By BRENT STAPLES MARCH 27, 2017, New York Times
Image from article, with caption: Allison Williams as Rose and Daniel Kaluuya
in "Get Out," a film directed by Jordan Peele
The touchstone scene in the new horror film “Get Out” depicts a 20-something white
woman named Rose appraising the sculpted torsos of black athletes on a laptop as
she sits in her bedroom sipping milk through a straw. In another context — say, in
the popular HBO television series “Girls” — this would be an unremarkable example
of a millennial catching a glimpse of beefcake on the way to bed.
In this case, the director Jordan Peele wants the audience to see Rose as what
she is: the 21st-century equivalent of the plantation owner who studies the teeth and
muscles of the human beings he is about to buy at a slave market. Like her
antebellum predecessors, Rose — who has recently delivered her black boyfriend
into the hands of her monstrous family — is on the hunt for handsomest, buffest
specimen she can find.
“Get Out” speaks in several voices on several themes. It subverts the horror
genre itself — which has the well-documented habit of killing off black characters
first. It comments on the re-emergence of white supremacy at the highest levels of
American politics. It lampoons the easy listening racism that so often lies behind the
liberal smile in the “postracial” United States. And it probes the systematic
devaluation of black life that killed people like Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Tamir
Rice and Eric Garner.
The film is a disquisition on the continuing impact of slavery in American life.
Among other things, it argues that present-day race relations are heavily determined
by the myths that were created to justify enslavement — particularly the notion that
black people were never fully human.
The project of reconnecting this history to contemporary life is well underway.
Historians have shown, for example, that slavery, once abolished under law,
continued by other means, not least of all as disenfranchisement, mass incarceration
and forced labor. Lynchings, those carnivals of blood once attended by thousands of
people, morphed into a sanitized, state-sanctioned death penalty that is still
disproportionately used against people of color.
Novelists have followed the same line of inquiry, urged on by the desire to
debunk the delusional rhetoric of “postracialism” that gained currency when the
country elected its first African-American president.
This counter-narrative pervades Paul Beatty’s complex comic novel “The Sellout”
— winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize — whose African-American narrator
attempts to resurrect slavery and segregation as a way of both deconstructing white
supremacy and preventing the black community where he grew up from being
Similarly, the Ben H. Winters thriller “Underground Airlines” unveils an eerily
familiar America in which the Civil War never happened and the United States
Marshals Service cooperates with slave-holding states to track down people who
have escaped to freedom.
The novelist Colson Whitehead deploys the counter-narrative to great effect in
“The Underground Railroad” — winner of the 2016 National Book Award — by
subverting the shiny, optimistic escape-to-freedom story as it is so often told.
The underground railroad in this case is a real train that runs underground, not
straight and true, but through dead ends and hellish catastrophes. This train travels
across time as it takes the bondswoman from one destination to another, exposing
her to unspeakable violence and the evolving versions of white supremacy that
formed the actual journey from slavery to freedom.
Despite its comic elements, “Get Out” is cut from the same cloth. Indeed, the
affluent white community into which Rose introduces her African-American
boyfriend, Chris, has the flavor of the Stepford stop on Mr. Whitehead’s dystopian
Rose’s family plays to a familiar plantation trope with black retainers who are
eerily not quite right but who are represented as being almost like family. The
patriarch tries to set Chris at ease, assuring him that he likes black people and
“would have voted for Obama a third time” were it possible.
The faux affability heightens the sense of the sinister. Chris learns that the white
people around him are coveting his body and would like nothing more than to try it
on as a kind of second skin.
It would be wrong to reduce this film to an attack on white liberals who mouth
racial platitudes. Mr. Peele sets out to debunk the myth of “postracialism” generally
— by showing that the country is still gripped by historically conditioned
preconceptions of race and blackness.