The gaslighting of Black America chills audiences in new film
The Santa Clara
February 22, 2017
Alarmed. Unsettled. Uncomfortable.
These are the immediate feelings that set in as the film closes in on a dimly-lit street where a black man cautiously walks through a nice neighborhood. It’s a story we’ve seen play out much too often in headlines, and no, it doesn’t turn out any better this time. But here, the killer isn’t a cop or even some Michael Myers wannabe. The killer is something infinitely more insidious—racism.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele, “Get Out” sees African-American photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) go on a weekend trip to meet his girlfriend’s Obama-loving white, liberal family. What might originally sound like the beginning of a “Key & Peele” sketch slowly devolves into nearly two hours of gaslighting, paranoia and the undeniable feeling that evil is lurking nearby.
In this movie, that evil takes the form of racism. Written around the time Trayvon Martin was killed, Peele set out to create a movie actively combating the idea that America is a post-racial society. Martin’s murder echoes throughout the opening, but “Get Out” doesn’t just contend itself with drawing parallels. Instead, Peele uses the horror genre as a hyperbolic demonstration of the real horror black Americans experience everyday.
Except for a particularly brutal third act, “Get Out” is more chilling and provocative than it is outright scary. Don’t expect horror á la “Halloween” or “Paranormal Activity.” Rather, the movie finds its spine-tingling scares through an intricate weave of paranoia as Chris struggles to reconcile a happy facade with instincts yelling at him to fight back.
Inch by inch, Chris and the audience are eased into an unhinged community not outwardly aggressive enough for us to call them out on it. We initially dismiss the dad’s eagerness to declare he would have voted for President Obama a third time. We cringe when the brother informs Chris that with his build and “natural advantages,” he could easily be an MMA fighter if he just disciplined himself.
Then, it gets harder to make excuses by the time others feel it is within their right to tell Chris black skin is “in fashion” or ask his girlfriend, Rose, whether black men are better sexual partners after all.
“As a black man, sometimes you can’t tell if what you’re seeing has underlying bigotry, or it’s a normal conversation and you’re being paranoid,” Peele said in a “New York Times” article. “That dynamic in itself is unsettling. I admit sometimes I see race and racism when it’s not there. It’s very disorienting to be aware of certain dynamics.”
Those dynamics are explored throughout the film, showing and expanding on the black experience and the racialized ways people like Chris are forced to view their world. At one point in the movie, he worries one of the black servants named Georgina doesn’t like him because she doesn’t want Rose to be with a black man. It’s the concern of a man who understands lighter skin still makes all the difference—even within his own community.
It’s those insights that make the film so rich, but it’s also these moments that make “Get Out” haunting. There’s a scene where it seems the family and their gathered guests are playing bingo but, as a portrait of Chris is slowly revealed behind Dean (Rose’s father), we quickly realize it’s an auction for Chris’s body. It’s impossible not to recall the slave auctions of the antebellum era.
Likewise, it’s difficult to ignore the imagery of Chris partly being able to save himself at the end by literally picking cotton from the armchair he’s tied down to.
In a different scene, Dean goes on what on the surface seems like a normal, albeit passionate, rant against the deer population. By the time the credits roll by, his tirade takes on a sinister tone in hindsight so viewers should leave understanding Dean’s hatred of deer is a substitute for how he feels about black people. The more dead, the better.
The amount of symbolism carefully and artfully inserted into this film should make all viewers excited about what Jordan Peele has in store for us next. He is not afraid to push boundaries and make his audiences feel uncomfortable.
That said, the movie is genuinely funny and had my theater laughing even as it unnerved us. A subplot involving Chris’ TSA friend carries the comedic weight of the film, but it never detracts from the film’s message.
Some critics of the film worry over the potential anti-white message the film sends. The movie does, after all, portray a liberal white family as villains.
However, those critics might do well to remember their concerns when the next movie blockbuster targets people of color as ruthless monsters.
At the end of the day, this film is as important as each audience member wants it to be. People like Chance the Rapper, who over the weekend bought out a theater so people could go see “Get Out” for free, certainly think there’s something to it. But whether or not the social critique of liberalism and racism is an element audiences will actively seek, there’s no doubt they’ll leave the theater entertained.
Contact Perla Luna at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.