Because I usually can’t get myself organized to go see movies in theaters, I’m often late to see important films. So it has been with “GET OUT,” the important 2017 film directed by Jordan Peele. I just watched it on DVD in the quiet of my own home though the movie is the antithesis of quietness. Everything about it fell on my consciousness with force and subtlety. I’m old enough to have seen Sidney Poitier’s radical portrayal of the black man invited to dinner in the white home (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” 1967). Peele’s look at white supremacy is rawer and starker than the early film, perhaps because the world into which Peele’s movie falls is in many ways more openly racist than was the case in 1967. In any event, here’s some of what I think makes “GET OUT” so important for us white people who go see it.
As the movie opens, we are lulled into thinking how lovely things are: here are a young white woman and a young black man seemingly deeply in love with one another, moving toward something more serious and permanent because she is taking him home to meet her family and their friends. But, as they are driving to this occasion, Chris expresses anxiety about his lover’s not having told her parents he’s black. Rose wants to assure him everything will be just fine, so she says of her father “He’d have voted for Obama a third time if he could have.” I sit up and take notice because I understand just how racist this comment is, thanks to reading Claudia Rankin’s poetry and understanding for myself what I consider banal racism practiced by good whites like me who’ve faced our unavoidable racism and would make an “A” on any quiz about blatant thoughts/words/actions. Later in the film, Rose’s father duplicates his daughter’s comment as he assures Chris that he’s entirely welcome into the glittering fold that is their upper class world. So one take-away from the movie for white liberals is “pay attention to tiny subtle ways we still evidence our confirmed sense of white supremacy and privilege.”
Another important aspect of the movie to me as a word person (I taught/still teach literature to people who care about language) comes from how the characters talk. Everyone, including Chris, speaks standard English–which is to say “white” English–except for Rod the TSA agent who is Chris’ best friend. Rod’s vocabulary is saturated by the f-word and the s-word, something that has often turned me away from contemporary films or books because I’ve seen casual use of these easy terms as a sign of laziness. We have hundreds of words that might express the emotions behind these two handy-dandy choices in today’s lexicon. So I have wanted characters and writers to use some of them. But in this movie, Peele forces me to understand that it’s precisely Rod’s boisterous insistence on saying them every few seconds that distinguishes him from his more assimilated black friends. And he is the single character who is never fooled by Rose’s seeming love for his friend. He cautions Chris over and over, telling him to exercise the title of the film and get out before it’s too late. And it is he who magically finds and saves Chris from the literally devouring whites who want his very being to serve their evil and sick desires. So there’s another take away for me: be less quick to turn my back on the f-word and the s-word in the future, even if I don’t choose to use them.
Surely Peele asks us to consider how slavery works in 2018 white surburbia where everyone evidences a patina of acceptance when what they really must have is complete subjugation and erasure from the black men and women they admit to their garden parties and dining rooms. So the grounds keeper and the house maid are entirely familiar to me as a Southerner who grew up in Alabama in the 1940s and 50s and who has read a lot of literature, fictional and historic, about life on plantations in the Deep South. Just think about novels like Morrison’s Beloved or Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom, or slave narratives by Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to recall the huge divide between Africans working the cotton fields and other Africans serving in the “big house.” Everything changed–what the slaves wore every day, how they were expected to act around the master and mistress of the plantation, how they themselves often came to feel about the field hands as they “bought” the seduction of assimilation into the very world that owned and abused them. The actors who played Walter and Georgina were perfect–their eyes had a blankness and their bodies a stiffness that conveyed powerfully the price exacted by their master/mistress.. They exemplified civil obedience to the finest details and so had to be destroyed by Chris as surely as the white doctor, his therapist wife, and their robotic daughter did.
So we come to the necessity for the final killings if Chris is to “Get Out” alive. Since what this family engages in is the seductive capture of everyday blacks so that there will never be any real revolution or even resistance to their own entitlements and privileges as people who believe they are “white,” accommodation is out of the question. Thinking again of the Poitier movie seen so very long ago, we are to believe at the end of that film that the white parents will try and see the young black man as a human being–strange and different on the surface, but capable of being taken into the family if everyone works at it. Or even replay episodes of “All in the Family” where Archie Bunker gives voice to blatant racist ideas only to be forced to see some of these as ridiculous; he is a comic figure with relatively little real power over other people. Rose’s parents and their friends wield tremendous power in every social, political, and even scientific/medical sphere. They are whiter than white, exemplified in the blue and white china tea cup. What better symbol of upper class supremacy and “cultivation” could Peele have chosen as the mesmerizing agent Chris falls prey to and which he must use super-human strength to resist if he is to survive. Again, Peele and company show us the banal nature of destructive racialized ideas and practices.
So though I tend to think we humans might be able to find non-violent solutions to our problems, this movie impels me root for Chris as he assaults and erases one after the other of his destroyers and their brain-washed accomplices. The final temptation, of course, comes when Rose is wounded and appeals to Chris by affirming her love for him. It’s been a long time since a movie had me saying out loud to an empty room “Don’t fall for this line; she’ll suck you under in a heartbeat; kill her.” And it’s Walter in his familiar TSA dark blue shirt who arrives in the very nick of time. Our protagonist walks away in more or less one piece and the movie ends.
In retrospect, I can see why the Academy nominated this film for several awards; doing so can be seen as an act of good faith in recognition of Jordan Peele’s extraordinary ability to tell the truth visually. And I am quite sure I know why that same Academy didn’t vote to give the film any of the awards for which it was nominated. Doing that would demand a deep recognition or admission that sometimes enough really is enough and all the old cures are useless. Sometimes a violent overthrow of a system that works consistently and subtly to trap and fool and erase whole groups of people because something about them–skin color in this instance–so threatens the very existence of that system is the only option. I’m not sure Hollywood is ready to give a bronze statuette to a film that screams this reality from almost its opening scene.