Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, LilRel Howery
Anyone going to see Get Out is expecting a film that depicts a young black man from the inner city being terrorized by white people during a visit to an affluent suburb. I suppose the basic sense is that this is a metaphor for the kind of violence perpetrated by white privilege against minority communities for decades at least, and may even serves as a stand in for such historical wrongs as segregation and slavery. It does this and delivers a fairly entertaining horror film as well.
If I don’t sound as enthusiastic as others, I suppose I’m not. While the film hit several notes in pitch perfect style, I felt when it came to the big payoffs it pulled a few too many punches that minimized the impact of its underlying social critique. I’ve wondered if the studio made Peele pull back, or if he himself wanted to disassociate from a film with a message straight out of critical race theory. I’m not sure. Maybe I’m asking too much, but as I will explain below, for as good as Get Out is, it could have been better.
We meet Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as he prepares for a weekend away with his girlfriend Rose, (Allison Williams), and Chris is nervous. In addition to the normal jitters surrounding any first time meeting a significant other’s parents, Chris is worried because Rose has not told her parents that she is dating a black man. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t understand what the problem is for Chris, or if you think his fears should be set aside once Rose reassures him by explaining how her father loved Obama, then you should leave and slip into some other film more your speed, might I suggest Denial?
In any case, the two go on the trip. One of the decisions of sheer brilliance on the part of the filmmakers is to cast everyone’s favorite television liberal, Bradley Whitford (Josh from West Wing) as Rose’s dad, Dean Armitage, a respected neurosurgeon. It’s difficult not to hear all of those smug Aaron Sorkin speeches float in the background as Whitford plays the part of the privileged New England liberal tripping over himself to explain to Chris why he and his wife have black servants, and how he’s really okay when it comes to race.
Of course this is the genius of the film. It would be easy write a story about how overtly racist, rebel flag waving, Trump supporters were secretly kidnapping and torturing young black men. This film brings us face to face with the inability of privileged white liberals to come to terms with their refusal to recognize and grapple with their own systemic complicity. We don’t need the exaggerated horror themes in order to feel palpable anxiety of the idea of a young black man from Brooklyn traveling up state to secluded white suburbia for the weekend, all we need is the presence of a white police officer giving him a suspicious eye. It’s a facet of American life that has changed little since the release of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. For far too many white liberals, racial justice and integration is great until it begins to question white liberal privilege.
At least, this is where we think the film is going. Rose’s mother, Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist who offers to hypnotize Chris in an effort to help him quit smoking. And while Chris wisely refuses, she manages to hypnotize him against his will (big red flag, by the way), conditioning him in ways we the audience are not entirely sure of. We meet other black men and women who behave bizarrely and mostly occur in some sort of servile capacity. Everything is leading to the idea that the town kidnaps and brainwashes black people to be the servile creatures that white people secretly want people of color to be.
Except, as the film unfolds, it’s clear that that’s not going on at all. Instead, we get a contrived explanation that what’s really going on [SPOILER ALERT] is that the doctors Armitage have perfected some kind of brain transplant technique which enables wealthy white men to inhabit the bodies of these young black men in an effort to… prolong their lives, I guess? The fact that this is happening to black people is merely coincidental. It’s not racial resentment, it’s not a desire to create some kind of perfect racial hierarchy. After learning the plot, Chris point-blank asks, “Why Black People?” and he’s told “Who knows? Maybe someone wants something different, or to be more hip.” And the kicker is that the man who purchased the right to Chris’ body explains that it’s Chris’ artistic talent as a photographer that has made him so desirable. “I want your eyes, man. I want those things you see through.” In other words, it’s got nothing to do with being black at all.
At this point I was massively disappointed in the film. It ends up embracing a message that is in line with the most right wing understandings of racial politics in the United States. The fact that the system in which we live disproportionately affects black men and women negatively, leaves them more prone to police harassment and incarceration, more prone to poverty, more prone to poor health care access, and on and on, is according to this view merely accidental and doesn’t have anything to do with racism. Likewise, the fact that black men specifically are targeted by what the film calls “The Family” is merely accidental. It could have been young white men, or Latinos, but it’s not.
This is an important point. When activists and social political theorists talk about “systemic racism” they are not arguing that every individual within a system is racist. Nor is it necessary to even argue that decision makers within a system are racist. In fact, it could be the case that no one within the system is consciously racist. What matters when we talk about systemic racism is outcomes. If a system is set up that routinely privileges whites over blacks, it doesn’t matter if everyone within the system is individually innocent of racist intent [speaking hypothetically], the system is still racist in that it produces outcomes that systematically privilege one race over another.
So why does Get Out back off of a more straightforward racial explanation for what is obviously racially motivated? I’ve tried to rescue this premise, justify it as somehow more cutting than the straightforward and less complicated story line that would merely subjugate young black men into servile roles in the same way that the wealthy white communities in the United States and Europe have done for 500 years.
Maybe Peele made the film more complicated and less straightforwardly about race in order to comment on the arbitrariness of racism. There is no reason it happens to black people, it just does. This is a reasonable interpretation, except that, as explained above, the film goes further and absolves Chris’s own subjugation of any racial motivation via the reference to his artistic talent.
Or perhaps there’s the criticism that Old racist white people think it’s advantageous to be a young black man in today’s society, and this film lampoons that that thought. This idea does enter the film through the mouth of a Japanese man oddly enough, but it doesn’t sit well with me, however, because it’s not wealthy white men who think this. It’s poor white men who think being black is better because it means someone is fighting for them. Consequently, this explanation doesn’t really hold water. Would any wealthy white man willing become a young black man? This idea seems to press the boundaries of suspended disbelief.
I suspect that the real reason here is a desire on the part of either Peele or the studio to create a more sophisticated explanation that would both provide more opportunity for terror and allow the filn to be embraced by a wider, i.e., whiter, audience. It’s unfortunate because Peele was on the verge of creating something truly stellar but seems to veer off at the moment of truth.
There is one other missed opportunity in the film that needs to be addressed. Chris’s best friend, Rod (LilRel Howery) is a scene stealer that makes this film infinitely enjoyable by providing both comic relief and valuable insights that move the film along to its climax. As a TSA agent, he embraces an exaggerated sense of duty and despite being blown off by Chris and eventually laughed at by Brooklyn (i.e. Black) police, he follows the threads and ends up arriving at just the right time to save Chris.
Of course this final moment of triumph is played for suspense. Chris has broken free from his bondage, killed the Armitage family in what we know is self defense and has burned their house to the ground. Stumbling in the road, trying to get away, next to a still conscious Rose who has been shot, we see flashing lights pull up the road. The audience in the theater groans, knowing that no cop will ever believe Chris’s story. Instead of the racist white cop we met at the beginning of the film it’s his friend, Rod, and we are all relieved. The two friends escape their white suburban ordeal and head back to the safety of Brooklyn.
But what a missed opportunity! We all know that no young black man would be able to simply walk away from killing a white family of four and burning their house down. Especially since all the evidence that might have supported his story went up in the fire. What a powerful statement the film would have made to end with a scene of Chris being arrested and sent to prison. I know, it’s not what the movie going public wants, they want happy endings. But in that audible gasp when we see the arrival of flashing lights at the end, everyone in the theater knows Chris is going down for this, even though he is the victim. That would have made the story more of a metaphor for race in America than any other change in the film.
In the end, Get Out is a good movie, a terrifying movie. But if you’re looking for the film of the previews, the one that presents itself as a metaphor for racial subjugation and white powered injustice, you’ll have to overlook some glaring missteps. Strangely enough, I find this tale of horrific, racialized torture and enslavement to be too positive to act as a metaphor for what is really happening in the United States. But still, in Trump’s America, the fact that a film like this got made at all is reason enough to laud it.