I had originally planned something much different for this month. With the continued threats to Obamacare, I thought of looking at some movies about the rise of AIDS in the 80’s and the atrocious apathy the Reagan administration showed towards the crisis, something along the lines of Angels in America. There are also a couple of really excellent recent documentaries out about climate change (no, not the one you’re thinking of), which will not cease to be a critical issue anytime soon. And after doing Selma and 13th so close to another, I wanted to briefly move away from racial issues for at least a little while.
However, while the other movies I considered will all eventually have their time of day in this column, sometimes events overtake the best-laid plans, and must be faced accordingly. After the terrible events of Charlottesville, including the murder of Heather Heyer and the absolutely revolting spectacle of a sitting US President playing the “many sides” game, this is one such time. As such, in this month’s installment of Films for the Trump Years, I am featuring Get Out, Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut and (so far) one of the year’s best films.
There’s a particular reason I chose to go with Get Out over other, seemingly more obvious choices when selecting a movie that tackles race; watching it is actually a hard, challenging experience for modern, white audiences. Historical dramas like 12 Years A Slave or Hidden Figures, while culturally essential, are easy picks because they depict specific and particularly grievous examples of racism in the past. The resulting space of time enables the modern viewer to form a sense of distance between oneself and what they are witnessing; “Yeah, that’s so awful, but thankfully it’s in the past, so I have nothing to do with it.”
The exact same problem of easy separation applies to non-historical movies dealing with white nationalism/supremacism in its most direct and explicit forms, ala American History X or Green Room. Here again, it’s easy for 99% of white people to put such overt ignorance and violent hatred at arm’s length, scoring (in their own minds, at least) easy brownie points for saying that what the characters spew is clearly all wrong, and they certainly aren’t like that; they know what’s in their hearts.
Get Out is different. Get Out doesn’t allow its white viewers to form such a distance, which makes it all the harder- and thus, more necessary- to experience.
In case you haven’t yet heard of it, Get Out is a horror movie about a black man about to meet his white girlfriend’s parents and their neighbors for the very first time, and feeling nervous about how things will go down. While his more normal worries prove entirely correct over the course of the super-awkward garden party the parents throw the day after they arrive, it soon becomes clear something far more sinister is going on. He can’t tell what it is at first, but once he finally does start to put the pieces together, he realizes he may already be too late.
Its qualities as a horror film aside, what makes Get Out so different (and important) in how it tackles race is where Peele chose to set the story; right smack-dab in the middle of upper-class, secular, “progressive” white suburbia. No Deliverance-esque country backwater. No super-conservative Christian community. The white folks aren’t the Ed Norton gang from American History X. No swastikas or Confederate symbols are to be seen. They’re well-educated, well-to-do people proud to declare their love of Obama, Jesse Owens, and Louis Armstrong, and readily assure the main character how much they respect “his” people and culture. And yet they, too, objectify the black body according to their own prejudices and biases, in ways ranging from the benignly silly to the actively destructive (how, exactly, I wouldn’t spoil for the life of me).
This simple fact is the key to the brilliance of Get Out as a piece of racial commentary, making it especially poignant and powerful in the wake of tragic events like Charlottesville. The hatefulness and ugliness of white supremacist ideologies, and the forms of terrorism they encourage, must be called out, refuted, and denied the space to harm others as much as possible. This is not to be debated, discussed, or watered down with morally bankrupt phrases like “both sides.”
But that alone is not enough, because in the end, the perpetuation of racial inequality in all its forms does not happen because “all” or “most” white people explicitly buy into such ideas. It happens through the inability of self-professed “good,” or “woke,” or “enlightened,” or “progressive” whites to do the hard work of grappling with the huge racial legacy their very lives and cultural identities are built upon, of looking at themselves in the mirror and coming to terms with the ways in which they are every bit as complicit as the KKK in allowing and enabling the continuance of America’s political, economic, social, and cultural divides between whites and everyone else.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Get Out deliberately sharpens its blades to a razor edge before aiming them right at the hearts of those of good will still suffering under the delusions of their shallow understanding, and then proceeding to drive them home without letup.
There are, of course, far more reasons to see Get Out movie that just for the social commentary. It is a masterfully crafted film, one of 2017’s best, filled out by a top-notch cast, impeccably shot, and is likely to become a huge game-changer within the horror genre. I especially recommend checking out these lists detailing the astoundingly careful thought that went into every detail of the film. It deserves to be seen and appreciated by all on its merits as a great film alone, and if we were living in better times, Get Out would be just that; a superb movie and nothing more.
Sadly, we aren’t living in better times, and as such Get Out is not just a great film; it also provides an essential service to our continuing collective efforts to reckon with the racial sins of our past, and how our refusal to do so continues to actively shape our present, whether or not we choose to acknowledge that fact.
Previously on Films for the Trump Years: