Masterful cinema usually leaves little to accident. With the film world completely oversaturated by works that are intellectually lazy and yet somehow overwrought with production costs, this is easy to forget. Many would say that the age of the auteur is behind us. It’s overly glib, but also understandable.
Throw in a film that cuts against this, where everything is well-placed and intentionally so, and a film-going public hungry for something that hits the sweet-spot between smart and emotionally satisfying will not be able to stop talking about it. Enter, like an unexpected guest who has been hiding in your basement, Get Out.
Nobody expected Jordan Peele to make a film like this, particularly considering his previous foray onto the silver screen. Even with some of the best anti-racist Key & Peele sketches in mind, Get Out is a complete surprise.
Peele claims he wrote the film because he was tired of horror films that didn’t say what he was thinking. Given the discussion that it has provoked, it would seem that a certain segment of American filmgoers were thinking the same thing. Since its release last month, there have been countless reviews, analyses, listicles and hot takes written on it.
Why bother with another one then? Part of it is that the same time that cries for smarter, more relevant filmmaking also cries for sharper thinking. Peele likely had no idea when he started writing or directing Get Out what would transpire between the film’s production and its release. But here we are: “Trump’s America.” Where outright white nationalism can win elections and liberalism’s bankruptcy – be it in relation to race relations or art criticism – is laying out for anyone to see like a deer carcass on the side of the road. Just as old filmmaking won’t cut it anymore, neither will the old ways of looking at it.
For sure, so much of the film’s resonance is in its imaginative, irrealist approach to “liberal racism,” and it’s this that has even sympathetic commentators divided on how to approach it. Ashlee Blackwell’s favorable review remains fairly surface-level, couching the film’s punch in day-to-day interaction and micro-aggressions. John McDonald, writing for Jacobin, pushes back against this shallow reading by attempting to look at the film’s tropes through a structural lens. Both only really scratch the surface, and just barely at that.
Neither review really explains how the film’s ideological core interacts with its formal and aesthetic choices. Without such an attempt, then we cannot hope to understand what it is that makes an audience’s reaction to the work of art so palpable. Nor will we be able to approach the work of art as an intervention into history. Which, without exaggerating or diminishing it, is precisely what any “conscious” work of art is.
The gothic and the comedic
Get Out stands in a particular filmic (and literary) tradition – the gothic novels and their cinematic descendants. Peele is quite obviously inspired by the film productions of Ira Levin’s feminist novels The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby. The classic gothic novel-form took a modern woman to the pre-modern country estate. In that patriarchal estate the past threatened her modernity and her subjective autonomy. This is the artistic logic we need to start with in order to provide a useful analysis of Get Out. This sort of gothic horror takes on a domestic, wealthy and rural character (although usually a rural character with ties to urban business as well as old agrarian wealth).
This dynamic allows Peele to recreate the intimacy of the origin of anti-Black racism in the ante-bellum plantation. As is noted by James Baldwin (in Raoul Peck’s documentary I am Not Your Negro) white hatred and fear of the Black person is bound in both an economic and a (twisted) familial relationship; that some children of the slave-master were slaves while others were inheritors of fortune. That the white men who held the whips sometimes whipped their own brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.
The film has its share of “jump scares,” but for the most part Peele tackles the horror from the same angle he does comedy. Up until the film’s climax, most of the terrifying sequences have a humorous edge to them. Sometimes the laughter is bitter, sometimes it is painfully awkward; most often it’s some combination of the two.
Though this is obviously a reflection of the fact that the movie is a “horror-comedy” and made by a writer who works primarily in comedy, it also, oddly enough, gives the scares substance. In most contemporary horror movies, whether we are surprised by the killer leaping from behind the bush or disgusted by the gore, we also ultimately know it’s coming. We paid to experience it, after all, and the promos told us that is what we are paying for. Sitting in our theater seats, we have ultimately tricked ourselves into being surprised by a single note.
The humor-terror, however, operates on a more sophisticated level. It gives a dimensionality to the emotions we as the audience experience. It is a disarming reaction, discombobulating. We are forced to think about it and grapple with it. Much like Chris’ own experience as he enters a world he doesn’t know and comes to understand less and less even as it is increasingly revealed to him.
Race against the past
Any work of art about the racism of America’s present is also, paradoxically, about the past. How can it not be? The machinations of discrimination, inequality and systemic state violence borne by African America are only in place because they have inherited the economics, politics and culture of history. It is not for nothing that, for example, Michelle Alexander straddles the past and present when she describes modern structural racism as “the New Jim Crow.”
This needs to be kept in mind in Get Out. Plenty of people have noted the sly references to the racism that built America placed throughout the film. Chris literally picking cotton to stuff his ears. Rose’s strange method of eating Froot Loops. Absurdist visual allusions to certain “white knights.”
These aren’t just “Easter eggs.” They are, again, symbols to wrap our heads around and place in the context of the film’s narrative arc. Though they don’t “make sense” at first glance, they contain unsettling realizations for us as we begin the accept the logic of what is unfolding. Peele’s gothic depiction of racism has it creep in alongside the terror itself. It wears a mask – literally and figuratively.
In light of this it is odd that some reviewers think Peele is solely taking aim at “the well-intentioned casual racism of today’s world.” The racism in Get Out is anything but casual and is clearly ill-intentioned. The liberal gestures and clumsy racism that make us cringe-laugh throughout the first three quarters of the film are strategic. They conceal something sinister. They are meant, like Hillary Clinton’s purse hot-sauce, as a sleight-of-hand – forget how she called Black children “superpredators,” how she race-baited candidate Obama, how she refused to do anything for Black Lives Matter, how the Wall Street banks she hustles for profit off Black suffering and labor.
So while the insistence of some writers that Get Out is primarily about liberal racism aren’t wrong per se, they are also hardly scratching the surface. Yes, Get Out depicts racism as culturally “post-modern.” This racism doesn’t necessarily think Black people are biologically inferior. It votes for Obama. A third time if it could.
It does, however, want to use Black people to its own utilitarian ends. It still sells and buys Black bodies. It even uses hijacked Black bodies to do so. Moreover, it buys and sells the attributes of Black bodies. It accumulates their social capital and unique skills. It is a perfected political economy of racism. And it still has a place for auction blocks and physical restraints. This isn’t just a depiction of liberal but of neoliberal racism as a continuation of history.
Peele’s depictions reflect this hybridity: the business calculations of the father, the charms and coercions of the sister, the overseer/cop in the brother, the manipulations and mind-fuckery of the mother, the “cultural appropriation in bodily form” of the art dealer. But this is not a movie about micro-aggressions, though there are plenty. This is a movie about an ongoing macro-aggression, hiding under the veneer of liberal identity politics, hiding under the cover of the “first Black president,” hiding behind the now ridiculous op-eds of a post-racial nation. This is not so much the first movie of the racist Trump presidency but the last movie of the Obama presidency.
Does all of this add up to Get Out being “a Marxist film,” whatever that might mean? No. But nor does it need to be. Peele isn’t just an intelligent filmmaker; he understands that his audience is also intelligent. He perceptively observes the twists of turns of modern racism (which, however much theory might aid us, don’t require some Marxist codex to decipher) and is speaking to people who also observe them. Good didactic art does not see its audience as students. It views them with agency. It builds on experienced realities to propose new ones – and uses new ones to expose unprocessed experience.
Twitter users are already using the term “sunken place” to describe Black defenses of Donald Trump. When we went to see this film, as Chris grabbed his phone to escape the Armitage home, a white audience member a few rows in front of us shouted “911.” On the other side of the theater, someone else (whose race we couldn’t make out) answered “No!” (Chris, of course, does end up calling 911 a few minutes later, but this does not render any less poignant Viewer No. 2’s recognition of the cops as part of the problem.)
This is precisely why it is not a stretch to view Get Out as intertwined with a radical and materialist anti-racism, albeit one that is deftly relayed through the poetics and metaphor of filmmaking. The rich and powerful are buying and selling Black bodies. These will be used to extend (perhaps permanently) the lives of the rich and powerful. They can have everything. Be everywhere. Do anything. At the push of a button. They have almost slipped the existential leash. But they do so on the backs of labor – still tied down to death and drudgery – even more so profiting from people of color.
Likewise, those who have situated the film next to some of the greatest Black American literature are not off-base. As noted elsewhere, there are stunning similarities between how the “sunken place” functions and that of WEB DuBois’ notion of double consciousness. Likewise, we can reference Baldwin again – particularly his essay “The Price of the Ticket,” (“…whereas I became black and began sinking…”) – to think of the way hierarchies and identities are mediated in the film. If Chris ascends to the level of the Armitages, he will no longer be Chris. He will be someone else. He will be, for all intents and purposes, a function rather than a human being.
And while Get Out (rightly) doesn’t present us with a strategy for mobilizing a multi-racial, class-based, anti-racist struggle against capitalism, Chris’s savior is Rod, his demonstrably working-class best-friend. Again, not an accident; particularly in a movie where every single reference and shot was painstakingly put together.
Brecht once said that he hoped audience members would leave his plays asking “what would I do in such a situation?” No, Jordan Peele is not Brecht, but he has given us something that should, and does, force us to ask that same question. If that isn’t radical as reality itself, then we may want to question whether filmmaking will serve any purpose in the coming years.
Darien Gree, organic intellectual and necromancer, ruminates on all things macabre and subversive. He sometimes writes bad poetry and participates in underground communist activity.
Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan is a self-taught film critic from the river town of Alton, Illinois.