Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a visceral viewing experience, which has made it- for me- difficult to write about. The creeping terror of the film is difficult to watch, but, as I watched, I was struck by the role scientific racism played throughout the film. Scientific racism is predicated on the belief that whiteness is evolutionarily superior to non-whiteness, and that races are genetically predisposed to have different strengths. Usually, white people are presumed to have mental acumen, while black people have physical prowess. It is opinion issued under the cover of being fact. When we think of racism, we often conjure images of vitriolic passion. But we overlook the role that dispassionate racism- under the guise of reason – plays and the harm it causes as a structure of oppression embedded in science.
Get Out is predicated on this very danger, represented by the “comfortable” white liberal, the person who tells you they voted for Obama, but still, in their marrow, believes that racial differences are scientifically preordained as hierarchical. The concept of “good” and “progressive” whiteness plays into the churning evil within the film and the distress we as viewers feel while watching. Whiteness, in the hands of the Armitage family, becomes a tool as effective and as malicious as Dean’s scalpel and Missy’s tea cup.
This post was originally going to be about the ways in which science has accommodated racist hegemony; but, as I’ve wrestled with this, it has become much more about how science is used to accommodate racism, and by whom. A conversation about deeds- about phrenology, about syphilis, about the theft of HELA cells– has become a conversation about attitudes ranging from Social Darwinism to The Bell Curve to “other people’s babies”.
As all racism does, scientific racism involves a certain level of obsession with blackness. In a letter, Jean Louis Agassiz, who is seen as the father of scientific racism, once described a dinner party he attended where he was captivated by the black servers:
“It is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us… I could not take my eyes off their faces in order to tell them to stay far away.”
Blackness is abject, both attracting and repulsing Agassiz, as it also does for Dean (Bradley Whitford) in Get Out. Fairly early on, Dean laments to Chris, “I hate the way it looks.” While Chris understands this to be about a white family with black employees, Dean’s statement can also be understood as his distaste for the aesthetics of the Coagula. To thrive, his family members must exist in black bodies, and he hates it. In order to hold onto father’s legacy (whiteness), Dean must cling to blackness.
The idea of the Armitages prolonging their lives is so curious to me, because so much of their lives is spent obsessing over blackness, plotting and scheming. We could perhaps posit that they won’t really start living until they are black. (To this point, I wish we could have seen someone who had gone through the Coagula out in the larger world, experiencing life as a black person.)
As a result of this abjection, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is left existing in two bodies: his body as he experiences it, and a body based on how the white characters in the film perceive him. Even when he is desired, he is desired in pieces. His eyes, his body, but never his mind. His interiority is erased. The Armitages and their friends are allowed to hide in their whiteness, while Chris stands out in his blackness. To his credit, Chris is always watching, unflinchingly, as he is sized up by everyone at the gathering; he is not simply viewed, he is also viewer. As demonstrated in real life tragedies like the death of Emmitt Till, the act of simply looking while black is dangerous because it subverts white supremacist frameworks.
Here, I want to focus, for a moment, on the film’s deer imagery. Chris’s experience with the Armitage family is bracketed by them. One is killed by Rose’s (Allison Williams) car on their way to the family house, while the second is a severed head Chris uses to kill Dean. A minute into meeting Chris, Dean goes on a diatribe about the deer: “I do not like the deer, I’m sick of it. They’re taking over, they’re like rats, destroying the ecosystem. I see a dead deer on the side of the highway, I think to myself ‘That’s a start.’” What is a fairly common gripe among rural homeowners becomes something more sinister as it becomes clear that Chris is conflated with the deer. He is about to be knocked off course by a vehicle controlled by Rose, he is about to become the trophy head. As Chris helplessly stares, tied to a chair in the Armitage basement, towards the television positioned in front of him, the deer impassively stares back. Chris is reflected in its eyes. If the Armitages get their way, Chris would, like the deer, be used up piecemeal. He too would stare impassively back, watching another co-opt his gaze.
Through their actions, the Armitage family upholds an oppressive system that directly benefits them. Chris’s rapt presence, his watchful eye, begins to unravel their system.
An example of this would be when he tries to take a covert photo of Logan (Lakeith Stanfield) during the party. Logan, momentarily freed from his inner sunken place, lunges at him, wild-eyed, shouting at him to “Get out!” over and over until he is dragged away to be re-hypnotized. In that moment, every party guest sees the potential cracks in their system. They are reminded that their new homes are never fully theirs. They, like Chris at certain points, are stuck as spectators, watching events roll out around them outside of their control. When Logan returns to apologize, his presence really acts to reassure everyone that their system has stabilized. Missy (Catherine Keener) tells him “We’re just very happy that you’re yourself again” to which he replies “Yes, I am. And I thank God for you calming me down. I know I must have frightened you all quite a bit.” The guests can then leave with the false sense that their system will persevere. But Chris, by watching and waiting and fighting for his life, is able to fully dismantle the system with his own two hands.
Cayla McNally is a Philadelphia-based non-profit drone examining the intersection of academia, social justice, and pop culture. She is particularly interested in Afrofuturism, cyborgs, contamination, and monstrosity. You can find her here: https://twitter.com/caylamonster; https://www.instagram.com/cayla_monster