Implacable white evil, black powerlessness, and sacralized black-on-white violence.
Get Out is one of the most celebrated and successful films of 2017. In late February, it opened at box office number one. It has a 99% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Its success is remarkable for a low-budget, 103-minute, R-rated horror film that cost only $4.5 million to make and that features no box office stars. It is comedian Jordan Peele's debut as a director. Peele is the first African American director to debut a film that earned more than $100 million. Why is Get Out so successful, and what does its success say about, and to, America?
Get Out opens on Dre (Lakeith Stanfield), a black man walking through an American suburb. He is talking on his cell phone. His comments reveal that he is lost and afraid. The suburb is a foreign, threatening terrain where young black men like himself assume that they are prey animals and might be murdered by irrational whites at any moment. A car drives up. The car's driver attacks the young black man and places his body in the trunk of the car and drives off. During this scene, the song "Run Little Rabbit" is heard on the soundtrack. The song's lyrics include, "On the farm it's rabbit pie day … Bang bang bang goes the farmer's gun. Run rabbit run." The song emphasizes Dre's innocence and vulnerability, white people's status as predatory killers, and the white penchant for consuming black people whole, literally or metaphorically.
Cut to Rose (Allison Williams) and Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). Rose, a beautiful, very thin, and refined young rich girl, is taking Chris, her photographer boyfriend, to her parents' home. "Will they be okay with my being black?" Chris asks. Of course, Rose reassures him. "If my father could have voted for Obama a third time, he would have."
When the couple arrive at Rose's palatial home, her neurosurgeon father, Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) does indeed assure Chris that if he could have, he would have voted for Obama three times. He also tells Chris that his father had been a champion runner, but had been bested by Jesse Owens, a black athlete who was simply better than a white man. Rose's mother, Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist.
Chris also meets the black maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and the black groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson). Both servants behave strangely. They smile as if they were ordered to smile and they speak in forced pleasantries.
Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is very pale – his paleness emphasizes his whiteness and his evil. He is rude to Chris.
Weird, rude brother Jeremy reminded me of the Christopher Walken role in Annie Hall, where Walken played the weird, very white brother of a Jewish man's WASP girlfriend. In that film, Woody Allen's character, Alvy Singer, feels excluded and harshly observed by his girlfriend's Gentile family. Allen milks much humor from the disconnect between his character and the Walken character. I hoped for similar humor in Get Out – the film is advertised as a comedy as well as horror and social commentary – but I was disappointed. Peele is no Woody Allen.
Brother Jeremy and father Dean commit what Essence magazine, Vox The Verge and many other reviewers have called "microaggressions" against Chris. They tell him that because he is black he would probably make a fine athlete. Dean tries to converse in Black English. Rose rolls her eyes and repeatedly comes to Chris' defense. In fact, she had earlier defended Chris from a police officer.
Get Out has been praised as a truly scary horror film, a very funny comedy, and a deeply insightful masterpiece that proclaims necessary truths about black-white relations. I saw it in a multiplex and I heard no laughter, gasps, or applause from the racially mixed audience. What I did hear was quite a few seats bouncing up and slapping their backs as patrons exited the theater. The early scenes are slow. Like many a low-budget film, Get Out badly needs to be edited. Midway in the film I had to wonder, when will the chills and laughter and deep insights begin? I despaired that they ever would.
Get Out begins to tug at the heartstrings – and manipulate the viewer – almost halfway through. Late at night, Chris gets up from bed to go outside and catch a smoke. Back in the house, he encounters Missy, his girlfriend's mother. Missy hypnotizes him by stirring her tea with a silver spoon. Silver spoons are proverbial metonyms for wealth. The spoon is shown in close-up. The film's low budget is obvious – the spoon appears to be cheap stainless steel.
Chris' mother had died in the street after being struck by a car. He was a fatherless child at the time of this accident and he did nothing to help his mother. He felt too helpless. Chris carries a heavy weight of guilt and shame.
Missy exploits Chris' vulnerability. She uses his memory of his mother's death to implant in Chris a feeling of complete paralysis. As long as Chris is looking at the hypnotizing silver spoon, he can't move and he can do nothing to help himself. White Missy, with her name reminiscent of antebellum Southern hierarchies, has effectively castrated him. She has used his guilt and shame over his failure to rescue his forebears against him.
The camera moves in for a tight close-up. Tears flow from Chris' large eyes, down Chris' cheeks. This poignant image is used in the movie poster. To simulate the hypnosis effect, the film shows Chris flailing while falling helplessly through empty space – the film dubs this "the sunken place." The scene of a sobbing, helpless, victimized man falling through space while contemplating his mother's death is heart-wrenching. Missy, looking very cold, manipulative, and all powerful, releases Chris from his hypnotized paralysis and he returns to bed. His memory of what Missy did to him is unclear. He suspects that this white woman has harmed him, but he's not sure how or why.
The next day, several elderly, well-dressed, and very polite white people drive up in expensive cars. They are very nice to Chris, as they smile at him and make conversation. There is one black man in the group, Logan (Lakeith Stanfield). Like the servants Georgina and Walter, this black man among rich white people speaks in a strange manner, with the same forced pleasantries and plastic smile. Chris is convinced he recognizes this black man, not as Logan at all, but as Dre, an acquaintance who disappeared while walking in a white suburb at night.
The blacks at the Armitage house, Logan, Georgina, and Walter, all appear to be attempting to communicate something to Chris, but they all fail. In these attempts to communicate, they appear, as Chris appeared, to be utterly helpless and under some alien remote control. In fact, when Georgina tries to say something, she is silenced by sound from Missy's silver spoon. Georgina cries; Walter runs; Logan's nose bleeds. Logan staggers up to Chris and struggles to produce the words "Get out." Chris does not understand.
One of the guests, Jim (Stephen Root), is blind, but an art aficionado. He praises Chris' photography. He says that an aide describes Chris' photographs to him. Jim recognizes that Chris has a talent that he never had. Jim acknowledges that even when he was sighted, his photography was mediocre, not as good as Chris' work.
While Chris and his girlfriend Rose go for a walk, back at the house, there is a silent auction. Dean stands in a gazebo. Before him is an attractive, life-size photograph of Chris. Dean signals amounts by holding up his fingers. Bidders, the elderly rich, white guests, raise Bingo cards to indicate a bid. Dean raises the price higher and higher by holding up more and more fingers. Finally Jim, the blind artist who envied Chris' photographic ability, places the final, highest bid.
Get Out's horror begins in its final scenes. Chris discovers that his white girlfriend Rose is in fact a decoy. She lures healthy, handsome, talented black men to her parents' home. There her mother, a psychiatrist, hypnotizes the men. Her father, the neurosurgeon Dean, removes their brains and places the brains of elderly white people into young black bodies. Jeremy also brings young black victims to the home, but he does so more violently than does Rose. It was Jeremy who had kidnapped Dre, in order that the elderly rich white man, Logan, could take over his body. Georgina and Walter are in fact the Armitage grandparents, in new black bodies. Walter, the black man parasitized by the brain of the Armitage grandfather, is a very fast runner. The grandfather had been beaten in a race by a black man, Jesse Owens. His brain is now in a new, superior, black body, the body of a black runner.
Just so, Jim, the mediocre white photographer who has gone blind, "purchased" Chris from Dean in the auction. Now Dean will place Jim's brain in Chris' body.
Missy had hypnotized Chris so that Chris would be paralyzed and helpless when it came time for Dean to remove his brain and place a white man's brain inside his skull.
At the last minute, through quick thinking and heroics, Chris manages to overpower and to murder all of his opponents. In a series of grisly killings, Chris stabs Jeremy to death. He impales Dean on the antlers of a taxidermy deer head trophy. He burns Jim. He stabs Missy. He drives Georgina into a tree and shoots and strangles Rose, who takes a long time to die and who pleads for her life by telling Chris she loves him. Walter shoots himself. The remaining black part of his brain realizes how awful the situation is; suicide is his only hope. At one point in all this carnage, the song "Run Rabbit" plays again. The suggestion is that Chris is merely a helpless "rabbit" and that he had to murder all these predatory white people, and white people disguised as black people, in order to save his own life.
Indeed, Chris' very name exculpates him from any guilt for this massacre. His first name identifies him as a Christ figure; his last name, Washington, identifies him as a nation founder and hero.
As Chris, splattered with blood and gore from white victims, stands amidst the multiple dead bodies, a police car pulls up. The viewer assumes that the police will arrest Chris, a black man, for murdering an entire white family in a rich, white suburb, and, indeed, that was the original ending of the script.
Rose, who, though shot and strangled, is still not dead, sees the police car and begins to beg for help. We are to conclude that the police will side with her, even though clearly she is the guilty one and Chris is blameless and killed only to defend his own life.
In fact, though, the police car's driver is Rod, Chris' loyal black "bro," who rescues Chris.
Get Out enjoys a 99% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which insists that the film "seamlessly weaves trenchant social critiques into a brilliantly effective and entertaining horror/comedy thrill ride." Stephanie Zacharek at TIME wrote "Peele succeeds where sometimes even more experienced filmmakers fail. He's made an agile entertainment whose social and cultural observations are woven so tightly into the fabric that you're laughing even as you're thinking." Huffington Post says that Get Out is "reason to go to the movies." Will Leitch at The New Republic says that Get Out captures, "the sense that no matter where you turn, no matter how many people claim they're on your side ... they're out to get you." MTV's Amy Nicholson wrote, "Young black men know their lives are in peril." Manohla Dargis in The New York Times said that the film captures "real life." Joe Morgenstern in The Wall Street Journal said Peele showed "explosive brilliance." The Toronto Sun called Get Out a "masterpiece." There are too many more over-the-top accolades to quote them all.
Reviewing a film is obviously a subjective process, but a few objective facts can be adduced. Among the top ten films at RT, Get Out's 99% is the highest rating. Reviewers resorted to rarely used superlatives to praise a low-budget freshman effort. One critic dared to criticize the film; one of the film's stars condemned this critical reviewer, Armond White, who is a man, and an African America, as a "bitch" on twitter. There is a price to pay for critiquing Get Out.
Amateur, and often anonymous reviewers at the International Movie Database are not so sure of Get Out's genius. There, three pages of reviews call the film "slow," unpolished, "ponderous," "self-important," "overrated," "boring," "predictable," "obvious," and "racist."
Is Get Out a racist film? The truth can be found in the answer to a simple question. Could an analogous film about any group other than American whites gain such high praise? Hell no. Imagine a movie that depicted Chris, an innocent, defenseless, vulnerable white girl, dating a black man. The black man takes Chris to his stereotypical ghetto home, where his friends and relatives insult and demean her. She is then auctioned off and prepped for surgical removal of her superior and desirable white body, which will host the brain of a black woman who can achieve happiness only by living out the rest of her life as a white woman. Chris saves herself in a bloodbath, by stabbing, impaling, shooting, immolating, and strangling every last black person with whom she has interacted. Such a film would be denounced and receive a zero score at Rotten Tomatoes.
Imagine a film depicting a Christian girl who has a Jewish boyfriend whose partners in crime want to exploit her body parts. Wait – you don't have to imagine such a story. Tragically, the blood libel has existed for centuries. In this anti-Semitic motif, Jews kidnap Christian children in order to drink their blood. The blood libel appears in works of art from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the 2002 Egyptian TV series Horseman without a Horse. Circulation of the blood libel has sparked tens of thousands of Jewish deaths in pogroms. Writer and director Jordan Peele is playing with fire, the deadly fire of hate.
Indeed there are no positive white characters in Get Out. They appear to be nice. They make friends with a black person. They even make love to a black person, and defend him to the police. They repeatedly state that they voted for a black man for president and would do so three times if they could. All this is a smokescreen. In the marrow of their bones, whites are evil. Nothing can change white evil. The only solution is to massacre them.
One might conclude that writer director Peele has some issues he needs to work out. Indeed, Peele has announced on Twitter that "we're all in the sunken place," that is the Missy-induced paralysis that aids whites in parasitizing black bodies. "The sunken place means we're marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us," Peele said, to his 696,000 twitter followers, and to the mainstream press that has provided extensive positive publicity to his film.
Jordan Peele is a highly successful celebrity, and at not yet forty-years-old he has a record-breaking, history-making # 1 movie that has the current highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes – and he feels "marginalized." He feels that "the system silences us."
Peele attended the Calhoun School, a prestigious prep school on the Upper West Side. It describes itself as "a leader in progressive education." Its yearly tuition is estimated to be $38,400. Peele has a degree from Sarah Lawrence, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the US. Peele's TV show won a Peabody and two Emmys. Jordan Peele's mother is white. His wife, Chelsea Peretti, is white. She's a graduate of Barnard, an exclusive women's college. Her brother Jonah Peretti founded Buzzfeed and co-founded The Huffington Post – publications that have extensively and positively publicized Get Out.
For his lead character, Peele did not chose an African American actor; rather, he chose Daniel Kaluuya, a British son of Ugandans. Kaluuya does not look like an African American because virtually all African Americans who descend from slaves are of mixed race. On average, African Americans have 25% non-African ancestry: 24% European and almost 1% Native American. That Kaluuya is not American and does not look like most African Americans has been noted by no less an authority than Samuel L. Jackson, who stirred controversy by saying, "I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother … What would a brother from America have made of that role? Some things are universal but [not everything is]."
Kaluuya voiced his frustration with Jackson's comment, "When I'm around black people, I'm made to feel 'other' because I'm dark-skinned. I've had to wrestle with that, with people going 'You're too black' … This is the frustrating thing, bro — in order to prove that I can play this role, I have to open up about the trauma that I've experienced as a black person. I have to show off my struggle so that people accept that I'm black. No matter that every single room I go to, I'm usually the darkest person there. You know what I'm saying? I kind of resent that mentality. I'm just an individual … I see black people as one man… I resent that I have to prove that I'm black. I don't know what that is. I'm still processing it."
There are multiple ironies here. Jordan Peele, a member of America's elite, insists that he lives in the sunken place where evil whites hypnotize, paralyze, and silence him. Perhaps because he is very much a part of white America, he chooses an African actor, one not American, who doesn't look or sound American, to play an African American. Kaluuya's status as pure Ugandan is perhaps meant to seal his virtue – he is not tainted by evil white blood. But that pure status puts off no less an authority than Samuel L. Jackson, a leading black actor who has played in significant films that address race, from Jungle Fever to A Time to Kill to Django Unchained. In response, Kaluuya, playing the lead in a hate-mongering race film, protests that he must "show off his struggle" to prove to people that he is adequately black. We've come full circle. Showing off struggle, showing off trauma, is exactly what Jordan Peele is doing. He's a lucky man who has lived a lucky life and he's now insisting that he lives in the "sunken place" like all other black people. Kaluuya says, "I'm just an individual … I see black people as one man." Sorry, Daniel. When you play the lead in a movie that depicts all whites as racist, no matter how nice they seem, when you participate in a cinematic massacre of whites justified by that purported evil, you really aren't telling a universal human story about just one man. You are mongering a very specific race hatred.
NPR asked Peele if the film were meant to address the death of Trayvon Martin. Peele replied that his goal was to depict "the fear that a black man has walking in a white suburb at night." Dre, the black man in the opening scene, is merely walking. Trayvon Martin, according to sworn testimony, publicly available facts, and forensic evidence, was not in a rich, white neighborhood. The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the scene of the Martin shooting, is 50% white, 20% Hispanic, and 20% black. It is not particularly wealthy, and at the time of the Martin shooting, it had a history of break-ins by young black men. Martin was not walking on the street or sidewalk, but behind homes. George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer – the watch that had started up in response to burglaries. According to Zimmerman, Martin punched him in the face and was pounding Zimmerman's head into a concrete sidewalk. He threatened Zimmerman with death. After a struggle over the gun, Zimmerman shot Martin. Zimmerman is about as white as Jason Peele – he has one white parent and one Afro-Peruvian parent. In short, if the opening scene of Get Out is a commentary on the Trayvon Martin shooting, it is a racist, hate-mongering lie from start to finish.
Hate-mongering art often incites real-life violence. Will anyone be so inspired by Get Out that he harms another? I don't know, but of this I am sure: Get Out is part of a flood of cultural material that harms African Americans. The film's undeniably powerful motif of an evil white woman sadistically hypnotizing and paralyzing African Americans in order that they can be commodified and parasitized is just a part of a larger liberal message. Blacks are powerless. They can do nothing to help themselves. White racism is eternal and omnipotent. It dooms every effort any African American ever makes. Even when you cannot see it, feel it, or hear it, it is there. As star Daniel Kaluuya said in The Guardian, white racism is omnipresent, "There's an undercurrent, even if when you look at it factually or objectively, nothing has been said."
Director Jordan Peele echoes Kaluuya. "the parents are very welcoming. They don't skip a beat. They don't care about the color of his skin, which to me was like almost creepier because of what we know this world to be." When white people treat black people in a non-racist way, that's "creepy."
The only solution the film offers is killing all whites, in the goriest ways possible. No, I don't think Peele would argue this in so many words. Which means, in his worldview, there is no solution.
The reality is that Peele needs no solution. He is a comfortable and lucky man leading a comfortable and lucky life. He's not addressing the problem of race in America; he's addressing the problem of a lack of racism in the life of lucky persons like himself. It is safe to guess that he is attempting to seal his own authenticity as a black man by making Get Out. The poor blacks who are naïve enough to believe his message – that all-powerful white racism has doomed them for life – are the one who will be the real victims of this film.