Racism without Racists? Get Out
On February 22, a CERN spokesperson responded to allegations that their experiments with the Large Hadron Collider have not opened up a portal to an alternate dimension and sucked us unwittingly through to a universe where Trump won the American presidency.
I’m not convinced. On March 13, I found evidence of an artifact from the true timeline where the world hadn’t suddenly been engulfed in collective madness. I saw Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s give the non-spoiler rundown so anyone interested can read this short list and then happily leave if they don’t want to ruin the movie for themselves:
- Betty Gabriel is incredible. She sells the concept so hard and practically carries the entire horror atmosphere on her performance alone.
- The first two thirds of the movie are actually pretty decent. The third act twist undermines it entirely.
- Jordan Peele’s insertion of random comedic elements is tonally dissonant and breaks pacing.
- Rod the TSA agent is both the worst character and worst actor. His goofy scenes demonstrate that Peele just can’t shake his comedic inclinations no matter how detrimental they are to the overall themes and narrative.
- The movie sucks. Don’t bother watching it.
- It’s got Josh from the West Wing trying to be creepy and sinister. But it’s still just lovable Josh from the West Wing.
We good? We good.
Now let’s get into the meat of things.
Get Out is a horror/thriller movie ostensibly about racism that is neither horrific, suspenseful or actually about racism. To say it’s a complete failure is to put it politely. Which is a shame because it was doing so well until it drove its narrative completely off a cliff.
See, there’s difficulty when an artist attempts to change genres. Oftentimes, they can miss the nuance or technique required to communicate the tone and emotion of the piece they’re trying to accomplish. In particular, Peele falls into the dangerous trap of trying to force an M. Night Shyamalan twist into something which really, really did not need it.
But first let’s talk about the shallow, empty promise of Get Out.
The trailer and the majority of the movie promises to take a peek into the horrifying effects of racism. Even more, the premise offers something fresh in that we’re offered a window into the terror of social racism from the viewpoint of the victims. It’s such a beautiful concept in its simplicity. Pluck an urban black boy and plunk him down in rural, white, pampered walled communities and watch the growing horror of a world that appears so normal for everyone else take on slow, terrifying new dimensions from another perspective.
The one promising aspect of Get Out is its topicality. There’s no denying that American has a race issue. There was perhaps an argument at some naive point a mere year ago where sweet summer children perhaps professed that racism was a thing of the past. “We’re in a post-racist society!” exclaimed those—at best—idealistic voices. “We’ve elected a black man to be President. Surely man has reached equality amongst himself.”
It’s a quaint proposition and one people had been trying to politely refute beneath Obama’s tenure. But as the Tea Party voices rose and then we had a hugely polarising election where a giant, orange blow-hard who ran on the most blatantly racist platform swept into the highest echelons of the American government, bringing in tow the most racist and corrupt appointments seen in… well… it might have the distinction of being the most racist and corrupt government America has ever had. No one is refuting that racism is alive and kicking in American now. Not when the Ku Klux Klan openly announced a victory parade in Trump’s honour in the streets of North Carolina.
It was cancelled – I think. Due to protest. But I hazard to guess they didn’t plan such demonstrations when Obama won two terms. I certainly didn’t hear anything about their jubilation over Bush winning.
And this isn’t even touching any of the other events making world news.
Ferguson. Flint. Trayvon Martin.
What do all of these events have in common? They are all far more horrific than Get Out.
If I can be generous to the movie, it seems made under the assumption that Hillary would win. It’s a gentle finger wave from yuppie liberal capitalists looking to cash-in on the persistent racial driven protests without carrying an ounce of understanding or clarity for what those protests are about. It’s a movie meant to villainize micro-aggressions—small social faux pas that accidentally perpetuate racist stereotypes or uncomfortable atmospheres towards marginalised groups—instead of actually making any comment on blatant or systemic hatred. It reduces persecution to a small swarm of nettling questions and statements of varying levels of inappropriateness.
“Is it true what they say about sex with a black man?”
“Tell me Chris, what is the black experience like?”
“You don’t have to worry; I voted for Obama myself. Twice. I’d have voted for him a third time.”
It is a movie, as the title says, about racism but without racists.
Which is a pity because it’s clear that Peele isn’t ignorant about those issues. The interaction with the police officer demanding Chris’ licence even though he wasn’t driving after the accident involving the deer shows an awareness for systemic racism in law enforcement. The dramatic pause when the apparent police car pulls up the driveway in the end—to find a pile of dead bodies and the house on fire—only works as a tense situation if the expectation is that Chris will unfairly be killed by an outside actor immediately assuming his guilt due solely to his skin colour.
However, those are the only two moments of racism. Everything else is a fake-out.
You see, Get Out isn’t about American home grown racism. It’s about magical pseudo-science brain transfers. That’s the third act turn. Well, it’s a part of the third act turn.
No, the true third act turn is Peele proposing that white people are racist because they just desperately want to be black people oh so much.
I cannot easily convey how mindbogglingly awful the twist is. There’s nearly an hour and a half of lead up drawing on black slavery and abuse that’s suddenly and immediately dispelled upon the realization that the villains of the movie are simply motivated out of a deep, profound sense of wanting to be black people.
I wish I was making it up because even typing it out sounds so stupid.
You see, Josh Lyman is a brilliant neurosurgeon who has perfected a technique for transplanting human brains into new bodies. He first performed this technique on his ailing mother and father. Unfortunately, the process requires a rather larger organ donation than the Red Cross is used to providing so the Armitage family looks to darling Rose’s love interests to provide the necessary vessel for dear Grandmama and Grandpapa’s grey matter.
This is, in Peele’s own words, the Armitage’s new millennial slavery. The only problem is that this isn’t slavery at all.
When pressed for why any of the villains are doing their evil, Stephen Root’s character best summarizes their motivations during his explanation for why he purchased Chris as his new body: “Why do they want this? I don’t know. I just want your eyes.”
There’s literally no explanation offered for why the Armitage’s target only black people for their bodies. Sure, Stephen Root hypothesises that black people are more fashionable—whatever the hell that means. But why any character is involved with this villainy is never provided a reason. Why does Rose fall in love with so many of the victims to lure them home? We know she actually loves them as both her moments with Chris are never once held as anything but sincere and she confesses that he was one of her favourites. And as for those aforementioned micro-aggressions? They take on new meaning with the reveal that these old, crusty people are looking at a new body. They want some insight into the persecution or perks they’ll gain by shedding their withered, dried husks.
These aren’t people that hate black people. These are people who desperately want themselves or their husbands to be black. They see those lithe Nubian bodies and think “I wish I were them.”
This is about as racist as turning to a pretty Asian woman and saying, “You are so beautiful. I wish I could look like you.”
To best describe how the brain transfer element of the movie undermines Peele’s bumbling attempts to tap into racial conflict, I want to turn to the debate around same-sex marriage. Often times, LGBT campaigns pull on the civil rights movement to inform why their causes deserve equal sympathy and support. I just want to take a moment to marvel that it’s now the LGBT struggle that can inform how misguided and empty Get Out is.
See, one of the prevailing arguments against same-sex marriage and LGBT rights is the assertion that sexuality is a choice. It’s not, according to pretty much all research in the field. But it’s the largest argument used against it. The counterargument to the claim was elegant in its simplicity:
“Why would someone choose to be gay if all it will lead to is social ostracism, imprisonment, chemical castration and discrimination?”
No one would choose to be gay in societies preceding ours. And yet they existed. Hell, I’d be surprised if anyone would choose to be gay in today’s society and we have incomparable support and acceptance compared to the last five hundred years.
And yet, here is Get Out proposing just that. These rich, old white folk are, en mass, rushing into the wilderness of rural, white America eager to throw their cash and their lives into the hands of crazy Josh Lyman in order to become black. These same people know that black people face discrimination—they ask Chris about it directly and even Rose has been dating enough black guys to be offended when the police officer pulling them over displays systemic racism against them.
But apparently the mystical strength and sexual prowess of the black man is just too much for the white man to resist.
Course, the mind numbing stupidity doesn’t rest there. Once we learn that the black people are actual white people in black bodies, it seems suddenly weirdly cruel how the Armitages are treating their beloved Grandma and Grandpa. Georgina and Walter—originally introduced as the housemaid and the gardener—aren’t being enslaved by the Armitages. They are the Armitages. And yet Josh and his wife are happy to force them into sparse living quarters and put them at menial work in their old and vulnerable age. All to make creepy slavery illusions whenever Rose brings a lover home.
It lays bare the naked and mindless emotional manipulation attempts of Peele. Since, you know, the Armitages could have simply introduced Georgina and Walter as family friends while still maintaining their cover that the two black people on the estate aren’t really the family’s matriarch and patriarch. That wonderful hour and a half spent on creating the unsettling racism of suburban white communities is so hollow and meaningless.
There’s no maliciousness in the Armitage and their clients. They’re not motivated by racism. They don’t hate black people. No one even knows why they specifically pick black people. They could chose white people. It’s not like Armitage’s brain swapping procedure can only work along separate ethnic lines. And, in fact, if the family and friends were actually racist, you would think they would be kidnapping white people to extend their lives indefinitely as.
I think the best summation for Get Out and it’s clumsy, fumbling attempts at a message and horror are best described in the final scenes as Chris is breaking free from the Armitage’s basement clinic.
Having knocked out Jeremy Armitage and plucking a deer head from the wall, Chris ambushes Josh Lyman wondering what is taking his son and patient so long. After being fatally impaled, Josh Lyman stumbles into the operating room and in his last dying grasp reaches for stability and knocks over a single candle lit at the foot of Chris’ empty operating chair, setting the whole room aflame.
It’s such a wonderful scene for how absolutely stupid it is.
Why is there a single candle in an operating room? Surely a brilliant neurosurgeon like Josh Lyman would know that the smoke released from it is unsanitary considering he’s moving a person’s brain literally through it. It’s not like the damn thing was providing any needed light since it was both set at the foot of the chair (as far away from the brain as it could get which is where Peele seems to be most comfortable) and there were a number of bright clinical lights to allow him to see. We can’t even rely on the old Satanic Ritual that mindless, C grade horror schlock lean upon in their creative bankruptcy since there wasn’t any upside down pentagrams drawn in Chris’ blood to bless the holy surgery.
No, the candle literally existed to be knocked over in Josh’s death to set the house on fire.
Just like the racism literally existed just so you could be horrified that the movie wasn’t about racism in the first place. It’s sad that even Jordan Peele doesn’t feel like racism itself is scary enough to carry a horror movie.
Nothing makes sense. Everything is cobbled together in an amateur attempt to draw on topical controversy to sell tickets. Peele’s Get Out has as about much substance on the issues of modern American race relations as the empty cavity of senior Roman Armitage’s skull.
The most poignant moment in the movie is when Andrew Logan King grabs Chris by the shirt and tells him to “Get Out.” It’s a message that resonates across the screen since if the audience doesn’t heed it immediately, they’re about to be left as brain dead as the movie’s protagonist.