Thursday, November 30, 2017

Get Out, Like Literally

Full Disclosure: I am not black. This is not meant as a political or social statement, simply a statement of fact. I am not black. I have no idea what it is like to live as a black man in America (Full FULL Disclosure: I am also Canadian). Or anywhere else for that matter. I do know that in the Western world, the lived experience of black people and other minorities is very different from my own lived experience as a (handsome) white male. I know this mostly because of Dave Chappelle.

No, Dave and I don't hang out on weekends, reminiscing over a cold Samuel Jackson and avoiding car rides with Wayne Brady. He's a world-famous comedian, and I'm just a regular, handsome, charming, talented, soon-to-be-discovered literary savant. No, back in the halcyon days of 2005, I was introduced to a little piece of television history known as Chappelle's Show. It was obviously a brilliant work of comedy from Dave Chappelle, but more than that, it was a commentary on racial issues, which to a young, white man who grew up and lived the first part of his life in a relatively homogeneous culture, was eye-opening to say the least. I would go so far as to say enlightening, but I wouldn't want to be accused of hyperbole.

In fact, I learned nearly all of my racial stereotypes from Dave Chappelle. (I still don't understand the whole black people loving fried chicken and watermelon thing.) He opened my eyes to a lot of social issues related to ethnicity and cultural differences about which I would have remained (more) ignorant. That's the power of entertainment. The more you know. And knowing is half the battle!

Most people watching the breakout horror film Get Out from writer/director Jordan Peele wouldn't necessarily be reminded of Dave Chappelle. I am not most people. It wasn't the fact that before Get Out Peele was hitherto known for more for his sense of humour, as half of the famous comedy duo Key and Peele. It was because of how both Peele and Chappelle both used their platforms to cleverly bring to light anxieties about racial tensions in what might otherwise be merely frivolous diversions. But I guess that's one of the things that makes great art great: the ability to tackle deeper issues or truths in a context that makes them more accessible for their audience. Being able to render down complex ideas into something more easily consumable while still being entertaining is no easy feat, but which Peele executes admirably in this case.

Get Out is a horror film, but it is simultaneously a commentary on the systemic racism and racial tensions bubbling just below the surface in modern American society. The film sets this up brilliantly with its opening scene in which a young black man is walking nervously through a white, suburban neighbourhood, which is almost an exact reversal of the stereotypical image of a scared white woman walking through a an inner city ghetto. Suburbia typically doesn't hold a lot of anxiety for those of us with paler complexions, but it does represent subtle form of modern-day segregation. Even without delving into it any further, the term "suburbia" typically evokes images of white people living in relative safety and economic stability while picturing a ghetto the image that most likely comes into mind is of black people (or non-Caucasians) living in relative poverty surrounded by gangs, drugs, and crime. In the Western world (and perhaps America in particular) it is, unfortunately, not a random coincidence that these spaces are rife with very specific racial meanings.

An Oscar? For little old us? You really shouldn't have...
No wait, give it back.
In this case, the young man's fear is justified as he is brutally kidnapped. Get Out then cuts to its main storyline that involves Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) meeting Rose's (Allison Williams) parents for the first time after having been dating for several months. Chris, as a black man dating a white woman, is apprehensive as he is as acutely aware of the potential tensions interracial relationships create with some people (read: white people) as I am completely oblivious of the same. As a white man, it had never occurred to me that there would be any additional anxiety when it came to meeting a significant other's parents for the first time besides the unspoken knowledge between all of us that I was fucking their daughter. Like, I'd heard about the apparent uproar about the Cheerio's commercial that featured an interracial couple by, I deduced, a bunch of super-racist assholes. Although, with recent social developments like a US president who keeps spouting xenophobic rhetoric and who fails to condemn obvious Nazis doing obviously Nazi shit, and those aforementioned Nazis feeling emboldened enough to march en masse in the light of day in the first place, I'm beginning to suspect that it might be a much larger minority than I had originally thought.

But that's kind of the point and the brilliance of Get Out. It's a genre film with a fairly straightforward plot, but with a lot of incredibly insightful social commentary woven throughout. Even just small things like an accident involving a deer as Rose is driving Chris to her parents' swanky country manner. The cops show up, and Chris, as a black man, seems to know the drill. Asked for his driver's licence even though he wasn't driving, Chris is willing to comply with the police officer while Rose is upset that her boyfriend is obviously being treated unfairly due to his ethnic background. It's never explicitly stated, but the obvious undertones of recent current events and police shooting or otherwise using lethal force against unarmed black people with little to no provocation other than the fact that they are black (see Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, etc.) is in effect here. While Rose, as a young white woman, probably has little to nothing to fear from verbally challenging a police officer, Chris knows he can't take that same chance without the risk of swallowing a bullet.

Do you remember Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? Pepperidge
Farm remembers.
Once Rose and Chris get to her parents' house, they seem overly friendly and accommodating. Rose's father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), takes Chris on a little tour of the old family estate, and though he seems well-meaning, things get super awkward super quick. Old Deano seems well meaning but also seems like he's trying super hard to hard to demonstrate his cosmopolitan world view. He talks about how he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have. He addresses the fact that the optics of a white family having two black servants, explaining (with zero prompting) how they took care of his ailing parents before they died and he kept them on afterward. Dean also talks about how Jesse Owens beat out his father to compete in the 1936 Olympics, but that it was better that Owens was able to go as a giant, living middle finger to Hitler and everything that Nazis stood / are standing / or will ever stand for.

There's something that's intensely creepy about the whole fucking thing, and it's not just that an old white guy is (apparently) trying to earnestly commiserate with a young black man and coming off awkward as fuck. It's the apparent need to assuage something within himself that Dean is delving off into how much he loves black people and not because he's actually sympathetic to Chris' potential social standing/status as a black man in modern America, and all of the history past and present that plays into that. Peele expertly uses this cringeworthy depiction of white liberal guilt not only as social commentary, but also to help build tension in the context of the narrative.

And at this point Get Out, the audience knows some weird shit is going down because of the dude disappearing at the beginning of the movie, but they're not sure exactly what. There's something bubbling just below the surface and... oh my god, black people live their lives in a horror film. Or at least, there are some parallels between racial undertones in modern social contexts and horror movie tropes. As far as we've come, historically speaking, there's still a lot of unspoken anxieties at play for black people in North America, which may or may not be followed by a shocking twist that could result in devastating consequences.

The horror here isn't just the audience expectations based on genre tropes, it's the uncomfortable feeling as cultural biases are brought kicking and screaming to light and their potential implications. Despite the desire for racial and cultural harmony, everything is not OK. There is something more sinister lurking beneath the surface of all the pleasantries. Something much darker that each attempt--implicit or explicit--to bridge this cultural gap is masking.

And there is something more sinister. At dinner, Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) makes some more uncomfortable remarks to Chris perpetuating racial stereotypes about the supposed inherent physical prowess of black men. Then when other family members start showing up for the annual reunion that Rose "forgot" was that weekend, Chris is bombarded with an array of questions ranging from tone-deaf to outright offensive.

But the thing is, all of this bullshit about old, white people asking a black man about what it's like to be a black man isn't horrifying because it's so far out of the realm of possibility; the true horror is that it's exactly the same kind of shit that you don't even have to imagine your grandparents saying.

Even before the first big twist where it's revealed that all of the white folks going off to "play bingo" is actually a cover for a secret bidding war to buy Chris at auction (drawing clear parallels to slavery--just like I saw in Roots that one time), the whole situation is deeply unsettling. Before it turns out that all of the white people are just a bunch of racist sickos, that social gathering could have been one of a thousand going on across this great continent of ours that didn't result in a diabolical throw-back to pre-Civil War America. But even without the overt repression, exploitation, and segregation, there are more subtle biases at play. Preconceived notions about a person's socioeconomic status, family history, potential criminal background, linguistic aptitude, musical tastes, level of education, political leanings, neighbourhood where they live. There are a thousand different assumptions (conscious or unconscious) specifically tied to the pigment of one's skin, and for black people, those assumptions usually aren't favourable. Sometimes without even realizing it, we imbue an otherness to people that fall within a certain category, in this case ethnicity.

The horror... the horror... Listen, I will pay you good money
to not have to watch the next
Transformers film.
And it's this otherness that allows us to implicitly or explicitly distance ourselves and either foster harmful social structures or be complicit in their perpetuation.  The bingo bidding scene in Get Out also serves to highlight how insidious racial bias can be when it has domesticated, institutionalized, normalized, and hidden behind a slick veneer of civility. The auction of a black man isn't depicted as a feeding frenzy of frothing-at-the-mouth villains; it's a low-key, highly organized business transaction between affluent white people.

And it's the second twist in Get Out that really hammers the point home. Once Chris is sold to Milton from Office Space (proving once again that everything is better with Stephen Root), he is subdued through hypnosis by Rose's mom, Missy (Catherine Keener), and tied up in a secret room, where his intended fate is revealed. It turns out, Rose's father, a surgeon by trade, has developed a procedure involving some Simpson's-style brain surgery that transplants the identity and cognitive processes from one person to another. In this case, old, white people near the end of their lives are buying young, black people so that they can have their brain surgically transplanted into their bodies and live longer. The truly terrifying part of the whole thing is that after the surgery, the black person's consciousness still remains, but only as a passive observer as somebody else takes over the driver's seat in their own mind and body. (And, of course, the ancillary terror of being forced to watch somebody masturbate with your dick for the rest of your life.)

And that's the heart of the horror of Get Out. For black people, it's being literally assimilated and having their identities, histories, and selves erased, overpowered by "whiteness." It's the marginalization, in this case literally to the back of white people's minds.

The horror for white people, on the other hand, is that for those of us with good intentions, we may unwittingly propagating a system that represses, exploits, or otherwise has a negative impact on a very large subsection of the population. And for those that knowingly propagate such a system, it's a system that's so sanitized that it's easy to either accept or ignore. And this makes Dean's earlier attempts to demonstrate how not racist he was by pledging his undying fealty to Obama and other demonstrations of his solidarity and support for the black community so chilling; if we somehow convince everybody that we're all living in harmony, that there's nothing really wrong, then there's nothing more we have to do. There are few things in real life as terrifying as complacency in the face of injustice.

This is why Get Out is such a significant film. On the one hand, it's empowering insofar as it's a black story, told by black people, reflecting black experiences, for black audiences. On the other, it provides a window into another world for white people, to foster an understanding of the very real fears and anxieties that black people face on a daily basis to truly try to bridge that gap and raise awareness for those who have never experienced themselves. And on the other, other hand, Get Out is simply an incredibly well-made, original horror film in a genre that seemed intent on murdering itself more than any group of sexy teens.

As a white person, I need people like Dave Chappelle and Jordan Peele to help me understand. The ending of Get Out sends a powerful message. Chris escapes through his own ingenuity and his ability to harness his own righteous fury to kill as many racist bastards as he can. Black people aren't looking to be rescued by white people; they are as much free agents in the universe as anyone else, and the whole white saviour thing is an arrogant stance that isn't going to do anybody any good. What we really need is to weed out biases and make an effort to foster the same basic understanding and respect among people, regardless of ethnicity. Also, it's probably not helpful to abduct black people in the trunk of my car and auction them off to mad scientists for twisted, scientific experiments in direct defiance of all moral decency and disregard for the sanctity of human life. The more you know.


I'm not sure if anybody expected Jordan Peele to make a horror film seemingly out of the blue after firmly establishing himself as a fixture in the comedy world, but hot damn, he exceeded all expectations. I give Get Out an 8.5/10 = One Head Undergoing Horrific Scientific Experiments in the Basement


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