Well, Too Bad We Can’t Stay – Feminist Frequency

Well, Too Bad We Can’t Stay

March 1, 2017

I saw Get Out among a predominantly white audience this weekend. The decision was spontaneous and swift — there was a showing near me (in the white-ass suburb in which I live) at the perfect time, so I went. If I had had more than 10 seconds to think about it and plan, I would have taken the time to drive a little further and watch the film in a part of LA with a more diverse crowd. 90% of the time, this is not something I consider. Every so often, though, you have to sidestep the Django Trap.* It’s become apparent after reading a lot of “hot takes” this weekend that In-Their-Feelings White Supremacist Punditry has a lot to unpack right now, from trying to act like they understood “ShEther” to whether or not it was safe to applaud Casey Affleck winning at the Spirit Awards. (It turns out Affleck had a safe Saturday, but the tide had largely turned by the time he received the Oscar on Sunday.) They still found time to decry Get Out‘s “anti-whiteness,” though, while trying to wrestle with how to use the term “woke.”

Meanwhile, POC were out in force to catch Get Out this weekend, helping to propel Jordan Peele’s debut feature to a number one opening. Reviews got passed along like gossip on an old-school party line:

“Yo, you gotta go see Get Out! “

“Word?”

“So damn good.”

[three hours later]

“Yooooo!”

“Right?!”

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One of the fascinating things about reactions to Get Out is what they reveal about where an audience locates the source of the horror.  The plot of the movie concerns a young interracial couple, Chris and Rose, who take a weekend trip out of the city to visit her wealthy, educated family — and the escalating terror Chris undergoes as he recognizes that something is definitely not right with all these white folks. From the very beginning of the film, an explicit parallel is made between the uncanny things Chris witnesses at the home of his girlfriend’s parents, to the abject fear and isolation POC are subject to when an everyday situation turns on a dime and becomes threatening.  What Get Out posits, correctly, is that to be a minority in these United States is always already to exist in a state of wariness and justifiable fear for your life — no Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers needed.

The movie opens with a young black man, André (the always stellar Lakeith Stanfield) walking down a quiet, leafy suburban street at night. The twinkly streetlights, the well-maintained single family homes, the hush of a residential street at rest — all of this is meant to convey an atmosphere of security and safety. But for whom? And against what? As the camera follows a confused André down one street and then another, we hear him on the phone, bemoaning the confusing way these planned suburban enclaves will have an Edgewood Lane two blocks from an Edgewood Parkway. It’s a funny line, but there’s something important going on in that moment that will become important to our understanding of the rest of the movie. Because of course, there’s something more than a startling lack of originality at play when suburban developers and property buyers insist upon homogeneity and a sense of a pseudo-pastoral escape from “the city.” Consider: this also has the effect of easily separating out those who don’t belong. It’s like a code that one must learn.

As I write this review, it has been five years since the horrific and cold-blooded murder of Trayvon Martin. When a car ominously pulls up alongside André and stops, we — people of color and horror fans — collectively hold our breath because we recognize the signal for danger. But for white audiences, that frisson is the delicious fear of the unknown. For POC, it’s precisely the opposite — the threat we see is all too well-known. It’s for that reason that Andre’s abrupt turnaround with a “No. Not today. You know how they be doing motherfuckers out here!” is so satisfying.

There are dissertations to be written about the ways that horror cinema functions differently in communities of color: after all, what does it mean to chase the visceral thrill of terror projected onto an external victim when the very real threat of bodily harm is a specter of your own day-to-day existence? Put another way: the critical consensus is that, among other things, the horror genre is consumed with an irruption in the social order and then a restoration of that order. At the end of Get Out, the true threat — white supremacy — has not been vanquished, and the only salvation possible for our hero is that mercifully provided by another person of color.

I’d be willing to bet that the title of Get Out is at least partially a shoutout to a famous bit by Eddie Murphy, who expertly delineated the differences between a hypothetical horror film starring a black and a white family:

 

Director Peele has talked in interviews about how he deliberately set out to make a horror movie that would be satisfying to black viewers, precisely because of this disconnect between how predominantly black audiences and predominantly white audiences react and “talk back” to danger. The audience’s mouthpiece — and the film’s comic relief par excellence — is TSA Rod, Chris’ friend and literal lifeline. It is Rod who articulates the fears of a black community going into all-white spaces. It is Rod’s conspiracy theories that turn out to not be so ludicrous (“some Eyes Wide Shut shit”); and it is Rod whose pragmatism ultimately saves the day. Remember that earlier in the film, after Chris and Rose hit a deer in their car and are talking to a police officer who demands to see Chris’ ID, Rose’s well-intentioned but clueless attempts to “stand up for her man” escalate an already tense situation. As a visibly middle-class young white woman, the fallout from this conflict is unlikely to rebound upon her — why should it? This is the same person who never bothered to tell her family that her boyfriend is black; because her father “would have voted for Obama three times if he could have.”

 

get-out-enderGet Out masterfully skewers this kind of oblivious, feel-good liberalism (Bradley Whitford, as Rose’s father, is an absolute joy to watch as he points out all the “souvenirs” from other cultures that he has amassed on his travels) while also allowing black audiences the opportunity to laugh through the paranoia that many of us have had to adopt as a necessary precondition of living in this country. It would be impossible to list all of the ways Peele subverts common horror tropes in this film to suggest that the film’s Big Bad is something so much bigger and more virulent than just the Stepford community Chris falls prey to. It is this suggestion, this recognition, that is behind the critiques of Get Out as an “anti-white” film. The brutal equation of anti-white supremacy with anti-whiteness is a rhetorical sleight of hand that would deny the truth that the lives of the Chrises, Andrés, and Trayvons of this country are in danger. It would deny the culpability of white supremacy in maintaining a culture of fear in communities of color that has nothing to do with axe murderers but everything to do with vigilantes with guns or criminals with badges.

*ask any POC about watching a movie next to some white folks who are laughing way too loud and long at scenes where brown bodies get brutalized

** Tell me Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris doesn’t look just like “Buuuuuuuud” from The Cosby Show. Come on.
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