“Get Out”: From a White Woman’s Perspective
This film haunts me.
In his March 15, 2017 interview with Terry Gross, Jordan Peele says that he wanted his viewers to get in touch “with the fears inherent in being black in this country.” The opening scene of the film, which shows a young black man walking alone at night in an upper middle-class neighborhood being assaulted and abducted by two men in a conspicuously white car, not only achieves this aim but also sets the tone for everything that follows.
As a viewer though, I felt my “whiteness” throughout. Let me explain.
One branch of my extended family tree owned slaves. They were the French fur traders who founded the city of St. Louis in 1764, a full century before the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War.
I was ignorant of this history until my mid-50s, when I conducted research on St. Louis in preparation for a book about the neighborhood where I grew up and how the construction of Interstate 70 in the late 1950s bisected it, dividing what had been a mixed community into black and white sectors. I thought of my book as a sociological memoir. But the more I learned about my slave-holding forbearers the sadder I felt. I abandoned this project from an acute sense of shame.
“Get Out” speaks to me personally for this reason. On my first viewing, I saw it as an allegory of slavery, but didn’t think I had anything original to say.
If you have read this far, you have most likely seen the film. I can’t get to my point without describing the plot.
Not having read any reviews, I didn’t immediately clue into the “horror” aspect of the film. OK, I thought Chris’ girlfriend Rose’s gaze at pastries was “creepy,” but I then settled into what I viewed as an update of the 1969 film, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (starring Sidney Poitier) in which an upper class white girl introduces her black fiancé to her seemingly liberal parents (played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy).
Things get a whole lot creepier as the movie unfolds. Rose hits and kills a deer on the way to her parents’ remote house in the woods, and her mother is a hypnotist who claims to be able to cure Chris of his nasty smoking habit. Rose’s brother is nothing if not weird. Then there are the family “servants,” who behave like robots, until they behave even more strangely. Chris’ friend, a foul-mouthed TSA agent in San Francisco, warns him to be wary and urges him to leave.
Then we discover the true horror of the film — that the servants of Rose’s household are actually kidnapped and brain-altered black people. Chris is the next object of her white supremacist family plan to perpetuate itself by stealing the bodies of her lovers and delivering them to her neurosurgeon father, who implants the cognitive functions of his aging white friends into the younger, more physically fit, and talented bodies of his daughter’s victims.
This is the point at which the film becomes most action-oriented (in the traditional horror film genre) but also the moment at which it becomes most disturbing. These white folks don’t just want servants or slaves, they want some form of personal immortality and, even more chillingly, access to black creativity. They want to be “black” while assuring their supremacy.
Rose’s parents’ friends, like themselves, are elderly. Their welcoming comments to Chris focus on his physique and athletic potential, his (imagined) sexuality and his artistic talent — he’s an art photographer with successful gallery exhibits.
White people, this film implies, want what black people possess. They want not only to subjugate them but also to appropriate them (a more holistic and sinister form of subjugation). At this point, I remembered my long ago viewing of the sci-fi film, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), one of the scariest movies of my young life. In it, pods arrive from outer space to duplicate the bodies of individuals on earth and eventually to replace them. The black men (and one woman) that Rose lures to her parents’ house in the woods are inhabited and controlled by the minds of her white parents’ family and friends, not unlike the victims of the pod people in “Body Snatchers.”
Peele’s film is ironic, satiric and funny. The unlikely hero of the film, who rescues Chris from its bloody denouement, is in his own words, “Motherfucking TSA. That’s what we handle. That’s what we do.” But there is a bite to this humor.
Frederick Douglass, the former slave and eloquent voice for abolition, in his speech delivered on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 5, 1852, declared: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.”
Peele is Douglass’ heir. He is also a comedian by profession, who knows how to combine humor, horror and satire into a potent blend that taps into our racial consciousness in a visceral way.
The end of the film is fast and furious. Chris not only escapes from his bonds (literal straps around his hands and feet) but also vanquishes his primary assailants: Rose’s father, mother and brother. Rose herself pursues him with a rifle as he escapes in her car. When he stops to rescue the housekeeper (whose brain is controlled by the family grandmother), she turns on him, allowing Rose to catch up with the car and shoot Chris. The black groundskeeper (the family grandfather) arrives and asks Rose to allow him to finish Chris off. She gives him the rifle, which he uses to shoot her and then himself — out of the vestige of his black consciousness. Chris approaches Rose, now dying, and begins to strangle her, as she pleads with him, begging for forgiveness and professing her love. For an agonizing moment, Chris hesitates. Then, in a gesture that sets him apart from his bloody assailants, he releases his grip.
This last scene was particularly powerful for me, as it reminded me of the final moments of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, in which the insanely jealous Othello strangles his faithful wife Desdemona, in the midst of her pleas for mercy. In “Get Out,” the roles are reversed: Rose is duplicitous and Chris innocent. He has every reason to want to end Rose’s life, as close to extinction as it is. But he steps back.
In the midst of this grim resolution, it may be easy to miss Peele’s point. Black people, who are often presumed to be less “cultured” than whites, hence more primitive in their emotional lives, are in this role-reversal proven to be more rational, more “civilized” and ultimately more compassionate. Even Shakespeare did not manage to convey this message. Rather, he suggested that his hero, as painfully deluded as he was, could not cope with his chaotic inner life, becoming a victim of his overwhelming rage. Chris acts with a restraint that defines his humanity.
Contemporary psychoanalytic theory and practice tend to focus on the very earliest stages of our lives and the confusions we experience as infants and toddlers about the forces of good and evil within ourselves and in the world at large. In the best case scenario, we understand that we contain both good and evil wishes and impulses and learn not to project our fears and fantasies of destruction onto our caregivers and others who wield power over us. We learn, in other words, to become reflective, rather than simply reactive to what we perceive as external threats. Those who do not achieve the capacity to integrate these kinds of internal conflicts often then imagine that the world itself is split into good and evilˀthemselves being on the side of good.
As a child growing up in St. Louis, I understood de-facto segregation without having a language for it. I observed it as an adolescent in the construction of Interstate 70. When I witnessed the riots in Ferguson (a suburb of St. Louis) from the safety of my home in Minneapolis, I understood where they came from. My city had been divided from its inception and for as long as I could remember, relegating its black population to the margins of its civic and social life and access to power.
“Get Out” not only analyzes our nation’s history of dividing racial reality into either/or categories but also reveals the price we pay socially and culturally for doing so. When we imagine our experience and the world around us as a battle between “us” and “them,” we become less cultured, less civilized, and more importantly, less human.