Film Thoughts: Get Out and the horror of the ideal slave

*WARNING*: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR JORDAN PEELE’S NEW FILM, Get Out.  I highly suggest seeing it before you read on.

Okay, so you’ve been warned.  Welcome to the twilight zone, motherf*ckers.

Let’s begin: Get Out takes the horror genre and spins it on its head with a good dose of comedic timing, a seemingly innocuous suburban neighborhood, and, oh yeah, a nice dose of racial commentary.  The story follows Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) , an African American photographer, and Rose (played by Allison Williams), his white girlfriend, going to meet her family.  He’s nervous, he admits, because Rose hasn’t warned them that he’s black.  She quips that her dad is just going to talk about Obama.  It’s harmless.

But trouble besets them from the beginning.  A deer smashes into their car as they are on the way, and Rose steps up to prevent a cop from demanding Chris’ ID, even though he wasn’t the one driving.  When Rose and Chris get to the house, they find out that Rose’s parents are throwing a neighborhood party the next day.  Between dinner with the family, and conversations with the all-white neighbors, we’re treated to an onslaught of the most cringe-worthy micro-aggressions possibly ever committed to film.

“What’s your sport?” father Dean asks.

“Is it really better?” a neighbor asks with a wink as she squeezes Chris’ arm.

And that’s where I want to pause it.  On one level we’re cringing at the sexual innuendo, but it’s right there, in this moment, we go beyond awkward and blatant stereotypes and this random white woman invades Chris’ personal space and squeezes his muscles.  This not the first time in the film where Chris’ bodily autonomy is disrespected (a few scenes earlier, Rose’s brother attempts to put Chris into a headlock after talking to him about wrestling), but this is the one that registered immediately with me.  What this woman is doing is examining him.  Inspecting him.

You will see this scene in any movie about slavery ever.  The enslaved are led out, placed around a pen, a room, and white folks come up and open their mouths, slap their muscles, determine their strength and their fitness in order to determine their interest in purchase.  Here, Peele doesn’t make it obvious, but he’s not exactly subtle either.  A game of bingo is actually a bid for his body.

Now there’s a lot to be said about the fact that even the white people we’re led to trust turn out to be beneficiaries and supporters of this system, and about the ending when the cop car pulls up on the road where Chris is the only one still standing, and above a bleeding white girl no less.  I’ll come back to that in another post.  Right now, I want to talk about the fact that the crux of this horror movie is a form of neo-slavery imposed on kidnapped, duped African-Americans by a seemingly liberal enough community of white people.  It’s brilliant.

A few scenes after Rose and Chris arrive at her parent’s house, Rose’s father takes Chris into the backyard.  As promised, there’s mention of Obama, then Dean continues, “I know what you’re thinking… A white family with black servants?”  It is, of course, and Dean’s frankness about it almost makes it forgivable if it weren’t so damn in-your-face.  He explains that Georgina and Walter were hired to take care of Rose’s aging grandparents and that Dean didn’t have the heart to fire them after the grandparents died.  “They’re part of the family,” he says.

The echoes of slavery are here, in these odd, almost banal moments.  You could take what Dean says at face value, but it reeks of the paternalistic rhetoric that Southern slaveholders dispensed at every turn.  White masters were viewed as the fathers of their estates and as caretakers of the poor, inferior slaves.  They were part of the family – sometimes literally, given the high rate of sexual assault on female slaves – but that didn’t stop these ‘father figures’ from whipping and torturing their workers.  Paternalism was a way to justify the holding of slaves, but rarely extended any further in practice.

And then there’s the behavior of Georgina and Walter themselves.  In the 1800s, white thinkers theorized that blacks were biologically  predisposed to servitude.  Theoretically, because slaves were fulfilling their purpose in life, their disposition was supposed to be sunny and constantly blithe.  Not only did this help white people to feel less monstrous for the fact their lives were built on violence, but in addition, any sign of discontent could be the precursor of resistance.  The perfect slave would be unquestionably obedient and unthinkingly cheerful about it.

Slaves were people though and people even in the most soul breaking of conditions are variable individuals.  Their cheerfulness was forced for the benefit of their survival, their obedience for the safeguarding of their bodies from additional violence.  And while many slaves did not escape, they exercised small acts of resistance to create enough psychic space to survive.  They might skip work for a few days, drag their feet, act sullenly, sing, perform their own religious ceremonies with their own interpretations of Christianity and folk religions.  I promise I’m getting back to the movie, so just follow me here: despite the constant and relentless dehumanization of enslaved African Americans,  the enslaved never turned into objects fromy people, meaning the ideal slave could not exist without omnipresent violence.

Georgina and Walter embody content and obedience.  Peele’s horrific reveal is why: hypnosis and surgery succeed where Southern slavery did not, eliminating independent black consciousness  (the Sunken Place) and making the bodies of black people literally the objects of white owners through brain transplants.  Every 1800s planter’s dream.  No need for a whip, just a teacup.  This is one of the things I found most disturbing about Get Out.  It’s deeply  unnerving to watch the total and complete dehumanization of a person for another’s use.  Peele reminds use that slavery was not so long ago, that these ‘historical’ tensions are eerily recognizable, and that those ‘ideals’ are not so far away from the surveillance and stereotypical expectactions American society puts onto black bodies today.

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