by: Martha Sonnenberg on April 4th, 2017 | 1 Comment »
James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in a Village” was written more than sixty years ago. In that essay he described his feelings of extreme alienation as the only black person in the all-white Swiss village home of his white lover, but the essay really spoke to his feelings about being black in America. He wrote, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The essay is an uncanny precedent to the new film “Get Out”, written and directed Jordan Peele, and described as a “social thriller.” Having just seen the documentary “I am Not Your Negro” about James Baldwin’s exploration of the civil rights martyrs and his incisive perceptions of America’s pervasive façade about race, I had Baldwin on my mind when I saw “Get Out”, almost as if he was sitting next to me as I watched the film. This film is brilliant and challenging—to see its horror genre as diminishing is to miss the whole point of the film.
The film’s tone is set by a pre-credit segment showing a young black man walking alone down the streets of white suburbia, joking with a friend on his phone, that the street names all sound alike and how could you not get lost here. A car passes, ominously, and then turns to follow him. What ensues is a scene that only brings to mind the Trayvon Martin tragedy. And so the stage is set.
The film tells the story of a young black man, Chris, a photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) going with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) for a weekend visit to her wealthy suburban parents. Chris is wary that Rose has not told her parents that he is black; she dismisses his concern, assuring him that her parents are so cool her dad would have voted for Obama for a third term. And from the moment Chris and Rose arrive at the family estate, replete with a black groundskeeper and housekeeper who behave eerily, like pods from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Chris and the audience get the unsettling feeling that something is just not right. Rose’s father is a neurosurgeon (Bradley Whitford) and mother a psychiatrist/hypnotist (Catherine Keener)—a power couple to mess with your head if ever there was one, their unctuous graciousness oozing something intangibly sinister.
Chris wants to believe that all is well, even though his best friend, Rod (a wonderful Lil Rel Howery) has warned him not to go, much as the voice of Black Lives Matter has spoken uncomfortable truths to establishment whites and blacks. So initially Chris makes excuses and minimizes odd behaviors. “Not a big deal” and “It’s all good”, he tells Rose. But his self-doubt plagues him: Is something really wrong or is he just imagining things? Is he being paranoid? Indeed, this alienated feeling is familiar, because most of us as blacks, as women, as Jews, as Muslims, as lesbians, gays, transgenders, have felt it when we are in the midst of dominant culture. Was that really a slight, or am I too sensitive? As the weekend progresses, however, Chris emerges from his anxious unsettled sense and begins to see the true, yet unbelievable horror lurking behind the too perfect exterior. That horror is (without giving away spoilers) an exploration of the racism that inhabits the white liberal establishment, and gives the lie to the “post-racism” of the Obama years. It has been there all along, in the killing of black men, in the biases of the legal system, in the expropriation and cooptation of black culture, in the legacy of slavery that lies just beneath the surface. While we may have preferred to believe we were not defined by those violences, the Trump era has unmasked the menace that was hidden, that we didn’t really want to see or admit. Baldwin’s “monster” has been revealed.
“Get Out” has turned “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” on its head, and stands as an incisive critique of white liberalism, revealing that its empathy goes only as far as white control of the system will allow. Beyond that limit white liberalism is shown to be as tainted by racism as overt white supremacism. In an interview for the New York Times, Peele says, “The liberal elite who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else. This movie is about the lack of acknowledgment that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious that extreme racism exists. But there are still a lot of people who think: We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies. We have to face the racism in ourselves.”
This is a clever and imaginative film that keeps the audience on edge from beginning to end. In the tradition of great horror films, it conveys a social critique without being pedantic or preachy. In 1968, just after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, “Night of the Living Dead” came out, showing a black man tormented by a mob of white zombies before being killed by the police. Horror fans will recognize influences of that film in “Get Out”, and references to other films, notably “Stepford Wives”, “The Shining” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” “We make up horrors” writes Stephen King, “to help us cope with the real ones.” To the extent that we are all trapped, albeit in different ways, within the nightmare of racism, this film offers another opportunity for the often painful self-reflection that will be necessary if ever we are to “get out” of the nightmare.