Get Out is an impressive achievement. Every artist involved should be proud of their work. The film’s opening weekend gross, $30.5 million, is great for a horror film, but even greater for a horror film that features so much black talent and such a searing critique of whiteness. One can only hope that Get Out‘s success broadens some of Hollywood’s ideas about what kind of films are worth making.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out has been hotly anticipated. Its premise is novel — the last horror film with such an explicit take on whiteness might be Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. As such, many black writers have already delivered compelling pieces on the film, particularly its depiction of racism. Here, among many great insights, Son of Baldwin and Law Ware note how the film’s opening casts the black male body — so often a threatening, dangerous figure — as vulnerable and human. In this Cosmopolitan piece, Kendra James examines how the film deals with white women’s role in maintaining white supremacy. Finally, in a review in The Guardian, Lanre Bankare argues that Get Out reveals the horror of white liberal racism. All three of these pieces are great and have shaped my own thoughts on the film.
As I’ve said, many excellent black writers have already written on the film. I have little desire to expound on the insights that have already been made. What I would like to do is two-fold: I’d like to talk a bit about how the film sets up its critique of white liberal racism, and then I’d like to discuss how effective that critique actually is.
Like many other great horror films, Get Out is at its best when it is building tension. That tension is built through a number of successive scenes that offer keen insights into white liberal racism. These scenes strike such a chord of realism for any black person who exists in white spaces, especially those who have found themselves in intimate relationships with white people. There’s the white father who, eager to prove his anti-racist bonafides, tells our main character, Chris, that he would’ve voted for Obama a third time and notes how wonderful it is to experience another person’s culture. There’s the white brother, Jeremy, played like a plantation overseer, whose interactions with Chris are layered with menace. These qualities are, perhaps, not specific to Chris’s race, but the subtext of their conversation is suffused with racial tension. Jeremy’s fixation on Chris’s body, his physical prowess, brings to mind how black male slaves were sought out for their fighting and breeding potential.
All of this is inextricable from the film’s exploration of racial paranoia. The truth is that racism, particularly the kind of racism evinced by white liberals, can make you feel as if you’re losing your mind. You begin to not only second guess the white people in your life, but yourself as well. So many conversations and incidents become an investigation. You question your own reality.
The premise of the film is that Chris, along with his girlfriend, Rose, stay at her parents’ home for the weekend. Her home is staffed by black workers who are strange and potentially hostile. In one scene, Walter, the beloved groundskeeper, offers pointed comments on Rose’s beauty. This leads Chris to believe that Walter has some kind of thing for Rose. In another moment, Geraldine, the housekeeper, seems to sabotage Chris by unplugging his cell phone, leaving it to die. (She also provides the movie’s most striking performance, appearing to break down as Chris tries to get her to open up about how fucking weird their surroundings are).
The brilliance in these scenes is not in their simplicity, but in their insistence that racial paranoia can slip silently into even the most anodyne interactions. Chris’s immediate assumption is that Walter is overprotective of Rose, and that Geraldine is somehow resentful of their relationship. It’s not that these fears are unfounded, exactly, but they contribute to Chris’s feeling that he is utterly isolated, that all of his relationships here will be acutely touched by the not-quite-unspeakable presence of race. All of his interactions are subject to second-guessing. This is often how race functions interpersonally.
In other scenes, Chris finds himself practically under interrogation. Rose’s mother subjects him to hypnotherapy, convinced that she can cure him of his smoking addiction, which appears to be unfit for her daughter. During their lavish dinner party, Chris is paraded in front of white guests as some kind of exotic, a prize. It’s also during these scenes that Chris encounters another black man who is wielded as a treasure, who is also weird and strangely un-black. The one character Chris seems to connect with in this collection of scenes is a character played by Stephen Root, a blind art collector and former photographer, who seems suspiciously covetous of Chris’s eye for photography. (As a small aside, this is now two years in a row where a blind man has functioned as a horror movie villain*).
By now, the racial paranoia has been ratcheted to obscene levels. Chris can barely stand it. He wants to leave, now, but can’t quite convince Rose. He tries to explain what he’s feeling, but comes off as over dramatic to her instead. He’s describing things that, to him, feel very real and tangible, but to Rose probably seem minor, perhaps petty. Even as a fairly radical black guy, most of my initial reactions to things, particularly regarding race, are filtered through how I know white people will probably react. That’s how white supremacy works, folks! And I saw Rose seeing Chris, but not really seeing him at all. Something comes between them in this moment. DuBois might have called it the veil. It prevents Rose from perceiving the fullness of Chris’s black humanity.
For a full three-quarters of its running time, Get Out is one of the finest movies about white liberal racism ever made. It has a deep understanding of black-white interaction in the 21st century. If the movie had just been about the general uneasiness, the horror, the insidiousness of negotiating blackness in white America, I would’ve been fine with that. However, the movie does take an explicitly horrific turn. What we discover is that Rose, along with her family, are conducting a kind of modern-day slave trade. They steal black people with a talent, or, in some cases, just youth, and through some faux-horror-movie-science, implant the white person’s consciousness.
It’s this turn that forms the movie’s great weakness, which is the lack of clarity around what the movie is trying to say about race and racism. Up to this point, the movie’s vignettes have been obvious and to-the-point, e.g. when Chris and Rose are stopped by a cop, we’re supposed to understand that Rose has a freedom around police officers that Chris doesn’t. In the film’s final stretch, this sense of purpose succumbs to confusion.
While the film has so far been great at showing what it’s like to be black around “good” white people, I find its treatment of white liberal racism overall to be fairly unsatisfying. If I had to diagnose the problem in a sentence, I’d say that the film lets white people off the hook. In Get Out, the signifiers of “liberal” beliefs or politics function as a kind of veneer. The truth is that we don’t know anything about Rose or her family. It’s possible that every outward-facing detail of their lives is a fabrication to facilitate the process of capturing black people. In the context of the film, Rose and her family don’t exist as liberal “people,” or even characters. They are so hilariously, over-the-top wrong and evil from the very beginning with their faux-plantation property that rigidly recreates racist black-white dynamics. In short, there’s no there there.
I understand that this in and of itself could be taken as a critique of white liberals. Sure, white people say they care about racism, but then they go on to make excuses for cops who kill black people, or they support bombing black and brown people overseas, or they write multiple, hysterical tracts about how black people are ruining free speech. I get it. White liberalism is sometimes a facade that merely papers over some abhorrent and unexamined ideas. My problem is: what white person is going to be able to see themselves in these maniacal villains whose entire lives are literally built around re-enslaving black people? The response to this is, obviously, “who gives a fuck what white people think?” Agreed. Except I think we kind of have to if we want to reveal the majority of white liberal politics for the bullshit that they are.
In this way, Get Out has a similar problem as The Help. Reader, bear with me. In The Help, Emma Stone’s character, Skeeter, is a white audience surrogate in 1960s-era Mississippi. Skeeter somehow resists all of the racist socialization that consumed her peers. White people get to imagine themselves as Skeeter who expresses all of the right ideas and turns her nose up at racism. Because the movie never stops to question the prejudices that Skeeter would surely have, it fails to implicate her, and by extension the audience, in racist structures. The prevailing sense finishing Get Out and The Help is that white folks will be able to say, “Well, I’m not like those racists at all.”
Get Out’s most salient critique of how white people view race comes in Chris’s final interaction with Stephen Root’s blind character, Jim. At this point, we know Jim has bought Chris to take advantage of his talent at photography**. Chris asks Jim the burning question looming over all of this: “Why us? Why black people?” Jim scoffs, explaining that race isn’t important and that he’s looking for something deeper. This is a clear statement of colorblind ideology, and an even clearer denunciation of it. Jim is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to recognize the significance of race while participating in a practice that exclusively harms black people. The movie is saying that to ignore race is to ignore all of the ways in which race determines people’s lives. I wish the rest of the film’s ending had this sense of purpose instead of devolving into some (admittedly satisfying) horror movie tropes. Its final moments are particularly off-putting: the movie teases the possibility of police brutality before presenting a black cop (here a TSA agent) as the ultimate savior.
Get Out works very well as a thriller, but falters a bit when it tries to be a thriller about race. Its insight into black-white interactions are novel in this genre. Peele’s direction is strong throughout, with highlights in his depiction of the “sunken place,” and in the staging of the film’s final act mayhem. Its overall message about racism and white people might even be secondary to how fun and insightful the film is overall. However, I do think it’s worth trying to think through what exactly it’s trying to say, if it’s trying to say anything at all, especially given how quickly people landed on a very pat interpretation of its handling of white liberals. Peele is trying to thread a very complex needle here, and he may not be as successful at it as it initially appears.
*2016’s Don’t Breathe casts a blind man as its main villain. In that movie, disability is grotesque, unsettling. In Get Out, disability is something that must be overcome.
**Worth noting that this is a money relation. These already fabulously wealthy white people are making money off the sale of black bodies, and some of them are presumably going to make even more money off of the talents of the black bodies they’ve stolen.