A conversation about racism took place after a screening for Jordan Peele’s Get Out. For a small group of viewers, the absence of the n-word meant that the Armitage family couldn’t be accused of racism despite systematically removing agency from African-Americans. “The blind guy (Stephen Root) was right. I mean, it was messed up, but they weren’t really racist.” Silence lingered as that thought passed. After witnessing the same exact picture as I did, their thoughts washed over Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) situation to focus on their own projected guilt onscreen. Odd, considering that Peele made GET OUT as a statement about the lack of empathy Black characters receive in the horror genre.
Movies are the most effective tool for empathy available. Even if audiences don’t recognize themselves in the characters onscreen, they should relate to the emotions expressed. That some audience members can’t even get into Chris’s head is less of a statement on the character and more revealing of a lack of empathy. The prospect of visiting a significant other’s family for the first is daunting at best. The unease is especially pronounced when the person in question is Black, and his girlfriend is from an upper-crust of the opposite race. That Jordan Peele inverts the standard set-up of a lone person feeling preyed upon in an unfamiliar surrounding by placing Kaluuya in a yuppie neighborhood shouldn’t make it less effective.
Brought up on race relations films where the villains openly use slurs to convey their true nature, this audience was knocked for a loop by Get Out. Telling stories involving race in the past-tense makes for comfortable white viewers; Jordan Peele’s film complicates that dynamic by setting it present-day. As soon as Rose (Allison Williams) is pulled over after their car accident, the mood changes. Rose can afford to be confrontational with a police officer without fear of violence; Chris cannot. That it turns out, Rose, the woman who came to Chris’s defense, is so obsessed with racial purity that she can’t even mix cereal with her milk is part of the point of Get Out. Those who claim to be allies are also guilty of the same transgressions as racists. Missy and Dean Armitage (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are not drawn broadly as vicious slave owners in Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, though their malfeasance is just as pronounced.
In an interview with The Ringer, Peele anticipated the backlash to Get Out. “Barack Obama was just a total game changer, a culture shifter, an eye-opener. But I think what we found shortly after he got elected was this sort of self-congratulatory thing: ‘OK, we’ve cured racism.’ And many of us know that that just wasn’t the case.” Judging from the conversation of seemingly well-meaning white people arguing whether GET OUT was about racism, some think it really is over. Viewers pat themselves on the back when they watch a period piece and think, “Wow, that was an awful time in our history,” but that awful time isn’t really over. There may not be shackles, but denying a person their thoughts and feelings is just another cruel form of debasement. The Sunken Place leaves those trapped; watching their bodies move, but having no say in the process. To say putting people of color in that state isn’t racist is disingenuous at the very least.
The very act of lobotomizing Chris to enjoy his gifts without his intellectual input is eerily reminiscent of the treatment of Black actors, musicians, and athletes. Yet, all too often, athletes and artists are asked to remain silent and just play. This group debating whether the Armitages are racist is likely the same people who don’t bat an eye when Beyonce is dragged across the coals for her political statements. “Well, why couldn’t she just sing?” they ask. But this pales in comparison to the treatment of NFL player, Colin Kaepernick.
Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, as of the time this article has been written, is still unsigned by any NFL team. Fans were more than willing to cheer his praises when he was winnings games and leading his team to the Super Bowl, but after a season of silent protests, his name is mud. One unnamed executive even went as far as to compare him to Rae Carruth, a former player who murdered a pregnant woman. Handling divisive commentary has never been the NFL’s forte, but the reaction to Kaepernick’s silent protest exploded across all media platforms. With too many videos ended in his jerseys being burned for comfort. Hell, he even received blame for the NFL’s sagging ratings last season.
NFL fans say that the counter-protests against Kaepernick do not have anything to do with color, just patriotism, but the numbers reach a different conclusion. While a Quinnipiac University Poll from 2016 found that 54 percent of Americans say they disapprove of these silent protests, that doesn’t explain the racial divide that exists inside the survey. Upon further inspection, 74 percent of African-Americans approve, while 63 percent of whites remain opposed.” Rather than engaging in why there is such a gap between those supporting Kaepernick and those opposed to his methods, NFL fans and the talking heads of ESPN asked him to shut up. The conversation Kaepernick hoped to start about police brutality never materialized in a substantial way.
Which begs the question: Why can’t we empathize instead of resorting to posturing? If these viewers can’t relate to a character they just spent two hours with, how can they see from the vantage point of a complete stranger like Colin Kaepernick? And this is why Jordan Peele made his film: for as many open racists as there are, there are more who would suggest that racism doesn’t exist. These moviegoers refuse to talk about race in hopes that we’ll just be done with it, but that is not the case. Otherwise, why would Kaepernick still be a free agent just for having the audacity to speak his mind. It’s more than a little amusing that viewers arguing whether racism is present in Get Out are unaware that they are likely targets of the film’s laser-focused satire. They pat themselves on the back for watching it and still don’t realize that the film is referring to them.
None of that takes away from Peele’s victory in getting Get Out made and watching it become a success. By ignoring the convention of horror films and the choices made by directors before him, Peele gave Chris the opportunity to keep his humanity and live to fight another day. Such a moment is rare in a genre based on dashed hopes for characters like Chris. As Peele notes in the Get Out director’s commentary, “The sunken place is a metaphor for the marginalization of the black horror movie audience. We are a loyal horror movie fan base, and we’re relegated to the theater, not on the screen.”
If the success of Get Out means anything, hopefully, it’s that that seeing more characters like Chris and Rod (Lil Rel Howery) onscreen will allow audiences to get into their head space. Then they can bring those conversations we’re reluctant to have into our homes, where they can affect real change. Certainly, the crowd watching Get Out proved that the social commentary offered by Jordan Peele is pushing buttons that shouldn’t exist in 2017.