I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when entering the theater to watch the newly released Get Out. On the one hand, the previews looked creepy enough. And then there’s the intriguing prospect of a horror movie that considers the problem of racial injustice. I thought that the movie had incredible potential – and was excited to see it – but I thought it could bust, too. Happily, the film was strange and jarring but also excellent. Get Out takes typical social discomfort and morphs it into unsettling suspense. The film facilitates a lot of pathos from the viewer toward the characters and makes a bold statement about the unsolved problem of racial inequity in America. Since the film has been out for a couple of weeks, and since it may be easier to discuss by referring to the ending, there may be spoilers in this review. Beware!
After five months of loving relationship bliss, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) agrees to visit his girlfriend’s family. His girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) seems nonplussed by the racial dynamic, but Chris, a black man, has evident trepidation about meeting Rose’s white family. “Did you tell them I’m black,” he asks Rose, who laughs at the question and brushes it off. When Chris and Rose arrive at Rose’s ritzy suburb, some social awkwardness (read, a mixture of subtle and not-so-subtle racism) ensues. But things get weirder. While the reaction of Rose’s white family and their out-of-touch, upper class neighbors makes its own powerful statement about the type of racism that persists even when everyone’s trying to put on a nice, polite façade, the awkwardness that accompanies race-related guffaws slowly transforms into anxiety and tension as we, along with Chris, realize that something is seriously wrong. The Armitage’s two black servants act like mindless automatons when they’re not acting notably bizarre, and Chris immediately senses that there’s something unusual about them. Then there’s the young black man accompanied by a white woman 30 years older than him at a party who erupts into rage and frenzy when Chris takes a picture of him. And if the few black people in the suburb are acting weird, the whites, taken as a whole, are even weirder in their apparent effort to be welcoming. Most of the film, to that end, evokes a sort of Stepford Wives meets Twilight Zone vibe. One cannot watch the bulk of this film without sensing that something in the secluded suburb is seriously amiss.
The film is troubling because its far-fetched plot isn’t really that far-fetched. (Extreme spoiler alert). As it turns out, the Armitages’ use their pretty daughter Rose (who eagerly complies) to “date” black men and lure them into the suburbs. Once the date is there and all the niceties unfold, Chris is hypnotized to minimize his resistance and Rose’s physician father prepares his laboratory to perform a brain transplant. (Yes, things get weird here). By extracting the predominant portion of Chris’s brain and placing most of a neighbor’s brain in his skull (the neighbor is a blind man who desires sight), the aged, blind neighbor will now function in a young, handsome body (Chris’s), and Chris will be relegated to an eternal, action-less limbo. This is a pattern that has unfolded myriad times in the past and will, presumably, continue to unfold. In fact, the black servants in the Armitage house turn out to be the Armitage grandparents, embodied in relative youth, health, and stellar physical form.
So, okay, when I said the film wasn’t far-fetched I wasn’t being specific. From a scientific perspective, it is far-fetched; brain transplants aren’t exactly a “thing,” and likely won’t be one for the foreseeable future. What I would contend is less far-fetched is the ethos of the white family – indeed, the entire white suburb – that entraps blacks and sticks white consciousness inside a black body. Not only could I believe that people who would do such a thing certainly still exist in America, but the film was both a prime example of and allegory for the United States’ racial history, a history that involves taking whatever we want from blacks (and other races) regardless of the costs to the affected, a history that, in many ways, involves the same inhabitation and conquest that we see on a metaphorical level when whites kill the black psyche and inhabit the black body for their own personal gains.
The aggressive, repressive history of whites toward people of color is metaphorically explored before the movie’s action completely escalates, while Rose’s family has still proven themselves harmless, at least in the most basic sense of the word harm. After a state of agitation, Chris slips out of the bedroom for a cigarette, experiences a strange encounter with one of the servants, and re-enters the house to find Rose’s mother, who’s sipping tea and appears to be waiting for him. Because she’s a therapist who deplores smoking, Rose’s mother has already offered to hypnotize Chris so he’ll quit more easily. Though he doesn’t accept the offer, he sits down to talk to her, and she gradually induces a hypnotic state without his awareness. By asking probing questions about his past and clinking a spoon against the side of her tea cup, she mesmerizes him and begin to enter his psyche without his permission.
Of course, her reason for doing this is so that she can control Chris and submit him to brain transplant surgery later (possibly one of the weirdest lines I’ve written on an already weird blog). But we don’t know her motives at this point; we only know that he’s encountered a white family who appears friendly but evinces their own set of racial biases and assumptions. As such, even before we realize that Rose’s mom is trying to hypnotize Chris for insidious reasons, the act is still uncomfortably troubling. When America and Great Britain colonized other cultures, we would invade the culture, overtake their land, and consume their cultural consciousness by instating our own institutions and deciding who was worthy to ascend the ranks; we always presumed what we were doing was for the benefit of the so-called natives. And this was only the case with colonization in other countries; our motives were even more insidious with slavery, an institution in which black well-being was irrelevent. Along those lines, when Rose’s mom hypnotizes Chris without his consent, she is, in effect, colonizing his mind – taking it over, claiming it as hers, and instituting her own set of regulations within it. Before we know that her motives are malicious, she comes across as a white woman presuming she knows what’s best for a black man she just met, a woman willing to annihilate his agency to achieve her own agenda.
The whole movie is not only an allegory for our racist history – taking what we want from a group we deem “different” from ourselves, including their lives and freedom – but an intriguing exploration into the concept of cultural appropriation. In the case of our country’s racial divide, cultural appropriation happens when whites adopt the same black habits and customs that increase black vulnerability to racial segregation. For example, a white woman might adopt a typically African American hairstyle, even though African American hair has been a vehicle for segregation since the inception of slavery. Similarly, with cultural appropriation, the culture being appropriated is often misrepresented. In Get Out the white characters, by having their brains transplanted into unwilling, initially unsuspecting black men and women, seek to be black. The same race that they are not just discriminating against but completely dehumanizing – a race that they use as a vehicle for getting the body they crave – is the race that they’re seeking to emulate, or more specifically, to “become.” They are, to that end, denigrating the black bodies that they desire to adopt, the same way white culture often denigrates black customs that it later adopts (i.e. we criticize that “degenerate” rap music while idolizing it and churning out white rappers like Vanilla Ice and Eminem). Don’t get me wrong – when varied cultures live in a defined, concentrated location, customs and habits are likely to circulate (Eminem is one of my guilty pleasures), but in the context of United States race relations, there can be a fine line between natural custom-sharing and problematic racial appropriation. It is, in any case, a controversial subject, and one that I would suggest Get Out at least implicitly explores, although the white suburbanites who essentially suck out black peoples’ souls through brain transplants to inhabit their bodies clearly overstep the sometimes fine line between cultural dissemination and appropriation.
Ultimately, such explorations are what I liked most about the movie. I sometimes determine a movie’s merit by considering how many thoughts I have about it (which I’ll admit is a relatively self-centered barometer). For a film that lacks a degree of depth, I find myself struggling to churn out a piece that has any “talking points,” so to speak. That wasn’t the case with this film. It shouldn’t be a bold film in a society still rife with racism, but to say that racism still exists is a (sadly) controversial claim in 21st century America, and this film seems to suggest: not only does racism exist, but it has the potential to exist in a really insidious way that mirrors slavery. Really, the suburbanites in the movie are practicing a form of 21st century slavery. This is especially apparent when Rose’s father stands on a stage next to a big picture of Chris (Chris has left the premise at this point in the movie), playing a game of “bingo” and using the hand movements of an auctioneer to determine who will get to inhabit Chris’s body. The scenario is profoundly reminiscent of slave auctions, as is the entire wealthy Armitage house, a house that evokes the ambience of a Southern plantation. Similarly, an encounter with a racist cop at the film’s beginning indicts the criminal justice system, often accused of being the 20th century’s alternative to slavery. And the quintessential blind character, so popular in film and literature and recently popular in horror movies (Don’t Breath, The Ring 2), appears to be the only member of the suburb who can see the truth and slice through the suburb’s racial ignorance. Ironically, he is the member of the suburb who wants his brain transplanted into Chris’s body, so he can steal Chris’s sight, an interesting commentary on the collective blindness of a society that won’t acknowledge racial injustice even as it commits it.
In other words, this movie could be really “offensive” to sensitive whites who act appalled at the notion that we still live in a racist society. I mean the white characters are really despicable in this film. By the end of the movie we hate them (I couldn’t stand Rose’s brother, who reminded me of one of the nastier, more malicious slave masters as depicted via Hollywood cinema). Which is fine with me; this film isn’t a statement that all whites are despicable, but that there’s a sect of white America that’s still vehemently racist and would do this if they could. And that is why the film’s argument is bold, and frightfully realistic, too. Admittedly, it’s not a vision that will go over well with every white person in Trump’s America, and those who, however naively, claim we live in post-racial society. But that’s the exact reason that films like Get Out are so important.