Black Bodies, White Envy, and Get Out by Jordan Peele
My brothers and I went to an all-white school when I was 12. My oldest brother was only a year older, but much more athletic than I was. In our first week, I found my way to the school library, and he discovered the basketball court.
My brother was not that great of a player where we came from, a suburb of Gary, IN. However, he quickly built a following as a young star on the court at the rural school. Basketball was how he was going to make his mark. He was faster than his white peers, and because he often played street-ball back home, my brother played an aggressive game.
In our first week at that school, he somehow crossed one of the former stars of middle and high school basketball. They let him know by breaking into his locker and slathering it with disgusting contents of a chewing tobacco spittoon. We never found out who did it, but the message was clear.
I remember trying to talk to him on the bus on the way. He sat stoically. Never said a word. I remember seeing his eyes fill at one point, but he held those tears back. He erupted when we got home.
“Y’all got to learn at some point,” my mom said when we got home. “White folks is jealous because they never been fast enough, or tall enough, or coordinated enough to beat a black man. They want you to sit down. This was just a warning. White folk always been like this.”
My mom said other things but the first part stuck with me. How can someone hate us without even knowing who we were? Well, we were black. That’s always the answer. Surely, though, it can’t be that simple, that evil?
That wasn’t the first or last time I would hear the “white folks is just jealous” response to a racist wrongdoing. However, such words never left the confines of the black company it was spoken in…until now.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out places black bodies and white envy on an open stage. Through supporting characters like Lil Rel Howery as Rod and the Armitage family played by Catherine Keener (the mother Missy), Bradley Whitford (the father Dean), and Caleb Landry Jones (the brother Jeremy, Peele brings to life the words that black people have said behind closed doors and never realized aloud: White folks are really jealous, and that shit could get a black man killed.
The opening scene of the movie is the example that most would go to for this. A black man is looking for an address in the suburbs, mumbling aloud things that many black people have run through their heads in a similar situation.
Black person+ white neighborhood= Trayvon Martin situation
Sure enough, man’s mumblings become reality. The formula proves to be true.
It is after the credits, however, that we meet the main character Chris Washington, played by the stunning Daniel Kaluuya. First, we see pictures of his amazing photography talent. Then, we get a captivating view of his amazing onyx body as Chris shaves and finished dressing before his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams from Girls) arrives to whisk him away to a weekend with the parents.
Chris’s body becomes the center of attention (obsession) once again when the couple meets Rose’s parents Missy and Dean. They embrace, and embrace, and soon begin nearly molesting Chris’s body. As a sort of explanation or faux apology, Dad Dean offers, “We’re huggers.” As if that satisfies the petting and grasping and rubbing that just took place.
Of course, the question of athleticism comes up before the first day on the Armitage plantation concludes. Rose’s brother Jeremy broaches the subject of sports and even tries Chris’s strength, which seems so very odd. However, the rest of the family dismiss that behavior. After all, it’s not the oddest of the evening. Jeremy’s talk of DNA and genetic makeup should have garnered even more side-eye from the family. Instead, that act was also dismissed.
“You know him. That’s how he is,” was the general vibe of the room. Meanwhile, the black bodies in the theater cringed. Some from triggered memories, and others from general experience. They knew that, in reality, talk and actions such as these, too much interest in us is historically dangerous — not something you can turn your back on.
Then there was the silent body auction pre-appraisal. Again, hugging masked as inspection.
“You must play golf,” athleticism measured.
Then there was the blind man. He was an admirer of Chris’s work. He was the only Armitage guest to actually know more about the man than his black body. But even this man revealed his intentions, and again they were dismissed by Chris. The man envied Chris’s eye, his talent. The many accolades that the man showered down upon Chris triggered my memory of my brother once again.
The coach had enthusiastically requested that my brother plays for the school’s basketball team. Yes, this was after the tobacco incident. The school and my brother’s classmates had dismissed the incident immediately. The culprit never found, but no one really looked either.
Anyway, my mother saw the flags too. She turned them down that time.
Now, I am not even going to say that the folks dealing with my brother all those years ago, were as devious as the Armitage family. After all, my siblings and I did come to grow some complex and lifelong relationships amongst many of the members of the community. Furthermore, Peele’s fictional family embodied an exaggerated version of the subtleties black people have been dealing with since they were dropped onto American soil. The tobacco prank perpetrators were never my brother’s BFFs. Yes, we figured out who they were.
Peele struck a chord within me and brought to life onscreen a subtle memory trigger that I hadn’t considered in years. Way back when, before any of the white faces at our new school knew anything about us, they had seen and assessed our black bodies — my brother’s black body especially. They had assigned a value. (I was a rail-thin book nerd with no athletic value, thank God). A value that for some evoked envy and action.
As Chris sat strapped to the chair, unmoving and helpless as the grand plan for his body was revealed, I mirrored him in my seat in the theater. For a moment, I was unable to move as the memory rolled over me. The books drenched in slimy pungent chaw. My brother’s strong silence on the way home. My mother’s words, her adamancy that her boy “was not going to play for them white folks. I don’t care what anybody says. I know what they trying to do.”
The reason why Get Out resonates with black America so well is because it captures and breathes life into some of the most nuanced forms of racism. The things that, if you spoke about them, you would sound paranoid and crazy. However, you still knew they were there. Why? Because they happened to you. These unarticulated dangers of black body envy were the worst form of racism, perpetrated by those who claimed to like us. Many were able to derail the situation before that moment when you are strapped down and the plan is being spoken back. Those people smart enough to see the signs were often blown off, dismissed. Many of us only learned when we met that tragic moment.
Horror is our nightmares playing out onscreen. Black people saw just that in Get Out. Meanwhile, all over America, white people are saying, “It wasn’t scary.”
Black people? We left the theater looking over our shoulders, driving cautiously straight home. All the while stating our truth,
“That move was scary as fuck.”