Thursday, March 9, 2017

Get Out: Horror Literalism Done Right [Contributor: Melanie]

WARNING: This piece contains spoilers for the film Get Out. Read at your own risk.

I wrestled with writing about this because, a white person in America (well, technically Canada), I didn’t feel it was my place. However, this film is very much about teaching the experience of the black man to a group that, while can never truly understand it from a film, needs to have the struggles force fed to them. And that’s exactly what Get Out does by creating a horror film based on current, real life events and the daily struggle of the black man in a very, very white America.

Horror films have always been about things other than what they are about. Night of the Living Dead was a metaphor for Jim Crow and southern lynchings; the 80s slasher craze was about the consequences of teenagers breaking societal taboos; the recent trend of found-footage films are about the incessant need to feel connected to each other through artificial means. And Get Out is no different. The only thing people really seem to be picking up on is that it’s right in front of their faces and not artistically disguised as a boogey man stalking in the night.

In fact, in the film’s opening scene our protagonist, Chris, asks his girlfriend if her parents know he’s black. She immediately responds that it doesn’t matter, ushering in one of the biggest motifs (and most dangerous villains of the film): white feminism. Before Rose turns coat with her kookoo family, she embodies the modern day idea of white feminism and privileged liberalism. She insists on a colorblind approach to her boyfriend and the issue while Chris — the one whose identity is being erased by her lack of informing her family — disagrees. In the end, she wins out, insisting she knows best because, after all, her father “would have voted for Obama a third time if he could.”

And it doesn’t stop there: later when they’re speaking a cop who asks to see Chris’s ID, Rose vehemently defends him, suggesting the police office is asking to see it out of a racial bias. While her heart was in the right place (well, kinda, considering how things end up in the end) she speaks over Chris, speaks for him, and maybe even sprinkles in some white savior complex as his defender.

Things only get worse when he’s introduced to the family (who do, in fact, assure him they would have voted for Obama a third time) and is made the spectacle of a lawn party filled with nothing but white people carting around martinis and hors d’oeuvres. Though they kindly talk to him when he’s introduced, they insist on assuring him that they are one with him (one man mentions to him that he met Tiger Woods). And when Chris asks, later in the movie, why the family targets black people for their strange and utterly disturbing neurological procedure (whereby these ailing white folk take control of a body — usually a black body — after a mysterious brain transplant) he is given the answer that it is simply because they want to be fit or be “in the fad.” Or, in Chris’s case, the blind man taking control of him wants his photographer’s eye.

And that’s the real brilliance here. These aren’t raging KKK members or Donald Trump: they’re seemingly well-meaning, liberal-minded white people who think that their moral high ground on political issues makes them incapable of racism. After all, they’re not burning crosses and they have black friends. How could they possibly be racist? It take a straightforward approach to one of the most difficult issues for privileged people (in this case, white people) to understand: internalized racism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. is a real thing, whether you want to admit that to yourself or not.

And while there is a metaphor that runs through this film (the recurring motif of a deer is used to represent black people, whether the deer is being hit by a car or is mounted as a trophy), the literalism here is needed to get the point across and only enhances the horror, instead of detracting from it. For a film like Night of the Living Dead, the racists of the country are represented as zombies — slowly overcoming the few survivors of this apocalypse before ultimately getting to the last survivor, the black man, in the end. In Halloween, a boogey man stalks a group of teenagers who have shirked their babysitting duties to drink and have sex as punishment. In It Follows, young people are punished for promiscuity by the unrelenting phantom set out to kill them until they pass on their disease to someone else.

The villain in this film, however, does not need a mask. We can see it a mile away as soon as it’s on screen because Chris can see it too. He’s immediately uncomfortable in the situation he’s placed in, and we are as well. There’s no false sense of security here. Despite the gaslighting from his girlfriend, he’s always on the lookout. And we’re conditioned to do the same.

The unfortunate thing is, you might see yourself reflected in this film. You remember times you purposely talked about all your black friends like they were notches in a belt of anti-racism. Maybe you recalled that time you boasted loudly to your racist relatives about how far superior you were because you voted for Obama. This doesn’t make you a bad person (hypnotizing people against their will into a dissociative state and forcibly removing part of their brain does, however) but it doesn’t necessarily make you a good person either.

The best part, is in the end, Chris saves himself through some ingenuity and then some unrelenting violence. In fact, there’s a scene of Chris literally curbstomping a member of the family. It’s a scene that would horrify audiences perhaps only ten or fifteen years ago. And whatever your own views on violence are, the narrative seeks to point out its necessity in this scene as a metaphor for bombastic protests when a group is threatened to a certain point. It illustrates the need to fight back, whatever that means to (note: that doesn’t mean the film is condoning violence against anyone; it is, however, justifying outrage that many would like to silence).

Then, when all seems lost as a cop car pulls up to a grisly scene of Chris, bloodied and bruised, leaning over his mortally wounded girlfriend — it turns out it's his best friend Rod, another black man, there to bring him to safety. There’s no white savior in the film, and no safety from society — only safety found in each other.

The literal approach works here because it is something that many people want to ignore. Hollywood and society in general is predominantly run by white people. In fact, this article about the film itself was written by a white person. And thinking about your own internalized prejudices will make you uncomfortable. But you have to face that. After all, any good horror functions as a mirror and a place of catharsis for the things that scare us.

Even of those things, at the end of the day, are ourselves.


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