Jordan Peele’s horror film is about the theft of black bodies—but it isn’t set in the Antebellum South.
Get Out is a kind of taut Universal romp, as if Alfred Hitchcock had finally contemplated the existential terror of race. Get Out is really a masterwork of Afrofuturism, the artistic and scientific framework for understanding race as a technology across time and space. Writer-director Jordan Peele unabashedly uses classical Afrofuturist imagery in depicting the theft of the Black body when his protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) stumbles from his girlfriend’s mother’s hypnosis far down into the void of space— only able to look up at a two dimensional view of his own life and rendered unable to act. A recurring image in Afrofuturism is the Black body abducted by aliens as an allegory for enslavement in different eras and places.
In Peele’s hands, I found my eyes looking at Chris’s floating body and thinking about stolen Africans who were experimented upon (or thrown overboard), Henrietta Lacks’ stolen HeLa cells, Emmett Till’s little 14-year-old lynched body, music and sports stars being extracted from Black neighborhoods for white profit, the government not treating syphilis in hundreds of Black men in Tuskegee to study them—and, back to Chris, about to be lobotomized
I did not experience Get Out as a horror movie as such, but as the best damn movie I’ve ever seen about American slavery. Our “peculiar institution” was so absurd, I had already found Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained to be a more effective film at depicting its American-style perversity than Steve McQueen’s stentorian 12 Years a Slave. But Peele’s Get Out does something much more ambitious than either of them: it is a searing indictment of the on-going theft of the Black body, from the NBA draft to the beds of white sex partners who don’t treat their lovers as fully human.
I DID NOT EXPERIENCE GET OUT AS A HORROR MOVIE AS SUCH, BUT AS THE BEST DAMN MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN ABOUT AMERICAN SLAVERY.
Like Peele, I am a mixed-race Black person, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what RaceBaitr editor Hari Ziyad calls “white partner fragility”: the propensity of Black people with white intimate partners to cape for them and be more sensitive about protecting their partner’s whiteness than they are about expressing their own Black humanity and anger. Peele, himself married to a white woman, explores this dynamic when Chris keeps apologizing to the whitest of white girlfriends, Rose (Allison Williams), to assure her that she’s not implicated in her family’s racism.
But the dynamic is most interestingly explored when Chris tries to greet the only other Black guest he sees at what he thinks is a party (it’s really his auction): a young Black man named Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield) who is the hypersexualized lover of an older white woman. Chris doesn’t know then that Andrew has been lobotomized, and that a white man’s brain (presumably the white woman’s husband) had been implanted in his Black body. This dramatizes what scholar Ann duCille calls the ultimate “mandingoism” fantasy of white men: to “project their own latent desire for the black male penis onto white women and punish black men for a desire that is finely their own: to fuck a black man, to fuck like a black man, to fuck white women with a black penis.”
When the white woman tries to stop Chris and Andrew from speaking to each other, Get Out reveals a real truth of how Black men who date white people are rewarded in white social circles. After all, being with a white partner keeps whiteness centered, while being with (or even talking to) another Black person draws attention towards Blackness, threatening liberal whiteness. But the cost for this reward is high—as we learn when a flash reveals the fraction of Andrew’s terrified self which remains, and when Chris is knocked out.
When Chris comes to and learns that his eyes will be given to a blind man (literally stealing his vision to co-opt it for a white gaze), he asks his captors a question: Why do they steal Black people’s bodies? Part of the reason is that they’re seen as disposable, but it’s also because the white thieves consider Black bodies physically superior when—as happens quite routinely with athletes—”Black muscle” can be useful if separated from its Black mind, emotions, and politics. But some of the brilliance of Get Out is how it explores a paradox about slavery: In a way, slavery initially had nothing to do with race, as race didn’t yet exist. If you go back far enough in slavery history, you start to understand that it is the theft of bodies that were Black, captured by bodies that were white, which created the concept of race itself. Race is the theft of Black bodies, further developed as white people committed genocide against Native people, colonized Mexican people, and imported Chinese people for dangerous labor (before being excluded).
PEELE DOESN’T ALLOW WHITE LIBERALS TO VIEW THE THEFT OF BLACK BODIES IN A FARAWAY FRAME OF AN ANTEBELLUM SOUTHERN PLANTATION, NOR TO BLAME CRUDE TRUMP SUPPORTERS.
Furthermore, Peele doesn’t allow white liberals to view the theft of Black bodies in a faraway frame of an Antebellum Southern plantation, nor to blame crude Trump supporters. Instead, Get Out blames the theft on contemporary, Northern white Obamaniacs. American liberalism, not just Trumpism, continues to make race by way of bodily theft. Whenever I would critique Hillary Clinton about race in 2016, I would be mocked by white liberals for getting out of my place. It wasn’t that I wanted Trump to win, but I wanted Clinton and the Democrats to address and correct how American liberalism also instills fear of Muslims, advocates police control, decries Black children as “superpredators,” does shit to upend why white people have twelve times the wealth of Black, violently deports millions, and uses drones to kill Brown people.
When I think about all the political anger and shame voters of color were asked to subsume and swallow by white liberals in 2016, I think of Chris crying as he is told that, after his lobotomy, a part of himself will remain—a tiny sliver of his former self, which will turn him into a mere passenger in his own body. What an apt representation of the social death of Black American life, when your body becomes something for others to profit from while you, yourself, are never allowed to be fully emotive, free acting, in touch with your feelings, loved or loving.
There have been other recent films about the power of interracial relationships (Loving, A United Kingdom) to overcome the odds. More daringly, Get Out does something else: It shows the intimate ways whiteness uses—indeed, the ways in which whiteness needs to use and use up—Black bodies for its continued existence. Kaluuya’s Chris seems to be channeling Brock Peters facing a lynching in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird much more than Sidney Poitier in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
The period after the Oscars is usually a let down at movie theaters, and 2016 was an especially good year for Black films. But after the exquisite feast that Oscar winners Moonlight and Fences and Oscar nominees 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and Hidden Figures gave us to dine on this season, Get Out is a most delicious chocolate dessert.
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