‘Get Out’ And The Revolutionary Act Of Subverting The White Gaze

Universal Pictures
Jordan Peele’s film is an emotionally accurate depiction of what it means to resist and survive as a black person in America.

I n Black Skin, White Masks, the Afro-Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon writes, “Ontology does not allow us to understand the being of the black man, since it ignores the lived experience. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.”

The parameters of black embodiment within a narrative dominated by whiteness are limited. As a result, the complexity and depth of black masculinity is reduced to a static trope, as depicted through the laments of Shakespeare’s Caliban, the compliance of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, and the downfall of Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas.

When race is signified via the white gaze, narratives involving people of color are otherized. Their stories become tangential, contingent upon their proximity to or distance from whiteness. When the white gaze is privileged, all other identities are jeopardized, confining marginalized bodies to typecast tokenism or, even worse, erasure. Within this narrative scope, William Crain’s Prince Mamuwalde becomes Blacula, a killer of his people rather than savior, while the heroism of Ben — the only black character depicted in George Romero’s cult classic Night of the Living Dead — is cut short by a speeding bullet and a subsequent grave. On screen or off, our culture’s habit of centering whiteness suggests that black lives do not matter like the lives of white folks.

But what happens when this dynamic of subjection is subverted? What happens when the white gaze is denied?

When the white gaze is privileged, all other identities are jeopardized.

Following in the footsteps of Ganja and Hess and Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Get Out — Jordan Peele’s directorial debut — illustrates what is possible when the white gaze is subverted and its intentions are exhumed. Within this framework, Hess is immortal, Sweetback out runs the police, and Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) survives a sinister weekend at the Armitages’ suburban home. By placing Chris at the center of his narrative, Peele disavows the white gaze of its privilege. From the very beginning, he tears the veil between the reality of blackness and how it is imagined through the gaze of whiteness. The story begins and ends with Chris. His identity is the locus of the film.

Peele flips the script on the beginning to Stanley Kramer’s 1967 dramedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Rather than opening with Chris and Rose — the contemporary stand-ins for Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) and John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) — en route to the Armitages’ secluded suburban home, we bear witness to the brutal attack and kidnapping of a black young man. By focusing on capture and subdued consciousness, this on-screen image mimics a familiar tale to viewers of African descent. The first in a series of scenes highlighting the monsterhood of white supremacy, it also dismantles the expectation that cinematic tropes like the magical negro, the primitive monster, or the heroic friend willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of the white protagonist will persist. This horrifying scene in the suburbs isn’t merely metaphor and foreshadowing; it’s an allusion to our nation’s origin.

A similar allusion accompanies our introduction to Chris. As viewers, we watch as our soon-to-be hero stands alone in the bathroom of his New York City apartment. As he looks into the mirror to examine his face, his reflection reveals something rarely depicted by mainstream film: a non-sensationalized representation of black manhood and vulnerability. Unlike Rose (and her mother, much later in the film), the audience is instantly granted access to Chris’s interior, a spatial avatar of his inner psyche. By doing so, Peele places Chris at the center of his cinematic universe; he is the axis that connects us to all that has yet to unfold. It isn’t until he lets Rose into his apartment that Chris’s perception of reality is antagonized, a perpetuated act that ultimately puts his life in jeopardy. From her deceptively sweet entrance to her maniacal end, Rose (Allison Williams) pays perfect homage to the botanical origin of her name while reminding viewers of the ways in which white women have historically been implicit in the incarceration and slaughter of black men.

As Rose and Chris drive upstate for a weekend at her parent’s home, it is Rose who is behind the wheel. During the trip she scolds Chris about his smoking habit and coyly suggests that he is jealous after she speaks with his friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) on the phone. Many of these actions are seemingly innocent, but upon further inspection it becomes clear that her behavior is microaggressive. Her dismissive deflection of Chris’s concerns and endless attempts to challenge his sense of perception are a mode of violence. Through these actions, she asserts her narrative as truth, clouding his ability to solely trust his intuition. Presumptively, she is Chris’s ally, his defender, the doting partner, but as the film progresses, her true nature is exposed. It is an all too familiar scene for people of color.

Racism in this sense — as bell hooks suggests in Killing Rage — is treated as if it were a “figment of our perverse paranoid imaginations.” Rose’s opposition to and distortion of Chris’s perception is a sinister reminder of bell hooks’ illuminating origin of white supremacy: “[it] is rooted in pathological responses to difference.” The more palatable version of her parents, Rose is a stand-in for the self-identified feminist ally who fails to acknowledge their own privilege and the ways in which their identity can potentially silence and oppress others.

As one might imagine, things get worse for Chris once he and Rose arrive at her parents’s home. Soon after they park the car in the driveway, Rose’s father, Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), insists on giving Chris a tour, pausing to gush over his collection of objects and mementos acquired from his travels abroad. In the kitchen, the two encounter Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who in addition to Walter (Marcus Henderson), the groundskeeper, was hired to help care for Dean’s elderly parents. “I know how it looks,” he confesses to an understandably skeptical Chris. Dean then states for reassurance that he would have voted for Obama a third time, if he could have. Again, Chris’s perception is challenged by semantics. Dean masks his true intentions behind progressive claims. In his attempts to gain Chris’s trust, he camouflages his violent agenda with liberalism.

Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), Rose’s brother, does the opposite. He arrives to dinner late, tells crude stories, and attempts to put Chris into a headlock despite everyone’s vocal protests. A product of suburban privilege and affluence, Jeremey is unapologetically crass. He objectifies Chris’s embodiment in a fashion reminiscent of an 18th century anthropologist. He is the id of the Armitage family, an heir to the mentality that W.E.B. Du Bois profiles in “The Souls of White Folks.”

The Armitage family’s matriarch, Missy, is initially the least threatening. She is a calculatingly calm voice of reason juxtaposed against the chaos of her son and cringe-worthy awkwardness of her husband’s repeated use of phrases like “my man” and “thang.” When Georgina accidentally spills tea onto the table, it is Missy who suggests that she go inside to rest. Of course the initial interpretation of each of these actions is undone by the film’s climax, but before the Armitages’ true selves are uncovered, she remains a lesser evil. Because of this, Chris’s guard is down when he is around her, and although he doesn’t accept her offer for hypnosis, he doesn’t view her as a threat.

Like Rose, Missy attempts to overpower Chris’s perception and his sense of reality by suppressing his sense of truth with the weight of her own. By placing Chris under hypnosis against his wishes, she violates not only his body but his mind, thus becoming the celluloid representation of countless physicians whose unethical, unjust, and inhumane treatment of people of color is often dismissed by historians as antiquated ethics rather than racism. Once Chris is under hypnosis, Missy deceptively taps into his childhood trauma, forcing him to recount the experience of his mother’s death. Once his defenses are weakened, she sends him into “the sunken place.” By manipulating Chris’s emotions, Missy is able to temporarily suppress his mobility, but she underestimates his ability to perceive and interpret what he can see.

The Armitage family is a symbolic representation of white supremacy and its methodology within contemporary culture.

In a way, the Armitage family is a symbolic representation of white supremacy and its methodology within contemporary culture. Through physical and psychological violence and violation, supremacist discourse and ideology attempts to dismantle the black consciousness by insisting that what we see and feel and experience as people of color isn’t reality. It attempts to dissuade us from our intuition, that gut feeling one gets when a white colleague calls you by the name of another black co-worker or when a retail associate silently follows each and every one of your footsteps in a store. The depravity of the Armitages’ violence manifests itself long before viewers via Chris are forced to “Behold the Coagula.” By the time the family’s annual party is in full swing, it is clear that his suspicions are valid and that Rod’s warnings, although at times comically dramatic, are not to be ignored.

Before discovering the box of photographs in Rose’s bedroom closet, it is logical not to trust her. Before Missy forcibly hypnotizes Chris, it is logical to be suspicious of her motives. Before Jeremy attacks Chris, it is logical to distrust his intentions. Before Dean auctions Chris off to the highest bidder — the prestigious art dealer Jim Hudson — it is logical to distrust his politics. Through the lens of the black gaze, each of these grievous acts is not outside of plausibility.

By grounding his narrative within the tradition of the horror genre, the trauma that Peele’s protagonist experiences operates as the driving action that leads to the climax of the film, while also serving as a haunting metaphor for racism in America. It’s a terror-inducing portrait of a nation whose founding fathers bought and sold African slaves for the benefit of their families’s estates and personal gain. Peele’s film is an emotionally accurate depiction of what it means to resist and survive in a culture that never anticipated that we would survive or fight back in defense. It is an assumption that is synonymous with the narrative ignorance of the white gaze. It is the assumption that black Americans can be duped into dismissing racist behavior and its subsequent trauma via earnest allyship and progressive lip service.

Again, we are reminded of bell hooks, who wrote: “The eagerness with which contemporary society does away with racism, replacing this recognition [of supremacy] with evocations of pluralism and diversity that further mask reality, is a response to the terror” of whiteness. Get Out disallows this masking. Although Chris is sold, subdued, and deceived, and his identity is nearly erased, it is the clarity and affirmation of his perception — along with Rod’s intuition, Dre’s ominous warning, Georgina’s tears, and Walter’s suicide — that disempowers the Armitage agenda. This can be summed up by Jim Hudson’s chilling confession: “I want those things you see through.”

The horror of the Coagula isn’t just an act of erasure; it’s the act of manipulating perception, of de-centering blackness and reasserting the age-old myth that whiteness is universal and deserving of privilege.

‘Get Out’ reveals what it means to resist and survive in a culture that never anticipated that we would survive or fight back in defense.

In the end, the Armitages’ efforts are thwarted and along with their demise, the white gaze is at last omitted. In the absence of their deception, Chris survives. He and Rod (who arrives just in the nick of time) drive away into the night while Rose’s home and her family’s legacy is consumed in flames. Her entire generational line is wiped out along with Jim Hudson. Chris’s ability to dismantle, deconstruct, and defract white supremacy and the solidarity he shares with Rod is ultimately what saves him.

Through artful storytelling and Peele’s decolonized lens, Get Out exposes the white gaze for what it truly is: a pervasive threat to black survival.