In the weeks immediately following its release, Jordan Peele’s Get Out quickly established itself as the crossover film of the century. Mixing comedy and horror, it has achieved both critical and commercial success and appealed to people on all sides of the racial divides it explores.
Come September, we can expect Get Out to cross over into classrooms and start showing up on syllabi. If you are curious about what scholars might see in the film that ordinary film critics did not, read these essays, commissioned especially for this Public Books roundtable: Glenda R. Carpio links the film to African American literary history; Irvin J. Hunt relates Peele’s mixture of laughter and terror to theories of comedy; and Namwali Serpell reads the film alongside W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness.
Going In for Negroes
Glenda R. Carpio
“Albert Camus once said that racism is absurd,” wrote Chester Himes. “Not only does racism express the absurdity of the racists, but it generates absurdity in the victims. And the absurdity of the victims intensifies the absurdity of the racists, ad infinitum.”1 Richard Pryor might have joked that since Albert Camus said this, white people might actually take it seriously. The character most attuned to this absurdity in Jordan Peele’s Get Out is Rodney “Rod” Williams (Lil Rel Howery), TSA officer and best friend of protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya). As Washington stoically confronts the increasingly menacing behavior of the Armitages (his white girlfriend’s family) at their remote lakeside home, Rod functions as both the voice of reason and dark comic relief.
“Rod is basically everyone in the theater who’s screaming at the screen,” Howery said in a recent interview.2 But not everyone screams or shouts at the screen, as the Key and Peele sketch “Movie Hecklers” delightfully suggests. In this film, the screamers are those who most identify with the black character (at a movie theater in Harlem an elderly black woman screamed, “Run, run, whitey is coming!”). Peele’s genius lies in incorporating the voices of those who scream at screenings of this movie with the speed, wit, and verve of a stand-up comedian, which is Howery’s trade. Though physically absent from the Armitage home, Rod is quick to understand what is really happening, while Chris, in the middle of it, won’t allow himself to accept what he sees as real. Rod’s comic sense, tied to his instinctive awareness of racism’s absurdity, is also a form of solidarity.
When Chris calls to report on the strange happenings at the house, Rod warns him that “white people love making black people sex slaves and shit,” a theory that his imperiled friend finds amusing and paranoid. Once Chris disappears, Rod repeats this story to three black police officers. Holding his friend’s dog in his lap, Rod spins what seems, to the officers, like an absurd yarn: Chris is the victim of a conspiracy involving the theft of black bodies, and their enslavement. The story of course turns out to be all too true, and clearly evocative of past antiblack atrocities that have similarly been disbelieved, distorted, and denied. Yet Rod is laughed at by the very people from whom he expects racial solidarity.
The disbelief of the police officers is a comic mirror of the gaslighting Chris experiences at the Armitage home, where he must constantly push back what seem like paranoid suspicions of white malevolence and face the stony refusal of camaraderie from the few black people there. In what is surely the eeriest scene of the film, he tries to elicit recognition of the Armitage’s strange behavior from Georgina, the family’s maid, who responds by smiling broadly while crying and emitting a mirthless laugh that becomes a chilling cackle. As the camera briefly pans back to Chris, his face still registers the calm with which he has pushed aside every ominous sign from the family (he repeatedly affirms that things are “cool” or “fine”). Georgina’s cackle, which we hear in the background, morphs into an innocuous sound as the camera returns to her face: she repeats the word “no,” enunciated in a soothing, almost motherly tone, as a single tear falls from her now blandly smiling face. If Chris were Rod, he’d be screaming his head off.
Peele’s film shows us white people so invested in the black body that they practice racism without prejudice.
“Georgina is a name I’ve used in a Key and Peele sketch called ‘Georgina, Esther, and Satan,’” Peele said in an interview, referring to a comedy sketch in which the comedians, dressed as devout church ladies, sexually humiliate the devil as he seeks to possess their bodies.3 The allusion boldly analogizes the dispossession of the film’s Georgina by whites to that of the sketch, thus heightening the stakes of Chris’s danger and affirming the reason for his paranoia. The absurdity and paranoia that Chris and Rod experience are not peculiar to their psyches but due to their experience living in the alternate realities created by the legacy of New World slavery, which depended on the mind-boggling absurdity of negating black humanity.
That absurdity conditions white life as well, though in a distinctly different register. Get Out shows us white people so invested in the black body that they practice racism without prejudice. The black body is no longer the site of abjection it was during centuries of white supremacy. Instead, through that strange alchemy of desire and loathing that has propelled racism beyond slavery, the black body has become an object of envy as a site of physical pleasure, youth and strength, athletic prowess, sexual desire, and—perhaps most importantly as a commentary on the film itself—artistic talent. The blind gallery owner and failed artist who ultimately “purchases” Chris covets his photographer’s vision, his artist’s eyes.
At what turns out to be a viewing preceding a silent auction for Chris’s body, we are treated to a number of instances in which white people unself-consciously express the libidinal desires they identify with black bodies. One woman even touches Chris’s arm to feel his apparent virility, brazenly invoking the auction block. Peele frames their behavior, which loosely shifts between the politeness of the cocktail party and the shamelessness of their racialized desires, with just enough satiric edge to recall the rich tradition of black artists exposing what Langston Hughes titled, in his underappreciated collection of short stories from 1934, The Ways of White Folk. This tradition began with the parodies of whiteness that Frederick Douglass offered on the abolitionist stage during the early years of his career, and extends beyond the so-called “white” novels of writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. As novels by black authors that feature only white characters, those works challenge the conflation of race with blackness by making whiteness visible as a racial category.
Hughes’s stories in this vein use satire to expose the perniciousness of white racial naiveté. “Slave on the Block,” the second story from the collection, begins:
They were people who went in for Negroes—Michael and Anne—the Carraways. But not in the social-service, philanthropic sort of way, no. They saw no use in helping a race that was already too charming and naive and lovely for words. Leave them unspoiled and just enjoy them, Michael and Anne felt. So they went in for the Art of Negroes—the dancing that had such jungle life about it, the songs that were so simple and fervent, the poetry that was so direct, so real. They never tried to influence that art, they only bought it and raved over it, and copied it. For they were artists, too.4
Anne, a painter, hits on the idea of doing a “slave picture” featuring her gardener, Luther, “an adorable Negro,” whom she asks to pose nude, “or at least half nude,” while standing on a block. Michael, a composer, puts the painting to music: “Something that sounded like Deep River in the jaws of a dog, but Michael said it was a modern slave plaint.”5
The satire of whiteness that Get Out offers goes much farther than Hughes’s, showing how the desire to own and consume blackness and the black body makes its white characters murderous. Peele resembles Hughes, however, in his focus on seemingly friendly white people, who, like the Carraways, go “in for Negroes.” As sharp as that satire is, Peele uses quotidian settings to paradoxically intensify the horror his satire highlights. He locates the deepest dread not in gory scenes but in those suggesting the most grief. Mrs. Armitage can hypnotize Chris and send him into “the sunken place” because she has, with the precision of a surgeon, found his inmost wound. She commands Chris, first with a half-smile, then sternly, watching his big eyes as they turn into wells of silent tears, with no feeling of her own. Her command is the start of what should have been the dispossession of Chris’s body, mind, and soul, were it not for his survival instincts. Through the horror, part of him remains connected to Rod, comic force and signifier of folk wisdom. And it is thus that he can finally heed the message of the song that begins and ends the film, “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga,” a Swahili phrase that translates as “listen to (your) ancestors,” and get out.
Not an Invitation, but a Warning
Irvin J. Hunt
We do not usually think of vulnerability and laughter together. Yes, we feel exposed when laughed at, but when was the last time laughing at someone or something else had that effect on you? Has your own laughter ever left you feeling completely vulnerable? That just might happen while you watch Jordan Peele’s new film, Get Out, a comic horror about the nightmare that unfurls when a black guy, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), heads off with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet her priggishly liberal parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford). Sure, your laughter will bring relief, as Freud says it always does, even when it pains. Your laughter may even assure you of your own relative safety, of being above it all. Indeed, it may give you, however momentarily, what pretty much every philosopher on humor has endorsed, what Thomas Hobbes called that “sudden glory” of “some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others.”
But because the funniest scenes in Get Out are pinched between the scariest, it is going to be fairly difficult to dissociate your laughter from a feeling of imminent peril. This squeeze of scream and guffaw seems part and parcel of the comic horror genre, but Peele manages to do something new and refreshingly complex. By pulling moments of comedy jarringly close to those of terror—so close as to be coincident—he imbues our laughter, the act of laughing in and of itself, with the feeling and sensing of black lives in danger. He does this principally through the unmistakable allusion in the very first scene to the “I Can’t Breathe” protests, which made a rallying cry of Eric Garner’s final words before he died in police custody. Lost in the glades of white suburbia, a vulnerably gaunt black guy scuttles scared down a dark street. As a friend on the phone tries to help him find his way, a white sports car passes by, abruptly turns around, and begins to crawl behind him. “Not today,” he says, “no, not me,” as if thinking of Trayvon Martin. Then, suddenly, from behind a tree, he is grabbed in a standing headlock and choked until he faints. This allusion to Black Lives Matter not only foreshadows the ensuing strangulation scenes, but also haunts our laughter. We laugh, which means that we breathe, precisely when the characters can’t.
Most reviewers of the film have argued that by blending horror with humor, Peel has tried to make the heavy light. Even Peele has lent credence to this hackneyed idea, perhaps in order to sell the movie by making it inviting, promising the unchallenging pleasures of a Hollywood blockbuster. He has said in an interview that the movie tries “to offer us a hero out of this turmoil, to offer escape and joy.” But, to Peele’s credit, there are no discernible heroes here, nor untroubled escapes into joyous complacency.
We laugh, which means that we breathe, precisely when the characters can’t.
All interracial romance plots have one thing in common: the ironically expressed difficulty of discussing race. It is no surprise that the first time we see Chris and his girlfriend together he is straining to express his apprehension about the parental rendezvous: “Do they, do they,” he stutters, “know I’m black?” “No,” Rose tells him, “Should they?” Rose’s pretense of ignorance and Chris’s hesitance to offend establishes the distance neither one will ever cross and shows just how premature this dreaded introduction is. Soon the strain in their interaction, Chris’s worried silence, Rose’s dubious cheer, starts to take the air out of the theater.
In fact, as the couple drives to her parent’s sprawling estate, Chris digs into his bag for a cigarette, as if to give our tension vicarious relief. Then his friend Rod, a TSA agent, calls and makes some jokes about his job fighting terrorists that provide a welcome humorous interlude. But Rod’s lightness is twice interrupted: first by Chris hanging up on Rod, then by a jolting car accident when Rose hits a deer. Chris and Rose never scream. We do. They stop the car and gasp for air, panting, oddly enough, less as if they had crashed than as if they had almost drowned. The cop that arrives presumably to help them ends up interrogating Chris, with an implied threat far worse than any result of the accident. We may again think of Eric Garner. Peele takes a scene that is almost a cliché in horror movies, the harrowing country drive, and masterfully twists it into terrifying humor that carries a startling message: unlike the characters, stifled over and over in what will soon be called “the sunken place” of racial terror, we can give full-throated voice to the violence we perceive.
The feeling our laughter gives us gets concretized before our eyes in two absurdly conflicted faces: those of the black servants on Rose’s estate, Georgina and Walter. These characters deliver the most riveting performances in the film. Chris sees Walter fiercely chopping wood in the backyard and walks over to introduce himself. Chris hopes to share a desperately needed moment of brotherly recognition, for Rose’s father has proven just how priggish he actually is (“I would have voted for Obama a third time, if I could”; “It’s such a privilege to be able to experience another person’s culture. You know what I’m sayin’?”). Instead of acknowledgement, however, Walter turns to Chris a frighteningly comical face whose simulated smile reminds us, in a far more harrowing way, of the greetings that exhausted service workers sometimes bear. Walter does not so much smile as contract the muscles in his cheeks.
If you find yourself chuckling at this facsimile, Henri Bergson may tell you why. Bergson defines the source of all laughter as “something mechanical encrusted on the living,” from a jack-in-the-box puppet to, we might say, a glued-on grin. Walter’s rictus of politesse is not an invitation—it’s a warning. When Chris relays this choked repartee to his darlingly dim Rose, he struggles to find the words to describe it and settles on “aggressive.” He’ll have the same pat assessment of Georgina when he assumes she’s jealous and resentful of his relationship with a white woman. Georgina gives even larger smiles, more dramatically out of joint, which again Chris reduces to jealous aggression (“Trust me, it’s a thing,” he says to Rose).
Peele’s point in rendering all this misperception, more comically far from the truth than the faces of Walter and Rose from their actual limbic activity, is not only to emphasize how hard these servants are fighting to preserve themselves, or the “sliver” that remains beneath the ravenous demands of their domestic labor. It also underscores how often black suffering gets read as aggression, which is what people call the sort of anger that intimidates them. Audre Lorde once said, “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers,” and “to face each other’s angers without denial or immobility or silence or guilt … implies peers meeting … to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference.” The nearly tragic irony of Chris’s mistaken impression, his automatic recourse to stereotypic codes, is that figuring out what is happening behind Georgina’s and Walter’s faces is key to saving his life. Through this veritable comic allegory of communication breakdown, Peele challenges his viewers to see the look of furious suffering in all its complexity, especially when it could save you by telling you, get out!
By the time we reach the end, “get out” has begun to sound like an imperative not to flee into retreat or seclusion but to escape into something less comfortable than fear: anger, longing, love—or laughter. If even a scintilla of heroism exists in the film it is entirely hypothetical; the heroism would be the willingness to believe, even welcome, the hardest thing of all to see: what’s right before our eyes. After all, everyone remains hypnotized, except Chris’s wise and witty friend, the forever funny TSA agent, who happens to know terrorism when he sees it.
Double Consciousness and Zombies
I first saw Jordan Peele’s Get Out in my San Francisco neighborhood, the Mission, at the Alamo Drafthouse. I had been to this massive restored art-deco theater before, so when I sat down in my assigned seat at the opening-day matinee—behind a little table lit from below so I could read menu offerings like $15 roasted cauliflower or $9 fried pickles—I knew what I was in for. But I was struck anew by the campy public service announcement reinforcing Alamo’s zero-tolerance policy against talking during movies. A screen announces that the Alamo is now offering home delivery to “people who talk and text,” then an old B-movie roll plays. A doorbell rings, a man answers the door, and he is abruptly struck in the face by a flung cleaver. As he bleeds out, the announcement concludes: “You talk. You text. We deliver.”
That’s how I ended up watching a black horror movie in a nearly silent theater. The audience around me was demographically awkward—mostly white, a sprinkle of browns and yellows, maybe three black people apart from me—like a little map of the gentrification that has plagued the Mission for decades. As the film proceeded, I became self-conscious about the lack of audience participation. There was the odd chuckle or gasp, but little by way of exhortation or cheer. Thrilled with the film, vibrating with all the comments I had not felt free to direct at the screen, I went home and went on Twitter and happened upon a tweet by the director, Jordan Peele: “Btw, ‘Get Out’ isn’t a Redbox, Vod, itunes movie. If you don’t see it with the theater energy, you’ll miss the full intended experience.”6
I promptly retweeted it @DrafthouseSF: “THIS is why your no talking policy is BS. Screaming + shouting at the screen: time honored horror AND black movie traditions!” I grew angrier, my intellectual bona fides rising like hackles. I tweeted the theater about the history of American cinema, about how people used to stroll into movies halfway through until Hitchcock disciplined audiences with Psycho, and how the policing of black bodies in segregated theaters under Jim Crow caused this cultural split in the first place.7 I retweeted every tweet I read about Get Out’s audiences: “#GetOut was so damn good even the white folks in the theater were talkin’!” and “Seeing Get Out with a theater full of black folk in Harlem as the good lord intended” and “Black audience of Get Out yelled louder at the cop car than at the brain hacking villains because the movie is genius & this country is shit.” I trolled them with a screenshot from a Washington Post article: “‘Get Out’ reminds us of the special benefits of the movie theater experience. So often, the people sitting around us in the dark get chatty or annoyingly distracting. But sometimes it pays to surround yourself with people. Sometimes the strangers help make the movie.”8
The fight that I picked with a hipster indie theater chain is exactly what Get Out is about. The movie spoofs the white folks so wed to their image of progressive liberalism that they miss the hell at the end of the road because they’re so busy admiring the good intentions with which it’s paved. The Alamo Drafthouse SF is proud that they screened this well-made film about the suppression and appropriation of black culture; they don’t see how they could be complicit in either. Their policy is not as violent as their PSA, but to “act black” in this theater—opine or scream or make a ruckus—is to risk being thrown out: “We aren’t afraid to kick anyone rude enough … right out of the theater.”
So I sat quietly in the Alamo Drafthouse SF, by myself, watching as I watched, feeling myself watched. I felt the same discomfort that the hero of the film, Chris, feels when his white girlfriend, Rose, takes him to her family’s estate. The litany of microaggressions that he faces, as people reduce him to his body (athleticism, sexual prowess, beauty) and treat him like a native informant (“Is the African American experience an advantage or disadvantage?”), were all too familiar—I’m a black woman with two Ivy League degrees. But I identified perhaps the most with Chris’s suppressed responses to this treatment—his eyebrow raise, his bitten tongue, his soft dismissals. I am a verbose, outspoken person. I argue enthusiastically about ideas and art. Yet whenever I encounter racism, however subtle, my response, every time, is shocked silence. It is a piece of shame.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a black person in a majority white society must feel double consciousness. W. E. B. Du Bois coined this term in his 1903 Souls of Black Folk: “This sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others … One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”9 We’re all so aware of this concept that we’ve pretty much achieved triple consciousness at this point. And as is the case with stereotype threat, to be conscious of double consciousness does not dissolve it; it intensifies it.10
Du Bois’s inaugural definition uses Gothic overtones to emphasize the pathology of double consciousness. He deploys the trope of the veil to depict the color line dividing blacks from whites and he invokes the specter of the black body “torn asunder.” The black bodies in Get Out are not broken or haunted, though—they are surgically modified. Get Out has mostly been read as a “racial horror” movie, or as Peele puts it, a “social thriller,” but it’s also a work of science fiction. The film plays on the idea of racial consciousness by introducing a quasi-medical “Coagula procedure,” which is applied to the black men and women that Rose has seduced and brought home to meet the parents.11 Mrs. Armitage uses hypnosis—a spoon gently stroking the inside of a tea cup—to send them to “the sunken place”; Mr. Armitage then performs “transplantation,” a partial lobotomy and replacement of the brain with that of a white “master.” These black victims don’t pass as white nor are they fully “brainwashed”; their bodies remain black and a “sliver” of their black consciousness remains.
Chris discovers that three black people he’s met at the estate (a gardener, a housekeeper, and a neighbor) have already undergone this transracial brain transplant. Many reviews of Get Out refer to these characters as “zombies” to evoke their dead-eyed, obedient, mechanistic behavior. This emphasizes the film’s horror movie lineage, especially its debt to the original Night of the Living Dead, in which a black man, having taken on the heroic task of killing zombies, is mistaken for one and shot dead. Few reviewers have noted that zombie is originally a West African word for a figure in Haitian rural folklore. It refers to a corpse necromantically revived by a bokor, a sorcerer or witch, who controls the zombie as a personal slave that has no will of its own. The film blackens the zombie back to its Haitian origins, and like other recent movies, it medicalizes the horror genre back to its science fictional beginnings.
The film’s premise riffs on a long, sordid history of the exploitation of black bodies for medical purposes, from J. Marion Sim’s gynecological experiments on slaves, to the Tuskegee experiments that left black men untreated for syphilis, to Henrietta Lacks’s stolen immortalized cells. Du Bois likely developed the idea of double consciousness from medical literature; William James, his mentor at Harvard, wrote about “secondary personages,” “alternating selves,” and “double personalities” in The Principles of Psychology.12 Du Bois himself wrote a work of black science fiction, a 1920 story called “The Comet,” about an apocalyptic event that initially seems to have only two survivors—a black man and a white woman. Watching Get Out as a teacher, fan girl, and writer of black science fiction, these filaments of cultural history glowed. The film literalizes double consciousness through sci-fi “zombies” who are black and white, slave and master, in one body.
Are these zombies Uncle Toms, or Rachel Dolezals?
Science fiction has long offered racialized figures for this kind of double consciousness. In Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, the monster is built of discarded body parts and has “yellow skin,” a “shrivelled complexion,” and “black lips.” He describes his first encounter with his image: “I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers—their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror … I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification.”13 Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 Jekyll & Hyde racializes the “ape-like” Hyde, into whom Dr. Jekyll transforms, at first by choice. One morning, he drowsily looks down and instead of his usual hand, “professional in shape and size … large, firm, white, and comely,” he sees, with horror, a hand “lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair. It was the hand of Edward Hyde.”14 These scenes of self-reflection gain their frisson from a mismatch between self and image, and between mind and body. They speak to familiar psychological facts: your mind feels separate from your body; how you see yourself diverges from how others see you. But by aligning this split with a racial line, and by placing the distorted, monstrous external view of the self inside the self, they double the shame of double consciousness.
Chris undergoes versions of these dissociative scenes in Get Out, which uses TV screens and photos, as well as the older sci-fi tropes of mirrors and windows, to figure his split self. Chris twice catches the zombie housekeeper staring queerly at herself, once in the glass of a window, once in a mirror. He later finds a set of photographs of Rose posing with erstwhile black lovers—he realizes that these include the two zombies on the estate. Whenever Mrs. Armitage hypnotizes Chris, he sinks back, down through the floor, and into an outer space—a low-gravity, airless, muffled, twilit “sunken place,” up through which he yet sees the Armitages as if on a receding TV screen. When they imprison him in a rec room, Chris learns about the Coagula procedure through a video on an ancient TV, then meets on-screen the white man he will become. Jim Hudson, the blind art dealer who has won an auction for Chris, explains that after the surgery, Chris’s “existence will be as a passenger, an audience.” Professing himself colorblind as well as literally blind, Hudson says: “What I want is deeper. I want your eye.” Chris is a gifted photographer; the movie opens with his black-and-white pictures, mostly of black people, framed on the walls of his apartment. But more than his professional eye, Hudson seems to want Chris’s “second sight,” another term that Du Bois uses for double consciousness: “I want those things you see through,” says Hudson.
Get Out’s zombie figures best capture the eeriness, heartache, and complexity of Peele’s manifest double consciousness. The audience members sitting beside me, an Asian American couple, didn’t grasp the sci-fi surgery premise until they saw the groundskeeper Walter chase Chris as Rose mutters: “Get ’im, Grandpa!” It is confusing. By literalizing the copresence of two races in one body—rather than, say, blending them in a biracial person like me or Peele—the film prompts us to ask: Are they white blacks? Or black whites? On one hand, we have Grandpa Armitage, who lost a qualifying race for the Olympics to Jesse Owens and who presumably grafts himself to Walter’s black body out of athletic envy (this is why he now spends his nights running). On the other hand, we have the ingratiating housekeeper controlled by Grandma Armitage, who short-circuits like a robotic Aunt Jemima when Chris tries to bond with her by saying, “Sometimes, if there’s too many white people, I get nervous.” Georgina refuses the gesture: “No,” she says with a falling note, then repeats it, and again, until she’s issuing a stuttering chant, “No-no-no-no-no …,” tears welling in her lambent eyes, the pressure of racial consciousness practically splitting her face open as she doubles her negatives.
Are these zombies Uncle Toms, or Rachel Dolezals? Or, to go back to adolescent jargon from the ’90s, are they Oreos or Wiggers? Wigger is a portmanteau elision of “white nigger,” which turns out to be a term that was used in the 19th century to refer to two populations:
1. A black person who defers to white people or accepts a role prescribed by them (1837–)
2. A white person who does menial work (1871–).15
In both cases, race is evacuated even as it is doubled and combined. The white-nigger slave-master sci-fi zombie in Get Out is both an evacuated black person and a white person dispossessed. With one stone-faced zombie, Peele kills two birds: cultural appropriation (the theft of another culture’s traditions, fashions, symbols, and art) and cultural cringing (an internalized inferiority complex). The material manifestation of double consciousness on the screen addresses and names American audience members of all races, making us squirm uncomfortably at being so seen.
Suggesting that Get Out signals the “death of white innocence,” Rich Benjamin in the New Yorker describes watching the film with a voluble and engaged majority black audience in Brooklyn: “When … the good-looking, amiable black protagonist of the movie … stabs a white woman to death, impales a preppy white man with the antlers of a steer, and watches idly as a white woman is gunned down on the road, the black audience cheered and burst into gales of howling laughter.”16 Benjamin neglects to say how the audience reacted when two black people in the film die. Chris tries to save Georgina, but “Grandma” attacks him in the getaway car and he crashes. She dies of head trauma, her surgical suture gleaming. In his struggle with “Grandpa,” Chris sends a camera flash into his eye, triggering Walter’s black consciousness. Walter takes the shotgun from Rose—“let me do it,” he says duplicitously—shoots her, then kills himself. I winced terribly at these zombie deaths. Like Chris, I didn’t know whether to identify with their whiteness or their blackness, their mastery or their victimhood. In a way, I ended up identifying with the confusion manifest in their doubly raced bodies.
Does Benjamin, the black author of Searching for Whitopia (2009), omit the zombies’ deaths because in his view they are already dead? Has he internalized that trope of horror movies parodied by the Scream franchise: the black characters always die? Has he forgotten that these zombies are technically (or also) white? Cast Benjamin’s description in reverse, like a photo negative, and imagine: a good-looking, amiable white protagonist stabs a black woman, impales a black man, and watches idly as a black woman is gunned down in the road. Audiences in this country have long stood by, cheered, and laughed as black people died in the street. There are old lynching postcards and Jim Crow signs, and there seem to be new clips of cell phone footage every day, that testify to the American relish for the spectacle of violated black bodies, in ways that have never been limited to movie theaters.
Alamo Drafthouse responded only to my initial tweet, with the following statement:
This amused me greatly. I kept trolling them. I later heard a story, which I promptly boiled down to 140 characters and tweeted at them, about a Hispanic woman and her boyfriend, both of whom look phenotypically white, who had attended a majority black screening of Get Out at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. The usher apparently went over to the two of them—just the two of them—and apologized: “Our usual no-talking policy is suspended for this movie.”
- Chester Himes, My Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography of Chester Himes (1976; Thunder’s Mouth, 1995), p. 1. ↩
- Bruce Fretts, “The ‘Get Out’ Star Who’s Giving T.S.A. Agents a Good Name,” New York Times, February 27, 2017. ↩
- Yohana Desta, “In Jordan Peele’s Gripping Get Out, ‘Humanity is the Monster,’” Vanity Fair, February 17, 2017. ↩
- Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folk (1934; Vintage, 1990), p. 19. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 24–25. ↩
- In an NPR interview, Peele says the film depicts a “universal experience,” but also that he was aware that race would play into how audiences reacted: “I could just hear, you know, the black people in the audience going, nope, nope, nope, nope—don’t do it. Come on. Get out of that room right now. Get out, get out, get out … I had to recognize that black people will be watching this movie and having a different experience or—bringing in different baggage than white people would.” In his New York Times interview, he puts it this way: “You can ask a white person to see the world through the eyes of a black person for an hour and a half.” Double consciousness marks the director’s experience as well as those of his dual audiences. See “‘Get Out’ Sprang From an Effort to Master Fear, Says Director Jordan Peele,” interview by Terry Gross, NPR.org, March 15, 2017; Jason Zinoman, “Jordan Peele on a Truly Terrifying Monster: Racism,” New York Times, February 16, 2017. ↩
- See Linda Williams, “Discipline and Fun: Psycho and Postmodern Cinema,” Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’: A Casebook, edited by Robert Kolker (Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 164–204; bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” Black American Cinema, edited by Manthia Diawara (Routledge, 1993), pp. 288–302. ↩
- Stephanie Merry, “You Have to See ‘Get Out’ in a Movie Theater,” Washington Post, March 8, 2017. ↩
- W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (McClurg, 1903), p. 3. ↩
- For “stereotype threat,” see Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson, “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (November 1995), pp. 797–811; or Annie Murphy Paul, “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” New York Times October 6, 2016. ↩
- Coagula is the plural of coagulum, “a mass, a precipitate, a clot or a lump.” This is likely a reference to an old motto from alchemy, “solve et coagula,” or “dissolve and coagulate.” ↩
- William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. I (Henry Holt, 1890): pp. 207, 379, 682. ↩
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818; Penguin, 1992), pp. 58, 116. ↩
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1886; Broadview, 2005): pp. 46, 84. ↩
- “White nigger,” The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, 2nd ed., edited by John Ayto and John Simpson (Oxford University Press, 2008). ↩
- Rich Benjamin, “‘Get Out’ and the Death of White Racial Innocence,” New Yorker, March 27. 2017. ↩