"Get Out" is Great for Movies, Probably Less Great for "Black America".
Jordan Peele's debut feature's going to get a lot of attention. It is getting a lot of attention. Horror Fans, comedy fans, fans of social commentary, it's got something for everybody. Even that sliver of the population that genuinely fears a "white genocide." For them, I imagine, it provides proof of what they've always believed, the ethnics are coming for them.
First off, something tells me that it would be good to establish a little background as this is the beginning of our time together, and of course, it's a racially charged picture. I'm the product of a mixed marriage. Dad's black, mom's white, every one's very American.
So there, please rescind any discomfort you had a moment ago with my satirical use of "ethnics." Second off, this movie's dope. Perhaps even Dope AF. But we'll stay with dope for now.
If you didn't catch it opening weekends head out as soon as you can, it' a blast. I skipped a showing of "Hidden Figures" to catch a sold out opening night showing where even the white girls were yelling at the screen (pardon the cliche reversal).
And yeah, sure, wasn't sure what state that put my pop-cultural black card in, but it seemed worth it. That said, if you're having reservations, good, you should be, I did too. I still am, not least of all because of it's marketing campaign.
This is just one of the promo images, and it might not even be one you've seen yet. Took me until the 2 am train ride back from the the movie to see this one flash by somewhere under midtown Manhattan, but its spirit pervades all of the marketing, and much of the film.
If you don't know by now, then I'm not entirely sure how you got here but, if you don't know by now "Get Out" is the story of a young black man's (Daniel Kaluuya) horror filled weekend at his white girlfriend's (Allison Williams) affluent white parent's upstate estate.
There's some wonderful analysis of race relation, laugh out loud satire of the subtle blind spots of racial and economic "privilege," and a disconcerting amount of black skin = black culture preconception. Which is problematic not least of all because it assumes the existence of a single, unified black culture.
Take the bill board. "Do you belong in this neighborhood?" It seems like we're to assume that if you're black the answers no. But not because you can't afford it or those aren't you're kind of people. But because, it seems you wouldn't like it. "Why would African Americans want to live in the suburbs, or visit the suburbs?" It asks.
The answer any reasonable person would give it would have to be, "why not?" But the production's assumption that black people would feel out of place in the burbs and relate to this ad, whether accurate of it's target audience or not, is likely more harmful to the public at large than it is useful to the box office receipts.
The assumption of a "black culture" as ingrained in black bloodlines as a predisposition to sickle cell, is one of the most prevailing, "acceptable", and insidious bits of racism African Americans face. And that tracks across all people of color.
Being born black does not come with a life long love of Biggie, Basie, Empire, Moonlight, and the winding streets of Harlem. And to see a film helmed by a black writer/director that is being hailed as a great expression of the black experience build this into it's plot line is, scary.
Because it went deeper than PR. The opening scene of the film is a hilariously frightening long shot of a black guy walking through a presumably white neighborhood and narrating his discomfort. Discomfort at hedges, picket fences, little boxes on the hillside, the surface aesthetics of suburban "white," life.
And yeah, being the only person of color for miles can sometimes be understandably nerve wracking, but in this film all white people are out to get you (which works perfectly fine, that's the satire) and all black people try to stay away from white things (hobbies, neighborhoods, music) which only serves to divide.
A major turning point of the movie is based around the idea that "all black people know each other," when Kaluuya's character recognizes a boyhood acquaintance who also happens to have fallen prey to the questionable cabal of well to do whites, but whatever, screenwriting.
Reinforcing the sense that there are things black people just aren't into, like life in the suburbs for instance, reinforces the ancient line of thinking that tells us there are predetermined differences between all races. There aren't.
There are predetermined differences between cultures, but race does not define your culture, not in America, not today. Sure it does often, and has for much of human history, but that's simply not necessarily the case anymore.
And injecting any work of art, not least of all one being held up as a leap for diversity and openness, with this idea only deepens our divide. America, the West, the whole World, works when we share ourselves with one another and encourage diversity both within and without our own groups.
Which brings us to climax of the film and major spoiler section of the piece, so turn back now if like Matt Smith's Doctor, you know better than to peak.
Throughout the totally enjoyable opening hour and twenty minutes you know somethings wrong but you can't figure it out. You especially know something's wrong with the few black people in this white mansion but there's no way to know what. Are they ghosts? Have their soul been trapped by Allison William's hypnotist mother (played by the always enjoyable Catherine Keener)?
In the end we find out that her father, neurosurgeon and primary reason I came to the movie Bradley Whitford (The West Wing is forever on point) has a hand as well. Williams' character Rose honeypots any black people the family approves (men or women, though primarily men). Mom hypnotizes them, and Dad cuts out their brains to be replaced with the mind of the highest (usually white though there is that one Asian guy) bidder.
It's a great twist and the fear is grossly palpable thanks to Peele's masterful hand, but the whole plan stems from the fact that the patriarch of the family lost a spot on a 1930's Olympic track team to a black guy (Jesse Owens of course).
Now that's well set up and a totally acceptable genesis for this particular story. But when the key question is asked "why black people," the answer that some people want to be cooler, or faster, or stronger, or sexier, or more artistically talented, though compelling, feels like a liberal arts college Black Student Union explanation of why Eminem worshipped Dr. Dre.
What it comes down to, after all of that, is what we've all become so fond of calling "cultural appropriation." They want your music and your art and your sports, they just don't want you involved. And that is a much more interesting and nuanced villainous motivation than a secret chapter of the Klan in the northeast.
The issue is that cultural appropriation can be a great thing, it's a big part of what makes America special and successful. Appropriation followed by whitewashing is the bad thing (sadly also something that's made America "successful.")
And, that is certainly what Peele is showcasing, black existence governed by white minds. But in our increasingly fragmented national discourse people of color, and much of the American left regardless of race, have come to view "appropriation" as tantamount to low-level Jim Crow.
We assault white boys with dreadlocks on college campuses, black kids at the opera are "oreo," and to see it portrayed in this way, I fear, will only increase the division of who can wear what or groove to which beat, especially among our now embattled left wing. And that's too bad.
Then there's the fact that the white people have white collar intellectual jobs that they use for evil and the three black people we know anything about are a cop, a TSA agent, and a photographer.
Blue collar and artistic professions being often considered some of the only options for people of color. Not to mention the vilification of the intellectual class. Our main character, though clearly intelligent thrives on, and survives because of an emotional intelligence. And his get away driver in the end, is his bright, if bafoon-y BFF. The thinkers and scientists are evil, but more than that, they're white.
And it certainly won't make anyone want to run out and find them self a partner of another race. (Which is a whole other article we're not going for right now.)
Now, is any of this Jordan Peele's problem, a lot of it, no. Nor is it his fault. The "black people like houses like this, white people like house like this," elements, I guess maybe, I'm real irked about that.
The appropriation is more a problem of climate, though, most artists would tell you that climate is a tough thing to ignore, because you probably shouldn't ignore it. Nobody's art exists in a vacuum.
If this wasn't a film about race, most of this might not be worth mentioning, but when people of color make work about the experiences of people of color, it's the closest the rest of the population comes to understanding that experience.
So if those works are built on stereotype, no matter how small or unique. Or if they occasionally impart the sense that we are, on any level large or small, inherently different from one another in anything other than melanin levels, those things get taken seriously by people who may have no other exposure to us. And that's not not causing problems.
So, "Get Out" is a really good movie and you should probably see it. The sold out theatre I was in laughed and screamed and learned together (audibly) in one of the most enjoyable nights I've spent at the cinema in a long time.
Just be prepared for the movie, and much of it's audience to embrace some assumptions vital to the film that are near the roots of many of our intra- and inter- racial wounds. I guess it's possible that some of this was just semiotic minutia that fell through the cracks of a debut film. But I also guess it may not matter all that much, the movie's dope.