme in more horror movies.
Nevertheless, racism is at the heart of the critique that Get Out is delivering. However, to view it as addressing racism from the same angle as movies such as Fences or Hidden Figures would be a mistake. Of course, there are aspects of this film that deal with similar points. In addition to hilarious imagery, such as Rose segregating her colored cereal and white milk, certain scenes in Get Out are taken directly from the headlines. For example, Chris’ run-in with the cop. The cop’s demand to see the ID of someone who was not driving should seem familiar to anyone who has watched videos or read articles on police brutality recently.
By the same token, while some have described the movie as a thought-provoking commentary on Liberal racism, this interpretation, though closer, only scrapes the surface of what Get Out has to offer in its critique of racism. Where it becomes confusing is that Rose and her parents are certainly Liberals and they are certainly racist. However, that does not mean that all of their racism is Liberal Racism.
Liberal racism refers to a more complex series of actions and implicit biases. It hinges on the theory that we live in a post-racial society, or that they, Liberals, live in a post-racial slice of society. Furthermore, that they personally do not see race, judge people based on race, or that race does not matter to them. It often defines racism shallowly, focusing on micro-aggressions, such as explicitly racist language, and explicit biases and ignoring intersectional issues such as gender or class.
Liberals also tend to treat racism as a trait certain populations and groups (i.e. Southern White Republicans) possess inherently, as opposed to a byproduct of being socialized in a racist society. Because of this denial, they lack the ability to recognize their own implicit biases and address them proactively. There are definitely aspects of that in this movie.
Instances of Liberal Racism are certainly present in the movie. Rose’s insistence that she does not need to tell her family that Chris is Black, as well as her father’s need to tell Chris about his love of Obama, are two examples. At the garden party, Chris even asks Rose whether any the people in attendance know a black person who does not “work for them.” All are good examples of the kind of ignorance, and the source of that ignorance, that Black’s face when dealing with Liberal Racism.
To clarify, all racism, whether explicit or implicit, is based in the same root belief about people. That there exist separate, distinct categories of people based on the physical manifestation of genes in the form of skin color. This grouping is natural and based on biology and each group has different inherent capabilities. Therefore, they can be put in a ranked order and hierarchy, which is done either subconsciously (implicitly) or consciously (explicitly).
This categorization system usually places Whites in a position of inherent superiority (i.e. White Supremacy), both in terms of morality and capabilities. When most movies deal with Racism, they deal with it from the classic lens of non-whites as the sub-human, dehumanized other, the lesser.
Racism and America: A Love (Hate?) Story
The audience is never told whether the Liberal Whites in Get Out think of themselves as racist. However, if I had to guess, I would say no. While they absolutely see race and comment on it openly and incessantly, they obviously do not hate Black people. While there is no such thing as “reverse racism,” this movie does invert the emotions usually associated with racism. They love Black people or, more accurately, they idolize Blackness. They lust after it, worship it, and literally want to embody it.
In this sense, Get Out makes several smart, often ignored, observations about prejudice in the modern day. That idolization is simply another form of dehumanization, one that also has devastating implications. Not only does idolization does not breed empathy, it can ultimately lead to new forms of enslavement and oppression. New, in the sense that classically slavery was based on the view that Blacks were subhuman, 3/5ths of a human to be precise, which is not the case here. In presenting racism as a byproduct of love, lust, and admiration, the film offers many insights that bear unpacking.
The simplest is that violence towards Black people, even when it does manifest in the form of hatred, is still just the result of White envy or insecurity over Black bodies and accomplishments. Seemingly, the whole plan to steal the bodies of Black people is the result of Dean’s father’s jealousy over losing to Jesse Owens, and his desire to reach that level of human perfection.
Similarly, the man who buys Chris’ body wants it for his eyes, so that he can be a better photographer. Of course, the reduction of Black people down to their bodies or stereotyping them as only good at sports or art are more common racist tropes. Similarly, the ignorant questions asked by the guests of the garden party take on a different tone the lust that Whites have for those attributes is laid bare.
Deeper lies a commentary on the paradoxical relationship that America has with Blackness and Black people. Specifically, the desire among Whites to consume and profit from the cultural products of Black people, and to commodify Blackness, while simultaneously marginalizing Black people. White America listens to Black musicians, uses Black slang, and watches Black athletes, but demonizes the people who create the things they love. The dynamic of making something mainstream, but judging those who are its originators as deviant is certainly an odd one. Especially as White America tries their best to divorce the product from the realities that Black people face which often leads to their creation.
For an example, you only have to look at the blowback that Black celebrities, such as Colin Kaepernick and Jesse Williams, receive when they speak out about structural violence and institutional racism. This movie should be a punch in the gut for anyone who listens to rap music and watches the NBA or NFL but criticizes Black Lives Matter. Anyone who uses their love of products of Black culture, as a defense against accusations of racism.
The “Sunken Place,” where Missy sends those she hypnotizes in their subconscious, serves as a wonderful analogy. Essentially, it is being trapped in your own mind, constantly screaming, but no one can hear you, while someone else walks around in your body. While this has parallels in issues of slavery and the literal loss of agency, it also speaks to the simultaneous marginalization of Black people and exploitation of Blackness by modern society.
The symbolic loss of agency in a society that elevates, idolizes and portrays certain aspects of Blackness, but purposefully tries to erase the cries for help from Black people and communities. The White people in this movie have the desire to benefit from the fruits of Blackness, to have what they, in their ignorance, consider to be the positives of being Black, with no understanding of the mental and social baggage that comes from with that identity.
What makes this all the more poignant is that Kaluuya’s Chris is not your stereotypical Black man, at least as they exist in popular media. Peele ignores all of the normal cliches surrounding Black men that appear in movies and culture. He is not hyper-masculine, as he is not particularly athletic, muscular, or tall. Nor does he ever listen or reference rap, jazz, or funk music in the movie. Despite that, these characteristics are ascribed to him by others in the film, much to his annoyance.
In many ways, he is just a normal dude, apart from the fact that he is a great photographer. If it were not for the fact that he is Black, and Peele’s wonderful writing, it would be fair to call him a generic protagonist. However, that seems to be another of Peele’s points, which serves to further make this movie a commentary on Blackness in White media. Movies and television shows, that are not centered on Black people, or explicitly aimed at black people, often treat simply being Black as a stand-in for personality or characterization.
Further emphasizing this point is Rod, whose Blackness acts in stark contrast to Chris. In many ways, he is the kind of character modern audiences have become accustomed to seeing act in a supporting role towards a White protagonist. Rod is essentially Chris’ “Black Friend,” despite Chris also being Black. In this way, the dichotomy that exists between the two serve to point out the plural expressions of Blackness and the erasure of that plurality in White media, which tends to have one “Black” character who serves as a stand-in for all Black people.
In the end, Peele has presented a very different type of analysis on race in Get Out. The film is one part Mandingo, one part White Men Can’t Jump, one part Guess Whose Coming to Dinner, and one part Invasion of the Body Snatchers. While on paper this might sound like the equation for a very confused, and maybe erotic, movie in actuality, it might prove to be a one of a kind film on racism. One that explores America’s deep desire to be Black, without having to, well, be Black.