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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Get Out is the Movie America NEEDS: SPOILERS

WARNING: SPOILERS THROUGHOUT



The premise of Get Out is deceptively simple: an interracial American couple (yes, of course it's a white woman and a black man) goes home to spend a weekend with the woman's family in the country. We learn in the first few minutes that Rose hasn't forewarned her parents that her boyfriend Chris is black. We see Chris struggle with that, and we watch as Rose assures him he has nothing to fear from her family except maybe a little awkward overcompensation.

After all, she argues, they raised her. How racist could they be?



With Chris's fears momentarily assuaged, they set out for Rose's family's country estate: and it is an estate, with sweeping, gorgeous grounds and a home that would not look out of place in 1840s Tennessee. On the way, Rose behind the wheel, they hit a deer. They pull over, and Chris walks away to find the deer (he hears what he thinks are its dying bleats). Meanwhile, Rose calls 911. We learn this when Chris returns to the car. He approaches in time to hear the officer explain that animal control would have been a better agency to call. Rose, visibly embarrassed and still a little shook up, apologizes.

"Of course, I'm so sorry. I freaked out."

Then the officer asks for Chris's drivers license. Chris, reaching for his wallet, explains that all he has is a state ID. He doesn't seem offended, but Rose is. She tells the officer that she was driving and demands to know why he has to see Chris's ID. Chris tells her it's okay, the officer--in a tone far more gruff than her boyfriend's--tells her this is standard procedure. But Rose wasn't interested in either of their assessments of the situation. She declared it bullshit, and that settled the matter. Chris returned his unopened wallet to his pocket.

The white woman told two men (one a police officer!) who were trying to override her objections that she wasn't having it, and she got her way. That was the first display of the Power of White Women in Get Out, but it wouldn't be the last.


I'm not going to give you a play-by-play of the whole movie. That would be boring to read and I really want you to go see it, and besides, that's not why I'm writing this review. The meat and the might of Get Out is not in the action that plays out on the screen (although that is beautifully shot and entertaining to watch), but in what it reveals about all of us. The "action" in Get Out can be summed up in two sentences:

Black man becomes increasingly uncomfortable at a retreat with his white girlfriend and her surprisingly racist family. And then the killings begin.

Of course that's an oversimplification. Still, it helps to think of Get Out as having two distinct sections. In the first section, Chris and Rose are a normal, loving couple going to and then navigating within a family retreat. For Chris, the difficulty is his constant inner struggle: are the people he encounters really as racist as they appear? Or is he being paranoid? For Rose, the difficulty is in trying to act as go-between for both her family and Chris. She apologizes for her family's eccentricities (including the two oddly servile black servants employed by her parents) and has to try to interpret their statements and motives for her boyfriend. 

That's part one, and that, I think, is recognizable for most of us regardless of race (although, of course, Chris's struggles are especially poignant for people of color.) This is regular life in America: everyone trying to navigate issues of race without anyone actually discussing issues of race. But then the movie hits us over the head with part two, the power of which is set up by the increasing tension of the seemingly normal events of part one.



Massive spoilers ahead!!

In part one we learn that Rose's father is a neurosurgeon and her mother a hypnotherapist. We learn the mother's profession when it is revealed that Chris is trying to quit smoking. Rose's mother offers to help, and her father tells Chris that he also used to smoke but after one session with his wife the sight and smell of cigarettes make him physically ill. Chris politely declines.



Part two begins with the single most significant, most contested, and most brilliant moment of the film: Rose's betrayal of Chris.

When the culmination of slights and odd events at the family retreat become too much for Chris, he and Rose decide to leave early. They pack up their things, Chris with way more haste than Rose, and while she finishes, he investigates a suspiciously open crawlspace in the corner of the bedroom. Inside he finds a box of photos. There are photos of Rose growing up, and many, many photos of Rose with previous black boyfriends and a black girlfriend. A black girlfriend who looks exactly like Georgina, the family's female servant.

Chris is aghast. What could that possibly mean? Rose has told him that he is the first black man she ever dated. And what's with the photo of Georgina: her hair is styled completely differently in the picture and her whole affect seems different. Chris doesn't display any suspicion of his girlfriend, and frankly I didn't feel any, either, as a member of the audience. 

My first thought was of Rose's mother, the hypnotherapist. We watched her hypnotize Chris against his will the night before. Would it be too much of a stretch to believe that she had been hypnotizing Rose her whole life? That would be more than a little odd, but the whole family certainly seemed odd.

Chris grabs Rose and tells her they have to leave NOW, but she can't find her car keys. They scurry downstairs as Rose digs in her purse. The rest of the family meet them in front of the door. Chris barks at Rose to hurry, the family hovers menacingly, and then...

Rose pulls her hand out of her purse to reveal her car keys and says "You know I can't let you leave, right?"

At that moment, sitting in the theater, my heart dropped into my gut and the audience erupted. It was a perfect moment of storytelling and a beautifully sinister moment in the movie. And it makes all the goddamned difference for our nation.

Here's where I'm going to get a little preachy, so if you don't care about the socially important aspects of this film you might want to stop reading.

Regardless of how the movie would end if Rose never betrayed Chris, it would have been a pointless exercise. America doesn't need any more discussions of how racist our country used to be. We don't need any more examination of the horrors of Jim Crow. We need discussions about how racist we continue to be and how horrible things are right now for people of color in America.

Think about it: if Rose wasn't a racist character, then the central point of Get Out would simply have been about racist old white people. That's not news. We are very comfortable in this country pointing out the racism of our elders--and then forgiving them of it, because "that's just how things were." In order for Get Out to be a socially relevant horror film, it had to get at the heart of current American racism, and it had to do so with unflinching directness. And, by God, does it deliver.

The horror in Get Out is the revelation that white America appropriates black culture and it consumes black bodies and black talent--and it quite often does so with a smile and a compliment.

In the movie, Rose's entire family is involved in a ghastly enterprise: to quite literally hijack the bodies of black people. Rose befriends black men (and, at least once, a black woman) and delivers them to her parents. Her mom hypnotizes them, and then her father swaps their brains with that of the wealthy white person who paid for the privilege. (There is a sinister scene of Chris being auctioned off halfway through the film). The conscious mind of the black person-turned-puppet is still present in its body, but it is powerless. The original occupant of that body is reduced to being a passenger: horrifyingly aware of everything, but entirely impotent. 

The buyers do this to enjoy the benefits of what they describe as the "superior genetics" of black Americans. Think of this in social terms. Once upon a time, racist white America described black Americans as genetically inferior and then wrote laws that restricted their rights and movements according to that belief. But that's not the way that current racism thinks, is it? Current American racism, when it's being honest, sees black Americans as, in many ways, genetically superior to white Americans. Terms such as "athletically gifted," and "musically gifted," are bandied about and don't even get me started on the ways in which the black male phallus is fetishized. 

But this tacit acknowledgement of black American superiority was not accompanied by a relinquishment of the privileged position of white Americans. If anything, in a subversion of historical reasoning, that acknowledgement is now used to defend white defensiveness about their privileged social status. Modern-day white American racists tell themselves and each other: "I don't hate black people. I don't know anyone who hates black people. My niece is dating a black man! We had a black president! Racism is over!" 

Full disclosure time. 
I am a white American woman. I was born into a poor family and have experienced some of the worst deprivation that Americans can. I grew up in and out of foster care and as a child I suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of my parents and guardians. I'm a high school dropout. I've been homeless. So, for all of those reasons, for a long time I couldn't wrap my head around the idea that I had white privilege. There is nothing about my personal story that screams "privilege." As an adult, I earned my GED and then went on to college, earning first an associates of art, then a BS in sociology and finally an MS in mass communication. I worked HARD for all of it, borrowed every penny, and am now being sued by my student loan company.

So: privilege? Really? 

YES. EVEN I HAVE WHITE PRIVILEGE.

Let me tell you a short story about my friend Kellyanne (that's not her real name). She, like me, is in her forties. Unlike me, Kellyanne is a black woman. One day she and her teenage daughter Melania (also not her real name) wanted to visit an historic scenic spot here in Austin, Texas: the 360 bridge. The 360 bridge is just that: a bridge on highway 360 that overlooks Lake Austin. It's a beautiful spot. Kellyanne and Melania drove there one gorgeous afternoon, pulled over to the side of the road, and stood there for a time, enjoying the view.

And then some racist white man drove by, screaming "NIGGERS!" out his window at them.

My friend Kellyanne and I have a number of things in common. We were both born into poor families. We both suffered awful physical and sexual abuse as young girls, and we both worked for everything we have. But unlike Kellyanne, I can stand on the side of the road without having my very existence condemned by racist strangers.

And that, Dear Reader, is my white privilege. It has taken me a lifetime to come to terms with this. I learned lessons on my privilege little by little, over time, but I credit Get Out with finally driving it home. Such is the brilliance of this movie.

I want to make one more point about Get Out before I sign off and let you get back to your life. While racism and white privilege are themes in the film, it's my contention that white women are the REAL monsters of the story. Rose's father and brother physically brutalize black people (we see the brother bash a black man over the head in the opening scene before kidnapping him, and of course the father performs the surgeries that enslave them), but Rose and her mother are the movie's real, pernicious threats. Rose is the hunter: she seeks out relationships with black men and invests real time and energy into those relationships before turning the men over to her family. She apparently dated Chris for five months! In this way, Rose consumes her victims. Rose's mother, meanwhile, hypnotizes the victims before the surgeries. She literally gets inside their heads and hollows them--consuming them--out before her husband turns them into puppets. 

In my graduate mass communication program, we discussed the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation (read about it here, if you're not familiar). We were taught that the movie celebrated the KKK as the saviors of White Christian Womanhood. Get Out, by contrast, subverts the notion of White Womanhood as sacred fragility, and presents white women as the primary threat to black men. What a BOLD, truthful stance to take! 

(By the way, by acknowledging the threat that white women present to black men in both historical and contemporary terms I am NOT ignoring either historical or ongoing structural misogyny. Indeed, the notion of White Womanhood's Sacred Fragility has, in fact, been damaging to women as well. But that is another discussion for another time.)

Anyway, in sum:

Get Out is amazing. Thank GOD this movie exists. Go see Get Out. Go see it with an open mind.

The revolution will be tweeted. Follow me: @LiteraryGrrrl









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