It’s dark. You’re walking down a sidewalk in a quiet suburban neighborhood, the kind with trimmed shrubs, bay windows and manicured front lawns. People from Norman Rockwell paintings live here, but not you. You’re a visitor. A white Porsche Boxster with tinted windows starts following you. When you stop, it stops. You sweat, you move faster, but you don’t run. Why don’t you run? Maybe if you’d been born fifty years earlier, your instincts would be better, but by the time you remember, it’s too late, the driver’s side is open, but the driver isn’t there, he’s right behind you, BAM—
I saw “Get Out” on the fifth anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s killing, and in the opening scene of the film where Andre gets kidnapped by a neighborhood vigilante in a car, the film takes us back to that time. George Zimmerman’s reasoning for calling 911 on a 17-year-old black boy, tailing him in his car, then fatally shooting him, was that Martin was “just staring…just walking around the area…looking at all the houses.” Under racism’s illogic, a black boy walking back to his own home is “not a citizen of a democracy, but the subject of a carceral state,” as Justice Sotomayor warned, made guilty by his very existence.
Next time we see Andre, who is played by LaKeith Stanfield, he is worse than dead.
We learn that his mind has been trapped into the Sunken Place, while some Crazy von Cracker has taken over his body. He’s worse than dead, because even though his body has been hijacked, some part of Andre’s mind is still aware of what he’s lost. In the movie, the Sunken Place is depicted as a black hole that the victim is endlessly falling through. As you’re falling, you’ll see an open door where reality plays out in front of your mind’s eye. Maddeningly, as a victim to the Sunken Place, your escape is always within sight, but never within reach.
W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of double-consciousness, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” is taken to terrifying extremes in the movie. DuBois was talking about how racism wears on a black person’s psyche, the need to always present a false mask to a white world that does not see them as human. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar describes this survival mechanism in his poem “We Wear the Mask”:
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
In “Get Out,” the villains have built a mask that its victims can never take off. But the monsters who would build this psychological horror are not outliers of society; they’re your neighbors.
The Armitages are a liberal family who would’ve voted for Obama for a third term. They’re not wearing white hoods but they’re still white supremacists who are buying and selling black bodies as their property. They do this by transplanting the minds of their white friends into the bodies of black people like Andre, who they capture.
The movie follows their latest target. Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams, has invited her new boyfriend, the film’s protagonist Chris, who is portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya, to meet her parents at their house. She said she hasn’t told them that Chris is black. That makes Chris nervous, but not nervous enough to run. Chris’ friend Rod, who is played wonderfully by Lil Rel Howery, is the audience’s surrogate and he isn’t buying it: “White people love making people sex slaves and shit!” he warns in one of his scenes of welcome comic relief.
Rod is right. When the Armitage patriarch greets Chris, as “my man,” it’s not a clumsy attempt at brotherly slang, it’s a possessive foreshadowing of the body-swap horrors to come.
More creepy than a monster wanting to kill you is a monster who wants to own you. That kind of trauma is neverending. “I want your eyes, man,” Jim, the blind artist who wins the bid to “buy” Chris and take over his body tells him. He denies that he’s doing this because Chris is black, he just wants “those things you see through.”
This is colorblind hypocrisy taken to another level. Jim wants the cultural capital of being black without any of the work of being black: ‘I want those things you see through, all your sensibilities, your sexual prowess, your strength, your cool, everything but you.’
Unlike every other black character trapped in the Sunken Place, Georgina, the Armitage’s “housekeeper,” breaks through the hypnosis without needing the external trigger of a camera flash. I keep thinking about this small breakthrough, wanting a whole story just on Georgina, the one black woman in the film trapped in the Sunken Plane, whose grief and terror was big enough to be seen on its own. It’s the movie’s best scene.
This breakthrough happens when Chris tells Georgina privately, one black person to another, “If there’s too many white people I get nervous.” Hearing this admission, Georgina goes rictus-still. She smiles so wide it splits her face in two. And yet as Claudia Rankine reminds us, “the body has memory…[t]he body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness—all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through.” However much you school your face, it won’t erase the toll of the moments and years endured.
Tears slip through the mask of gentility. Even as she’s smiling, Georgina begins to cry.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” Georgina says in defense of the white family she serves and each no is an exhortation, a plea, a lie, a demand, a cry from deep within. “They treat us like family.”
Georgina, split in two, leaves Chris alone after that moment. After Georgina leaves, Chris tells himself and the audience “that bitch is crazy!” and it’s played for laughs, but those tears are the last real sympathy and solidarity Chris will be shown in that house until the end of the film.
Later, after Chris finds the box where Rose keeps photos of her previous conquests, we see the first and only look of the original Georgina. In the photo, Rose is entwined around the original Georgina, and their smiling faces are close enough to be lovers. There’s no 1950’s hairdo and no apron of servility. This is a Georgina who had her whole life ahead of her.
The horrors black women face in “Get Out” are never seen on screen. How did Rose lure Georgina into her haunted house? Did she tell Georgina the lie she told Chris, that Georgina was her first black lover? When Georgina’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” moment arrived, was she also asked to maddeningly represent her whole race: “Do you find that being African American has more advantages or disadvantages in the modern world?” At what point did Georgina know, did she try to fight back, and who, if anyone, is looking for her missing body?
These are the questions writer-director Jordan Peele never answers, and what some critics rightfully point out are disappointing erasures. The film makes the case that inaction is just as much a betrayal as what you do. But Peele gets implicated too in his inaction to center certain stories over others.
When Georgina is later killed, it’s graphic and bloody. She had the soul of a murderous white grandmother, so it’s gratifying to see her die, but it’s also a moment of loss. Because when Missy Armitage, the controller of the Sunken Place, is killed, the camera pans away:
“the intentional framing and editing choices Peele makes to conceal and work around the explicit deaths of Missy and Rose show that white women are still valued as fragile and occupy a unique cultural privilege…even in the blackest horror film of this decade.”
Besides Georgina’s tears, the next kind thing an ally will do for Chris is shake his arms and scream at him to “GET OUT!” When Chris takes a photo of Andre, the camera flash jolts Andre out of the Sunken Place. Andre’s nose bleeds as he yells at Chris to leave. But with another dose of hypnosis, Andre goes under again and is back to being “Logan.” Chris is the only person who experiences the Sunken Place to escape it with his mind intact. And the only people who help Chris out in the end are black people.
When faced with the order to kill Chris, Walter, who has been taken over by the Craziest von Cracker, uses the brief mental disruption from Chris’ camera flash to take over his own body to shoot Rose. Walter then turns the weapon on himself and chooses death, a final resting place free from masks.
The body-swap is fiction, but for Peele, the layered anxieties it represents are very real. “We’re all in the Sunken Place,” Peele said about his film, implicating us all. Junot Diaz elaborates on the two-forked devilry of racism: “white supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that, if it exists at all, it exists always in other people, never in us.”
But that fantasy is a trap. It’s why it took so long for Chris to believe that Rose could kiss him, defend him against police, and lead him to his psychological slaughter, all in the same breath.
“Rose, give me the keys!” Chris begs, even after he sees the photos that prove she was in on the plan to steal his body and mind.
“Get Out” turns a lot of horror film conventions on their head. Black men are not sacrifices, “Magical Negroes,” or bestial monsters; they’re vulnerable young men. White women are not damsels in distress, but predators. Unlike Night of the Living Dead where a black hero escapes a house of crazy white people, only to get shot by the police; in “Get Out,” a black hero finally makes it to the end of the movie.
But what’s especially unsettling about the film is what still remains the same.
The tension for the audience watching Chris attend an all-white dinner party is just as high as when he’s strapped to a chair about to undergo a lobotomy. The strongest scenes in “Get Out” draw upon the familiar, everyday indignities of racism, those off-hand comments and backhanded compliments that divide the world into us and them, turning friends and lovers into strangers: What did you say? What did you just say? You already know the answer, but you don’t run because it’s 2017 and you’re tired and you want to be proven wrong.
Racism drives its victims crazy. When it happens to you, people stare at you like you’ve lost your mind. ‘You’re being paranoid. He didn’t mean it like that.’ In “Get Out” there’s no ambiguity. He did mean it like that. It does not see the best in well-intentioned white people. That’s why I described the film to my friends as “grimly satisfying.” You’re not crazy here. The film takes all of your fears and anxieties of being The Only One in a room of white people and brings those nightmares to life.
When Chris’ friend Rod comes to save the day, he is glad to see Chris alive, but also, man, he called out white people from day one: “I told you not to go in that house.”
Further feedback I’ve enjoyed:
This roundtable: “Get the Fuck Outta Here: A Dialogue on Jordan Peele’s ‘GET OUT’”
This academic syllabus: “‘Get Out’ Syllabus”