The Critical Limits of Jordan Peele's "Get Out"

The Critical Limits of Jordan Peele's "Get Out"
 
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"The film has clever ideas about literalizing black fear of the pathology of whiteness, but it doesn't go far enough in its indictment of white supremacy."


After months of reading and listening to reviews from a variety of perspectives, I finally had the opportunity to see Jordan Peele's blockbuster hit Get Out. Billed as a "social thriller" the film tells the story of Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a young African-American man meeting the family of his white girlfriend of four months, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) during a visit to their estate and their family's annual party. The visit quickly turns sour as the escalating racial microagressions that Chris experiences at the hands of the Armitage's friends are soon discovered to be far more sinister.

Over the course of the film, it is revealed that Chris is the latest victim of the Armitage family business: they kidnap young black men and auction their bodies off to wealthy older people as vessels for their minds so that they can continue to live out their lives in strapping black bodies. The young men's own consciousness is relegated to "The Sunken Place," an internal existence where they can see and hear what their body is doing, but have no control over what their new white owner does with it.

Peele's debut is incisive and critical. He expertly mines the everyday fears of the black experience and ramps them up to near comic effect in order to amplify and acknowledge the sheer terror of what (in a perfect world) would be routine encounters. Brilliantly, Get Out acts as an indictment of "good whites." The target here is not the Ku Klux Klan or the prison industrial complex, but self-identified liberal white allies who "would have voted for Obama a third time." The film seeks to illuminate that insidious strain of liberal white racism that so often goes ignored. 

It's strange then that the protagonist Chris doesn't seem to know his whites. Or rather, despite knowing his whites, he resists the self-preservation instinct that began creeping up his neck the second he stepped into the Armitage's lakehouse. It's here that my first issue with the film enters center-stage. As Myles E. Johnson writes in a column for OkPlayer: 

 

" Is his love of whiteness so deep that he decided to reject his intuition and wisdom around the dangers of white supremacy? Was his cognitive dissonance around the real dangers of white violence and ignorance—that he surely experienced in his life—so strong that as more evidence mounted that he was in danger, he couldn’t see? Was his love for whiteness so deep that he was willing to reject logic because of his love of a white woman he was in a relationship with for five months? What birthed this meal landscape of a character that obviously knows the dangers of white supremacy, but still wishes to participate in it, even as more and more signs materialize that confirm he is in danger?"

From almost the very beginning of the film there are signs that Rose's family isn't nearly as progressive as they claim to be. From Rose herself brushing off his concerns that her parents don't know that he is black, to the strange way the Armitages interact with their "servants" Walter and Georgina, to Dean Armitage's incredibly offensive remarks about Chris' physical build, it was abundantly clear that these were people with whom he would find no true kinship. Chris is initially flippant about the family's casual racism, seemingly accepting their actions as part and parcel of stepping into a white environment, but even as strange things continue to happen (including being hypnotized against his will) he eschews his sense of danger and tamps down his fight or flight instinct. Why? There is no reasonable explanation for continuing to remain in the company of people who so flagrantly transgress his boundaries.

Part of this of course is the active gaslighting Chris endures from Rose throughout the course of the trip. Several times he mentions his concern over strange encounters and comments, only to have Rose insist that he is being overly paranoid. But the other part necessarily becomes his investment in assuaging whiteness. Rather than confront the real psychic violence the Armitages (and later their guests) force him to endure, he errs on the side of politeness, to his own detriment. His desire to impress himself upon Rose's parents supersedes his desire to ensure his own safety.

This moves directly into my next issue with the film: the universe of Get Out is far too insular to comprehensively explain Chris's active de-fanging of white supremacy. Because the film takes place largely on the Armitage's estate, the audience is never given an opportunity to examine how white supremacy works in the wider world of Peele's imagination. In other words, how is our white supremacy different from or similar to the white supremacy of the world in which the characters live? Are there other things happening in this world that would more explicitly explain why Chris is not more immediately concerned for his safety and his life?

As such it leaves very obvious questions of the plot open-ended namely, why would these wealthy white people, (the same ones who believe black life to be so inconsequential as to be effectively disposable) want to live out their lives in black bodies? It's a contradiction that very nearly undermines the specific premise of the film itself.

It's difficult to reconcile that even "good" white people living in the age of #blacklivesmatter and the Trump Administration would willingly subject themselves to the everyday violence of living in a black body. That violence is thoroughly mined for terror in the film; from navigating a white neighborhood at night while black to interacting with the police even when you haven't done anything wrong to being petted and poked and prodded like chattel. White supremacy is very implicitly the true villain of this story, and yet it is never explicitly named. That lack of specificity allows these conflicting ideas to exist simultaneously in the film, but it means that the motivations of these characters don't make much sense in the real world. These rich white men and women may be able to rely on the benefits of white supremacy to escape retribution for their treatment of black men, but what happens when they inhabit them? Do those same privileges not begin to work against them? The notion that wealth protects black people from racism has long been disproved, so how does this insidious force work so that it both benefits white people and also white people in black bodies? 

The most glaring issue with the film however is the dismissive treatment of the sole significant black female character Georgina (Betty Gabriel). Late in the film it is revealed that as was intended for Chris, Georgina was lobotomized. Rose's grandmother controls her body. Georgina is a fascinating character because it is her strange behavior early on that indicates to Chris that something is slightly off. It is not until the later revelation that the audience becomes aware that Georgina's peculiarities are a result of her internal struggle to escape The Sunken Place. It also sheds new light on her constant inexplicable proximity to Chris. It is Georgina who is fighting hard to warn him of the danger ahead, and it is her (I suspect) who kept leaving the cupboard door open for Chris to find Rose's photos of past beaus.

Georgina never does get the redemption she deserves (though Chris does try to save her life). Instead Chris reduces her actions to the familiar and irritating stereotype that black men hold particular jealous resentment for black women who date white women. "It's a thing" he tells Rose when she responds with incredulity. The single other black female character in the film, Detective Latoya (Erika Alexander) exists almost entirely to justify Chris' treatment of Georgina. Tasked with helping Chris's best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) find out the truth about the spate of missing black men (an inversion of the very real spate of missing black girls), she invites other detectives in to laugh in his face, trivializing the very real danger that the audience knows Chris to be in. Overall, black women are largely erased from the reality of white violence as they are in real life. But perhaps that too is a layer social commentary meant to illuminate the ways in which black men often leave black women behind? I suspect not, but I'm willing to give Peele the benefit of the doubt.

The film does however make interesting and poignant choices with its central characters and deals expertly with the way white women have historically been complicit in visiting violence on black men. It is Rose who seduces and lures Chris back to the estate under false pretenses and it is Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) who hypnotizes him in preparation for the auction. When Chris finally gets desperate enough to leave, it is Rose who delays him by pretending she can't find the keys, and it is Missy who sends him back to The Sunken Place by tapping her spoon against her teacup. In this way they psychologically prime Chris for the physical violence of the forced lobotomy Dean and Jeremy later try to perform. Their actions are echoes of the many ways in which white women have weaponized their femininity and presumed docility against black men. It is the Armitage women who do the heavy lifting of harming Chris while the men come in later to finish the job.

It's interesting then that in the end, Chris must become the very "black brute" of yore in order to escape. In the film's climax he murders the entire Armitage family in self-defense, but it is the women who are killed up close. After impaling Dean on a deer's head, Chris smashes the offending teacup in a confrontation with Missy and barely flinches when she stabs him. Instead, he uses the very knife to stab her while the knife is still in his hand. Later he attempts to strangle Rose after a newly awakened Walter shoots her and then himself. Obviously, the adrenaline of the moment helped overcome the pain, but what is the black brute if not the overlarge, violent and yes, dark-skinned black man capable of incredible feats of physical strength; a danger to whiteness and white women specifically because all attempts at reasonable force cannot subdue him?

I went into this movie already knowing 80% of the plot details and I wonder if going in blind might have made a difference in my enjoyment of the film. While I'm glad that I was able to see it, I came away with the overwhelming feeling that while novel and inventive, it was significantly overpraised. The film has clever ideas about literalizing black fear of the pathology of whiteness, but it doesn't go far enough in its indictment of white supremacy. To really hit home, it needed to make a 1:1 parallel between "good whites" and the horrors of whiteness, but in the end it wasn't quite brave enough.