Disclaimer: So let’s get this out of the way right at the start: I’m a white Englishman. A really white one. Worse, I’m a white man with left-wing leanings, and that’s absolutely going to colour my discussion of this film. However, given that one of the most critical of critical thinking skills is the ability to know oneself, and that ’Get Out’ is – in my opinion – a desperate attack on the indolence of left-leaning white folks who really, really don’t… Well, I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts about this most superb cinematic effort.
” A black mirror, made to reflect everything about itself that humanity will not confront.” – Neil Gaiman on the perfect nightmare.
I love horror. Truth be told, I love horror more than anything, but the genre has a huge problem. Put bluntly, much of it is crap.
And not just a little bit crap, mind you, but mind-meltingly, ass-wreckingly crap. The kind of crap that leaves you furious that two hours of your life has been wasted on watching YET ANOTHER group of generic teenagers get killed, even though ‘Cabin In The Woods’ proved once and for all that Hollywood should stop making that exact same damned film because, as a genre, it’s been won.
Anyway, where was I?
Oh yes, horror. I just love it. One of the things I love most about the genre – the thing, in fact, leaving apart those moments when I’m forced back into my chair away from the screen, practically browning my trousers – is the potential it has for symbolism. Almost more than any other genre, metaphor has always been horror’s greatest strength.
Because, of course, the monsters aren’t really monsters. They’re just whatever we’re afraid of, hidden behind a smokescreen of symbolism. Dracula might not be real, but our every nameless, unspoken, ridiculous fear of the foreigner is. Seen this way, the Count isn’t a just character, but a coagulation of every xenophobic anxiety from the Old World, come to our country to buy our property, steal our women, spread disease and kill our men. In the same way, Frankenstein is the walking personification of or fear of science and the evils that intelligence without wisdom can create; his monster, the purest representation of how ‘normal’ people victimise those who aren’t, learning only too late that ignorance and violence inevitably rebounds on the wielder.
The best writers can really exploit our nightmares to ask important questions about the human condition.
And I think this is why the majority of the stuff that gets produced and released to Netflix is so very, very depressing. All that potential to show us unpleasant or troubling truths about ourselves… and it’s usually nothing more than teenagers in a wood getting killed by transphobia.
So, I cannot begin to express how much I love Jordan Peele’s ’Get Out’. Not just because it’s scary (and it is; the whole two hour run-time’s infused with a dread so thick you can taste it) but more than that: because it’s about something. Specifically, racism. However, unlike every other Hollywood film, where the racists are nice, obvious Others – the kind of people who wear white hoods, burn crosses and are Not Us (no, never us) – ’Get Out’ dares to go where lesser films do not.
A perfect nightmare, it dares to do something both audacious and meaningful with its cruelties. Rather than simply presenting its Grand Guignol as simple emotive spectacle (though it is both emotive and it is spectacular), its true audacity is to hold up that black mirror to a white, liberal America that’s denies any examination of itself and go ‘You. You are the problem’. It left me feeling awkward, uncomfortable, and chilled to the bone.
Christ I fucking love this film.
This is not a review of ’Get Out’. You don’t need one. Just go see it, it’s great. What this is, is an analytical essay, exploring the themes, ideas and concepts the film presents (from my aforementioned, White, middle-class, and like, maybe 60% heterosexual male perspective). As a result, there’s not just spoilers – there’s literally no point reading this unless you’ve seen the film. So, watch the film, then come back here.
So there’s this story in horror which gets told and retold ad infinitum. Older than dirt, the ‘Don’t Go Into The Woods’ genre is so ubiquitous that if you’ve ever watched a horror film, you’ve probably seen it. The genre has a long and powerful tradition in literature and cinema, but the modern version of the story doesn’t really get defined until the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974) lays out all the tropes that all the later films will employ. The isolated, hostile location; the a big house which already seems weird to start with, but which holds unrelenting horrors inside; the evil forces inside the house which seek to destroy those interlopers foolish enough to have gotten lost on the way.
‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ may be the very first to truly lay out all the narrative tools, but later films built on them. Everything from ‘Evil Dead’ to ‘Cabin In The Woods’… even the first ‘Alien’ film is a ‘Don’t Go Into The Woods’ film, only the ‘Woods’ are a mysterious planet, and the scary house is a crashed spaceship.
The genre represents a story which plays on our subconscious fears in simple, easy to spot ways. The ‘house’ is somewhere unwelcoming, most usually represented by its crumbling façade and an interior filled with nightmares. The inhabitants are, mentally and morally, Not Like Us; most often they will be disfigured or physically different as a way to show their ‘Otherness’. There will usually be some kind of motif to link the monsters to Patriarchal fears of queer or violent sexuality. Norman Bates is a crossdressing lunatic. Leatherface is trans panic personified – a psychopath with a flayed woman’s face, flailing his chainsaw-cock at the world. The Evil Dead possess trees to rape women. Giger’s Alien literally has a penis for a head, hiding another rape-erection inside.
Teenager victims are then punished with death for going where they shouldn’t, and doing things they shouldn’t. As The Director puts it in ‘Cabin In The Woods’, they’re punished for “being young”.
The genius of ’Get Out’ is that is employs all of these tropes, but then confounds them by casting the white middle-class characters as the villains. ’Get Out’ forges an entirely unique horror film by repurposing clichéd tropes with an unapologetically black perspective on where ‘The Woods’ are, and who the horrors within them might be.
In this piece, I’m going to be taking ’Get Out’ apart, and looking at just exactly how it uses its metaphors to ask some difficult questions of white America.
“We know too many Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants, and Abner Louimas, know too many Sean Bells and Amadou Diallos. Know too well that we are the hard-boiled sons of Emmett Till.”
– Javon Johnson
Any discussion of ’Get Out’ must necessarily begin with the audacity of that opening scene. As with so many horror films, it opens with a scene of a young, attractive person, caught out alone in a hostile location, and ends as that person is attacked by a man in a mask, their body disappeared into the night.
However, unlike those films, ’Get Out’ chooses to invert audience expectations in a number of powerful ways. Firstly, the more conventional victim-figure of a white woman – that most vulnerable of creatures (or so White America would have you believe) – is replaced with a black man. Black men are so rarely presented as vulnerable in cinema, so often shown as the aggressor, the ones most adept with physicality. The switch confronts the audience from the outset, demanding they recognise the essential humanity of a demographic which is all-too often Othered and demonised into caricature.
It’s a well-worn trope that in horror, ‘The Black Dude Dies First’, but ’Get Out’ presents this cliché in a significantly more political way than I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film.
Firsly, instead of the usual poverty, the scene’s mise-en-scen bespeaks nothing but wealth. The streets are well-lit with clean, aesthetically attractive lighting obviously designed to remind a viewer of the boulevards of a gated community. The road is clear and clean, well maintained, without a hint of graffiti or poverty in sight. There are trees and hedges, all perfectly lovely. It might be night-time, but it’s clear: this is a safe neighbourhood. This is somewhere well-to-do. This is somewhere where Bad Things just don’t happen. In any other, more conventional, Hollywood film, this would be where the bumbling middle-class family gets ready to go on vacation. Every house is large and expensive, all beautifully done in that peculiar, tastefully vast style of American wealth… the monster even drives an expensive-looking sports car.
All this use of carefully crafted aesthetics makes it impossible to read this scene without seeing Trayvon Martin, Emmet Till, or any of the thousand unremembered black men murdered for the simple crime of frightening a trigger-happy gun owner with their blackness.
Which is, of course, the point. Horror films are a repository of subconscious, unspoken fear. Hollywood has – with only depressingly rare exception – made films by white people, for white people. Usually, presumed white, straight, cis-het men. Where those films play on the subconscious fears of the white, straight, cis-het men who make them (hence the preponderance of transgendered serial killers and gay-panic induced queer murderers.)
’Get Out’ on the other hand, represents an entirely different cultural paradigm and viewpoint: the black fear of white supremacy. For the first time in a mainstream American popcorn film, we have a representation of the unspoken terror that must grip a vast majority of black American men: the horror that white people may do as they wish with black male bodies, and with impunity. Seen not from the presumed white viewpoint, but instead from an unrepentantly black perspective, the white suburbs become as alien and hostile as any isolated rural murder-farm.
For the first time, a horror film screams: “Hey middle-class white America: you are scary as Leatherface”.
And that’s not just transgressive; it’s shocking because we’re so used to racism being equated with white hoods and back woods, not lovely suburbs with well-kept lawns.
One particular touch I liked was how Jeremy Armitage, brother of the protagonist’s girlfriend and this film’s Leatherface equivalent, wears a knight’s helmet as he bundles his victim into the boot of his car. Knightly helms have connotations of wealth, privilege, aristocracy, courtly romance, skill at arms… all traits that Jeremy undoubtedly perceives in himself.
But the terrorists of the KKK explicitly call themselves ‘White Knights’ and undoubtedly fancy themselves as possessing all those same traits. Visual puns like this help clearly draw parallels between white liberal elite America’s ‘unconscious racial bias’ and the more overt active racialized violence of murderers like the Klan’s. Right from the start, in incredibly subtle ways like this, the film lays out its central thesis: that white liberal America is not so different from the Klan as it likes to tell itself.
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
― Toni Morrison, Beloved
There’s a saying: ‘Britain thinks 100 miles is a long way; America thinks 100 years is a long time’, and as a man who lives in a city that remembers Rome, I think there’s some truth to that. Slavery’s legacy infects America. There’s no escaping this, but there is a lot of denial about it. One of the things that people – white people – like to ignore is how recently slavery was still a thing in that nation. Slavery only ended 152 years ago, which sounds a lot, until you put it into actual human terms: that could be someone’s great-grandmother, who remembers her the scars on her great-grandmother’s back.
When I was born, there were still people alive who remembered family members born as slaves.
White America hates thinking about this, or if it does, it does so in terms of guilt. ‘Why should I feel guilty about something I didn’t do?’ Well, you shouldn’t. That’s a ridiculous idea. We mustn’t feel guilt; we weren’t (I assume) a slave owner. The sins of the father are not passed to the son. The appropriate response is not guilt, but a sense of responsibility. A sense that there are still wrongs in the world which we white people benefit from, to the detriment of black people; wrongs that are within our power to right.
What wrongs you ask?
Well, ’Get Out’ presents a number of them in very clear terms.
As I’ve established, horror is predicated around fears, and most powerfully about unspoken, subconscious fears that are often extremely hard to even name, let alone process or rationalise. Where white horror cinema tends to be built around a fears of emasculation and vulnerability in the face of a more primal world we cannot control, ’Get Out’s thematic concerns instead present a powerful look at two very specifically Black fear-myths. Firstly, the power of white people to subordinate black bodies. Secondly, the power of white people to deny such subordination has ever occurred, gaslighting black culture into thinking the war against racism has been won when it’s as far from conclusion as its ever been.
“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.” – Martin Luther King
N.B: Because she’s such a significant character, we’ll be coming to Rose and the specific tropes she invokes later.
So the opening of ’Get Out’ establishes that we’re going to be dealing with a very different kind of murder-family than is entirely usual in horror.
To begin with, Chris’ every interaction with the family very effectively establishes how they’re not just white middle class – even before they’re revealed as absolute monsters, they’re the very worst of those indolent white liberals who Martin Luther King lamented, the ones for whom the time is never now. They fawn over Chris. They talk about how they wanted to vote for Obama for a third term, make a big show of how they’re well-travelled, how they embrace alternate world cultures. They’re educated, sophisticated, well-to-do; in every way, they couldn’t be further from the stock hillbilly-cannibal characters of your standard gore-fest.
However, intriguingly – especially for a fan of horror – Peele has written the Armitages as, essentially, the middle-class version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s ‘family’. The parallels are undeniable.
Chainsaw’s family has Leatherface, a violently unbalanced murderer who wears a mask as he carries out his crimes; the Armitage’s has Jeremy. Leatherface has a sibling, Hitchiker, who’s out in the world, causing trouble. The Armitages have Rose. Leatherface’s big brother runs the family, a horrible patriarch whose genuine evil drives his damaged little brother. Dean Armitage runs his family in the same way, organising and orchestrating their acts for his own grotesque purposes. The Chainsaw family is headed by Grandpaw, rendered infirm by age, but whose legendarily brutal past inspires and informs all his descendants’ actions. Roman Armitage may be forced to hide in the body of a Coagulated man for the majority of the film, but it’s revealed that he’s the one who’s driven everything.
The meta-textual point is that the two families are essential mirror opposites, separated only by class – and the wealth and respectability that class brings. After all, at a whole-family level, the two share terrifyingly similar behaviour. For example, in ‘Chainsaw’, the family uses trespassers as literal meat; in ’Get Out’ the Armitages are, likewise, interested in the flesh of their victims. Not as food, perhaps, but they definitely don’t see their victims as people. The Coagula, the film’s combination of hypnotism and brain surgery the Armitages inflict upon their victims is the purest kind of body horror. It invokes the classic horror trope of ‘And I Must Scream’, and is easily as vile as ‘Chainsaw’s cannibalism. The scene where Chris is powerlessly bound to a tastefully gauche leather chair can straightforwardly be read as the middle-class parallel to the scene in ‘Chainsaw’ where Terry McMinn’s Pam is hung, kicking and screaming, on Leatherface’s meathook.
Where ’Get Out’ dares to go further than ‘Chainsaw’ or other such slashers is in the politicisation of the Coagula; where Leatherface will simply kill you, the Coagula will destroy you. Peele’s direction of those poor, co-opted black characters who’ve been Coagulated is masterful, and the actors’ deft work at conveying the misery and despair of the Coagula’s victims really drives home the horror of what’s been done to them.
(As a related side note, Betty Gabriel’s performance as the Armitage’s ‘house maid’ Georgina is an absolute masterclass in acting. Her performance is so good it’s worth the price of entry alone.)
The thing is, beyond simple horror, the Coagula is one of the film’s key satirical elements. Subtextually, the Coagula’s victims are instead a metaphor for the way black people are diminished by being forced to assimilate themselves into white culture – a culture they never wanted to be a part of. On the surface, all the Coagulated black characters are happy. They smile, they primp themselves, they go for runs, they hold hands with their white friends…
But it’s all so obviously unnatural, so obviously wrong.
This is most driven home by Chris’ interactions with the character of Logan – who turns out to be an acquaintance named Andre. As Logan, the character speaks with the same cadence and vernacular as the white people around him. He carries himself as they do, has the same sort of ‘well-to-do’ mannerisms… The effect is genuinely strange; actor LaKeith Stanfield deserves huge credit so effectively invoking the uncanny valley. He makes it clear that Andre’s essential black identity has been utterly shredded by what’s been inflicted upon him.
A key demonstration of this is the shift when Andre is briefly able to break free from the Coagula’s ‘sunken place’ and shout a warning to Chris is profoundly disturbing, and the key signifier is Andre’s use of AAVE, that most distinctive, beautiful (and endlessly parodied) dialect. AAVE is, as with so many elements of black culture, alternately vilified and admired by white culture, that the way the character shifts between the two can’t be read in any way but a political one.
The film’s metaphor makes it clear: the only way for black people to truly be completely accepted by well-meaning white people? Is to give up your black identity entirely. You’re not allowed to dress black, or think black, or talk black. You have to literally give yourself up. Surrender. Submit. Replace the blackness within you with pure white, because the goal of these white middle classes isn’t so much the equality they claim it is, as it is to ensure that deep down ‘we’re all the same’.
How rarely do those with cultural power acknowledge that ‘same’ might carry connotations of loss for minorities? That the powerful ask the disenfranchised – not necessarily deliberately, but through every snide comment that denigrates minority culture – to give up an essential part of themselves? Society would never ask white people to give up their essential whiteness, but it doesn’t hesitate to denigrate black speech patterns, black hairstyles, or any element of black culture that’s too far removed from the acceptable mainstream. For white people, that kind of horrifying loss of self-identity would never need to happen.
In this way, the film’s Coagula procedure operates as a powerful metaphor for the crushing of black culture under white values; black people only truly accepted by the white community as ‘family’ once they’re utterly white on the inside, the only blackness remaining a lone voice screaming in misery at what’s been lost.
As with the opening scene, the film uses implications through its visuals, primarily the use of its mise-en-scen, to show where the roots of the Armitage’s attitude come from. Above ground, the family house is traditional, but modern. Despite this, the Coagula videos that Chris is forced to view are shown to him on a big old Radiation King TV, explicitly tying the Coagula to the 1950s: the era of white picket fences, boys named Chip, girls named Judy… and strange fruit dangling next to burning crosses. It’s an era that, for much of white American media, is held up as nostalgic; the kind of place where Richie and the Fonz might run into Marty McFly’s dad. ’Get Out’ shows us the flip side of that white utopian vision: a place where horror lurked for those who weren’t so privileged. The Coagula video shows the Armitage family’s Grandpaw explaining the procedure, while surrounded in visuals that are utterly rooted in the 50’s and the values of that era: neat gardens, happily coloured clothes, the perfect nuclear family… As a result, the Coagula can be seen as representing the darkness within the American white liberal elite. A time that was, for the kyriarchy, a cultural heyday was, for everyone else, a time where terrible ideas left unacknowledged were allowed to fester into modern problems of spectacular unpleasantness.
It’s interesting as well, because the film presents the idea that liberal values aren’t actually enough to save someone from the prejudiced attitudes of their upbringing. While Dean Armitage may be superficially a meritocrat – he’s not targeting black people deliberately, they’re just in fashion right now! – his actions give the lie to that. His family’s targeting of black people is an obvious, racist pattern, and one that’s obviously been passed down from father to son. As Dean says, his father Roman – who innovated the Coagula procedure – never got over losing to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. As the aphorism goes, when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Actions speak louder than words, and all Dean’s petty rationalisations regarding fashion do is serve to prove quite neatly how much racism exists simply because of a lack of critical thinking, which is, of course, the point. Saying black people are chosen because they’re ‘in fashion’, is a neat way for Peele to represent white middle class indifference to black suffering. To be able to say ‘I’m not racist’ without ever questioning the myriad ways we benefit from systems and power structures that exclusively target black people to the benefit of white is a key pillar of the white supremacy that has always dominated American culture.
The film is also not shy about looking at the failings of white liberal parenting. Ignoring (for the moment) Rose’s obvious psychopathy (because we’ll get to her in a bit), Jeremy Armitage is shown to be the most unstable member of the family, and the film makes it clear that his instability has a definite weird racial edge. Aside from the visuals of his knightly helmet signifying his as a white supremacist, in his biggest scene, we see Jeremy baiting Chris. He’s obsessed with Chris’ physicality, by turns jealous and prideful. He brings the conversation to MMA, leers at how Chris could be ‘a physical beast’. It’s obvious that he wants to fight Chris, made explicit when he comes over and tries to ‘playfully’ assault him. Given the delight with which he mocks Chris after he’s collapsed under hypnosis, it seems that Jeremy’s driven by a desperate need to be better than Chris… which, considering he’s only just met the guy, would be weird.
Unless Jeremy’s an overt racist, which, and let’s be honest here, he is. He’s jealous of Chris’ blackness, and clearly wants to assert himself over it. Chris challenges him in a way that he never states or explains, but which can only be resolved through Jeremy asserting his dominance through violence… at which point the subtext is pretty much just text. Jeremy’s a racist prick, raised by middle-class liberals who’ve taught their son that not saying racist things is the same as not being a racist.
But it isn’t, and the film shows that. It’s also interesting that when Jeremy’s desired fight comes – when he locks on the sleeper hold, attempting to live out his MMA fantasies – he loses. He’s not as good as he thinks. Chris – a non-violent photographer, remember – wins through luck, determination and grit, not because of any inherent racial advantage. Jeremy doesn’t lose because he’s white; he loses because, like every racist, he’s a hateful loser and the audience wants to see him go down.
And it’s at this point we get to the film’s most terrifying villain: Rose.
MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!” – Flavia Dzodan.
While the Armitage family as a whole is a satirical skewer through the heart of white ‘liberalism’, it’s in the character of Rose that the film really drives home its theme that the problem isn’t just the obvious racists, but those indolent left-wingers for whom the time is never now.
When we’re first introduced to the character of Rose, she’s shown to be, in every way, a Good Person. She’s funny and charming, and pre-emptively embarrassed for her family’s clumsy attempts to bond with Chris. In a masterful piece of meta-casting, the role is played by Allison Williams of ‘Girls’ fame. On that show – one entirely concerned with the lives of white liberal elite women and the difficulties they go through (to the somewhat infamous exclusion of people of colour) – she plays a relatively prissy, uptight character who’s still more responsible than the series’ lead. This role cannot help but inform the reactions of those audience members more familiar with Williams’ work, helping to immediately establish the character as trustworthy, reliable, and – most importantly – not a threat.
But Rose is a psychopath. The film takes great pains to show us this through her actions. Post the film’s reveal of her evil nature, she evinces a staggering lack of empathy. From the photographs of her victims, it’s clear she’s led many, many innocents to their doom. Literally as Chris is being Coagulated (or so she believes), she’s online, browsing for her next victim – this after being in a relationship with him for five months. The film reveals her as a consummate actor and masterful liar, able to convince Chris she’s looking for her keys even as she’s stalling him. When the façade finally falls, not just her expression changes, but her entire manner. Body language shifts, tone of voice changes… it’s an incredible performance from Williams, easily the equal of the actors portraying victims of the Coagula for its shocking difference to what has come before. William’s performance makes it clear through every movement and microexpression that the character is an abject monster.
If the film as a whole is a clear repurposing of the ‘Don’t Go Into the Woods’ genre from a black perspective, then Rose’s luring of so many, many men (and one woman) to their doom is basically the hoary old Bluebeard narrative, made shiny and new because, as with all the tropes in the film, it’s coming from a black perspective. The classic narrative is played so straight, it even has Bluebeard’s secret room of dead partners in it, albeit as photographs rather than corpses.
So in this sense, Rose is nothing we horror fans haven’t seen before.
However, the reason we’re discussing Rose’s psychopathy before we look at the ‘nice’ things she does at the start of the film, is because of the satirical light it throws on every one of her interactions with Chris. Before the reveal, Rose is funny and charming… a delight in every way, but – and this is what the reveal exposes – she’s was never once on Chris’ side. Looking at her actions from a post-reveal point of view, every single thing she does is only ever a move in a game, all designed to leave him ultimately reduced to a tool for her own class of people.
This is where the film really hammers its satire home. In the scene where Chris is pulled over by a – presumed openly racist officer – we see Chris co-operate with the officer. He doesn’t like it, but he smiles, he’s deferential and polite… he does everything America’s system of white supremacy has taught him he needs to do to survive. The tension in the scene is gut-churning, and I was sure that the officer was being set-up as a Chekov’s Gun, most likely for a final scene where he’d end up shooting and killing Chris as he ‘Got Out’.
But ’Get Out’ isn’t interested in making obvious points about overt racism, or police brutality. That tension, that sense that if Rose wasn’t there, Chris would be brutalised or dead? That’s all the film needs to say on that issue. ‘Police are scary if you’re black’ is so obvious, the film doesn’t waste time belabouring, justifying, or rationalising that point.
Your white comfort is not its concern.
Instead, the film shows Rose boldly standing up to the police officer, calling out his overt racism in an act of unconcealed allyship which establishes she is a Good Person. She can’t be racist, because she told a racist off for his racism!
…or so the indolent logic goes. Of course, post reveal, we can see this for the very superficial allyship it is: Rose is saying all the right things, not because she believes in them, but because they benefit her. In-universe, the character doesn’t want the police to know who the black man was, because once Chris becomes a missing person, the cop might come asking questions. Rose’s refusal to let the police see Chris’ ID protects her family.
Taken on the meta, satirical level, however, the film skewers lazy allies, showing that white liberals who will speak out against racism as a way to make themselves look good are no friend to the black community.
Later in the film, Rose’s selfish behaviour takes on a much more insidious edge. As Chris sees and experiences more of the weirdness-verging-on-horror of the Armitage house, he comes to the woman he loves, a woman he trusts because she spoke up for him and says ‘My lived experiences have shown me something bad is going on’.
Rose’s response is to gaslight the absolute shit out of him. ‘Honey, there’s nothing wrong. Your lived experiences aren’t as important as the words I’m saying to you.’
In refusing to acknowledge what her boyfriend is saying, the film drives home a further salient point about the dangers of white allyship, and actually listening to the people we purport to stand by.
People see things from their own perspective, and it’s truly difficult to put your own experiences aside and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It takes work, intelligence and empathy and some people just don’t have the capability. But, white people are so used to their voice being the one of authority, so used to speaking and having their words heard, that they talk over the legitimate, true fears of people with different life experiences, delegitimising real anxieties and sweeping serious problems under the carpet in the name of a quiet life. Any of us could be Rose, hushing someone in pain because, to quote Ultron, we’ve “confused peace with quiet”.
Rose’s refusal to listen also carries another, more awful betrayal. Chris might be in fear – literally for his life – but no matter what, no matter how much she might claim to love him, Rose will always put his needs second to her family’s. Why is this significant on a satirical level?
Because it contains the horrible truth that white women will side with abusive authorities as long as it lets them hold onto their privilege. Last November, 53% of white women voted for Trump, a man who brags about grabbing women by the pussy and sees nothing wrong with abusive his position of power to do what he likes with the bodies of Miss World contestants. A self-admitted abuser of women is voted into power by white women because they “don’t think racism is a big deal”.
When 94% of black women voted for Clinton, well, a disparity like that makes you wonder. Like, maybe there’s more than a few Roses out there, who say they’ll stand with you in public, but who’ll betray you the second standing by you threatens their own status.
“I have the people behind me and the people are my strength.” – Huey P. Newton.
It’s telling that Rod, Chris’ awesome TSA friend, is the one who saves the day.
On a metaphorical level, Rod represents the black community. Rod is woke, and his journey shows – in a fairly comedic, but also frustrating way – the difficulties facing the black community when trying to explain the problems facing them.
Rod very quickly works out exactly what’s going on. He realises what the Armitage’s are going to do with Chris, and yeah, while his ‘sex slaves’ line is played for laughs, he’s right about that too.
Remember Andre? Andre who was coagulated with Logan’s brain? Logan who was married? Logan who still wants to have sex with his wife? Andre who screams at Chris to ‘Get Out!’ because every night, Andre has to watch from the sunken place as he’s raped by Logan’s ancient wife?
There’s a long history of white fascination and exoticisation of the black body, from the creepily hypersexualised presentation of Sarah Baartman as the ‘Hottentot Venus’, all the way through to a lingering legacy of racist tropes invented in the name of ‘protecting’ white women. Rod’s aware of this. Sure, he phrases his fears and knowledge in ways which lead others – including Chris – to not take him seriously, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
The film rubs our nose in this when Rod’s ignored by the police. He shows up with a photo of a missing person he’s found, but because his truth seems too ridiculous to be believed, the police laugh at him. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it shows how useless the authorities are when it comes to crimes committed against black people. Even nice, ‘good’ ones like Chris.
Secondly, and more importantly, all the police Rod speaks to are black. Significantly, the first officer he speaks to is a black female detective. He comes to these supposed professionals with actual evidence of a crime, but because he doesn’t report it in exactly the right way, he is laughed out of the building by people who look like him.
The film’s point is that of course the police aren’t onside, because sure, they might be black, but they’re police first. It’s a chilling thought to contemplate that the authorities won’t automatically be on your side – even when they look like you – because the institutions they serve will have changed them. In this way, the film points out that just having black officers will not help solve the problem of a racist police force (or any racist institution, for that matter). Internalised and institutional racism needs to be overcome consciously; it doesn’t just disappear by magic. The characters of the disbelieving police also serve to highlight that the film isn’t attacking white people; it’s attacking white supremacy, which is a system that exists within the minds of black people as much as it does white.
At the end of the film, Rod’s final glory is that he saves his friend. This was a lovely subversion of my expectations that I genuinely didn’t see coming; as I said, I was sure the police car was due to contain the evil officer from earlier. Not to mention, the lingering spectre of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ was looming large in my mind, that film’s black protagonist shot to death by witless police who mistook him for a dangerous threat.
But that never happened. Chris got out and the satire concludes by telling us that, at the moment, the only people black folks can rely upon is each other. The black community, woke and engaged, taking the initiative and putting in all the effort is the only thing that will save black people. Not the police, not white people; only the black community, because white supremacy is everywhere and in everything.
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” – Martin Luther King “Letter from a Birmingham jail”, 1963
If you think ’Get Out’ is a film about how terrible white people are, you haven’t been paying attention. The Armitages are exactly as representative of white people as Leatherface is of Texans, which is to say, not at all. ’Get Out’ isn’t about white people, because white people aren’t even really in it. White actors are, but white people aren’t, because it’s not about us.
It’s about black subconscious fears.
As I said at the start, horror films – the most effective ones – are all about the things we’re afraid of, but that we can’t quite put into words. ‘Subconscious’ literally means ‘beneath our awareness’: a subconscious fear is a fear you’ve got but that you can’t quite articulate because you’re not fully aware of it.
’Get Out’ is a catalogue of everything black people are scared white people can do; not on a literal level, but on a metaphorical, subconscious one. They’re afraid of being gunned down by a scared citizen with no gun training and even less self-control. They’re afraid a police officer will gun them down because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid the partner who claims to love them won’t support them because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid that partner might turn on them because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid of being reduced to slavery again because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid they won’t be believed because of the colour of their skin. They’re afraid the authorities will ignore them, even if they tell the truth, because of the colour of their skin.
And based on the evidence, it’s kind of hard to argue that those fears aren’t completely and utterly rational. The manifold legacies of slavery, of disenfranchisement, of exploitation, of police brutality, of being betrayed by supposed white allies… it all means the black community lives with fears which are entirely sensible, because time and time again, lived experience has proven that they are true.
So if you’re white and feeling defensive or angry, let me turn you from ’Get Out’ to another cinematic masterpiece:
‘The Lego Movie’.
At the end of that film, there’s a confrontation between two people. One has all the power, the other doesn’t. One defines how the world is supposed to be, the other is forced into complicity through threats and aggression.
Then the dominant one of the pair finds his Lego-figure analogue: a cartoonish, ridiculous asshole named President Business, with a sweeping cloak, flaming crown, and boots so tall he towers over the weaker figures. And on seeing his analogue, the dominant human figure is cut to his core.
“This is how you see me?”
White people: this is how black people see you.
Not consciously. It’s not fucking literal. They’re not worried you’re going to hypnotise them and cut their brains out.
But they are worried you won’t support them.
They are worried you’ll sell them out.
They are worried you won’t actually do anything meaningful to help advance their needs, even when you claim to be a friend and ally.
The point of ’Get Out’ isn’t to go ‘ALL WHITE PEOPLE ARE LIKE…’, but to show us just how scared a huge portion of our community is. The villains of ’Get Out’ are to white people as President Business is to the Father in ‘The Lego Movie’. They’re every unspoken fear that white people have created, not through cruelty, but through indolence. Through laziness. Through a refusal to leave the house and challenge the structures which have kept black people down for the better part of four centuries.
To get angry about the way white people are presented in ’Get Out’ is to be the real villains of the piece.
Like this piece? Why not have a look at my books? Seriously, they’re pretty good, and if you like horror, you won’t be disappointed.