Posted on March 6, 2017

Get Out and White Privilege

Elizabeth Erwin


I never intended to write about Get Out, Jordan Peele’s whip smart takedown of institutional racism packaged up in one of the best horror films of recent memory. While empathy building in horror isn’t all that new, Get Out approaches its subject matter in such a wildly innovative way that I initially left the theatre thinking that this is what audiences must have felt like after seeing Hitchcock’s Psycho for the first time. For someone who sees as many horror films as I do, the feeling was special and I just wanted to savor it instead of immediately dissecting the film. But then I started reading articles about how some viewers found the film anti-white and the absurdity of it all inspired me to write about experiencing the film through the lens of white privilege. Because if you don’t appreciate the way that privilege plays into how you view this film, you’re missing the entire point.

For those unfamiliar (and seriously you need to head to a movie theatre immediately), Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams), an interracial couple, convene to Rose’s parents house for a weekend. What follows is one of the most innovative forays into horror committed to film. There is a distinct narrative break in the way that Get Out tackles its social commentary than in the way horror has traditionally handled such explorations. Most films tend to either code its social commentary within horror tropes (Night of the Living Dead, American Psycho), an anthology format (Tales from the Hood) or to play uncomfortable moments for comedy (Tucker & Dale vs. Evil). Get Out falls back on none of those devices and instead, presents its satire aggressively and unapologetically. And the approach works. Instead of making the audience comfortable by putting a bit of distance between the commentary and them, the film doubles down and forces the audience to consider our own behavior and assumptions contribute to institutional racism.

In her excellent review of the film, Vox writer Alissa Wilkinson notes that the films Peele curated for the Brooklyn Academy of Music to coincide with his film’s release “draw on a very particular terror: the feeling of having your personal space or your own body invaded by some other consciousness, usually one with malicious intent.” And while I agree that shades of the films Peele selected- most notably Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby and Silence of the Lambs-are absolutely present in Get Out, I actually think the reason the film works so well as a discourse on institutional racism is because it does exactly what I Spit on Your Grave did for gender politics. It forces the audience, many of who will share an identity with that of the victimizers, to confront their own privilege.

Much like Matthew, Andy and Johnny‘s rape of Jennifer, Missy infiltrates Chris’ body without his consent. And while Jennifer’s torture is more outwardly physical than is Chris’ abuse, both result in the victim being traumatized and ultimately dehumanized by their assailants. In both cases, this trauma forces audience identification with the victim and, while this identification doesn’t bypass privilege; it does work to build empathy.

While there exists no concrete data that tracks the evolving demographics of horror fans over the decades, there does exist research from which we can draw some important conclusions. In the 1970s, the majority of horror filmgoers were male and so the audience that went to see I Spit on Your Grave was comprised of viewers, whose privilege would, at least initially, align them with the perpetrators of the violence. Scenes such as Jennifer’s palpable fear at being approached unexpectedly by three men reads differently to women than it does to men because it is about power and, particularly in the 1970s, who held the power culturally was very much dependent upon sex.

Similarly, MPAA theatrical market statistics for 2015 show that the majority of frequent filmgoers are white which suggests that at least a sizable portion of Get Out’s audience will have the same privilege as that of the film’s victimizers. Why does that matter? Because to understand just how brilliantly challenging is Get Out’s exploration of racism, you must first acknowledge that this film will be read by the audience on two levels: those with the lived experience of racism and those without.

Consider the opening scene in which a black man wanders through a suburban neighborhood as he attempts to get his bearings. At first, the scene, with its dread inducing quiet and expansive framing, reads like a typical horror film establishing shot. But as soon as the character invokes Trayvon Martin in a phone conversation with his friend, the subtext shifts radically. While everyone in the audience will understand the reference, what that moment does in terms of increasing the dread of the situation depends largely upon whether you have the lived experience of racism. Understanding intellectually the danger faced by an unarmed black man in a suburban neighborhood is very different from knowing the feeling of danger posed and to equate the two does a tremendous disservice to the complexity of Peele’s narrative.

That the film forces its white audience to confront our own culpability in how systematic racism operates is one of its more brilliant moves. Horror, and really film in general, likes to depict racism as endemic largely to the South and the uneducated. And so Peele’s decision to situate the expressed racism of the film within a wealthy, politically self-defined, liberal household is more radical than it first appears. Within this context, Peele is able to explore how microaggressions, perhaps even more than outward hostility, perpetuate a culture of racism. Consider the film’s sequence in which Chris is continually asked offensive questions based upon stereotypes associated with Black maleness. In each of the theatre screenings I attended, the largely white audience would laugh uncomfortably because those moments are so identifiable. These microaggressions exist and the audience, no matter their experience with racism, knows it.

But if there is one moment in the film that christilizes white privilege, it is the moment in the film’s denouemnet when a cop car rolls up to where Chris has just almost killed his girlfriend, Rose, the one who entrapped him in the film’s house of horrors. Because Peele smartly sets up a scene at the beginning of the film in which a white police officer demands without cause that Chris hand over his license, the audience is already predisposed to reflect on the unfair treatment black men are often subjected to by the cops. Consequently, the arrival of the cop car to the crime scene serves as perhaps the scariest moment in the film because we simply don’t know if the operator of the vehicle is friend or foe.

An obvious offshoot of white privilege is that the sight of police car will not automatically convey fear to a white audience who lacks the bone deep understanding of how racism operates in our culture. And this is why the cop car scene at the end of the film is such a brilliant moment. While the audience may be divided as to what the cop car represents on a personal level, everyone understands that to Chris this car could just as easily be a threat as it could be a means of escape. We realize that the visual of an alive, black, male body surrounded by an almost dead white, female body is dangerous because we’ve spent the entire film watching racism play out in both coded and explicit ways. It situates the audience so utterly and completely into Chris’ headspace that for a moment, every single audience member understands what it is to fear an approaching cop car.

Does that mean that all audience members who have white privilege now understand what it’s like to experience racism in this country? Absolutely not. Not even a little. But what it does mean is that for a few minutes, Get Out is able to hold up a mirror to privilege in a challenging way that is almost unprecedented within the genre.

Thanks to the nuanced performance by Kaluuya and the deft directorial style of Peele, the audience identifies with Chris throughout the film. The cinematic image of a black male physically fighting back against his white victimizers is vitally important not only for how it challenges the genre’s depiction of black, male bodies but also because it provides a necessary catharsis for the audience. The troubling history in horror of black characters, especially men, meeting an early demise is so prevalent that it is an acknowledge trope of the genre; one that has been routinely mocked in films such as Cabin in the Woods, Scream 2 and Scary Movie. But Get Out shatters that trope so completely that any film that attempts to incorporate it going forward will feel tired and reductive. And that means everything.

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