SPOILER WARNING: Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)
Much can be said about the portrayals in Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017). But while it is safe to say that the film achieves its goal of being a socially challenging horror film, where Get Out subverts the expectations of many is in how it portrays its various characters and situations. Anyone that had seen any of the promotional material for the film would likely have garnered that the film centered on portrayals that were marked by prejudice and racism. However, these portrayals are far from as simple as their respective promotional materials may lead some to believe, but more importantly, these portrayals place themselves in a much more complex field than what would be expected of many film portrayals of racism. Many common film portrayals of racism, especially in high concept films, which Get Out nearly is, display racism as an “us vs. them” narrative that, while clearly labeling whom the good and bad guys are, leaves out much of the inherit complexities of the larger issue. Though it goes without saying that any form of racism or prejudice, no matter how small, is deplorable, over-simplifications of the issue can and often are harmful to the greater issue as they leave much out of the argument that needs to be considered. But Get Out manages to avoid this pitfall as its characters and their respective beliefs and actions are complex enough that they leave little unsaid or unconsidered. By displaying it as more than an “us vs. them” narrative, Get Out portrays racism as a complex issue that cannot be concisely summarized, and as a result it provides a basis for a more complex and intimate argument than most films lend themselves to.
As the film begins it seeks to set its audience up for a situation that is similar, but ultimately very different than the one that will be the primary conflict of the film. As Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are driving to her parents’ house they find themselves in an encounter with law enforcement that likely reinforces the audience’s pre-conceived notions of the racism and prejudices that the film will be about. But though the police officer that they called for assistance targets Chris, this encounter serves as nothing more than a basis for the situations to come instead of a first event out of many to follow, the latter of which is what would be expected. The police officer never physically enters again into the film, and his problematic behavior and hostile presence is given to both the audience and Chris as something of a red herring; a racist that is, sadly, not the biggest problem that the film’s protagonist must face. The police officer conforms to the traditional narrative of racism in the sense that it is a simple one in comparison to the ones that the film will portray later on. This does not mean that Get Out would be a better film without the police officer and his actions, as the film is well aware of all that this portrayal implies, but it instead speaks to the real world social climate and the film climate when it comes to portrayals of prejudiced and racist individuals and situations.
As the film soon proves, Chris has much more to worry about than a single police officer. Rose’s family, composed of her hypnotist mother Rose (Catherine Keener), father Dean (Bradley Whitford), and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) prove to be almost more than Caleb can handle and remain himself. Herein lies the principle racism that Get Out seeks to deal with. Whereas it would be simple for the film to show the Armitage family as anti-black racists, Get Out instead takes the route of defining the racism and prejudice of Rose’s family as that which cannot be simply and plainly seen in many situations. The Armitages are ultimately all racist, but their racism speaks to the broader issue of the false conceptions of the “other.” In the case of the film, Chris becomes an other to the Armitage family, but he is far from the only one. As it is eventually revealed, Rose and her family, as well as all of their friends and family, consider African Americans as an other. But this simple definition is somewhat misleading, as though the Armitages consider those that are black as others, their perceptions are not simply hostile, but also more in line with envy. But saying that these feelings are not hostile is a statement that must be explained as otherwise it is blatantly untrue. The Armitages do not hate those that they consider as others, and because of this their statements are not labeled as hostile. But there is a definite hostile motive in their actions, as the end goal of the film’s “monsters” is to become black themselves. The Armitages do not consider themselves hostile, but instead they think of themselves as simply knowing what is best and getting what they want. However, the principle factor of the racism held by the Armitages is that they do not think of those that they consider others as human.
The Armitages and their associates, for the most part, seek to embody black bodies without any real consideration for the lives that they are destroying in the process. They are predators, plain and simple, and their villainous nature leaves little to the imagination. Everything that Chis thought he knew about them, even Rose, is ultimately proven false, and he must rely on himself to survive and escape. Even Chris’ well-intentioned friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery) cannot do anything to save him and he ultimately arrives to late to assist Chris in any real way outside of driving him away from the already-resolved issues. The film is well-aware that it does not solve any of the problems that it brings up, and it chooses to do so because it knows that these same problems are not easily solved in the real world. The perception of groups of people as others is a problematic issue without any easy answers, but Get Out at least brings this issue to the forefront and promotes a serious conversation about it.
Perceptions of a person or persons as an other lend itself to a host of problematic reactions and results. Get Out seeks to explore these perceptions and as a result the racism portrayed is much more complex than many other films. The concept of the other is not a new one in film, but what is unique about Get Out is how it takes this portrayal and puts it into a contemporary context. Chris is an other to almost everyone whom he encounters, and though he may try to overcome the prejudices he finds himself up against, he ultimately cannot become anything more than a target. But where Chris does excel is that he consistently and ultimately overcomes the expectations of those around him, most clearly illustrated as he safely rides away from the danger in a police car in the film’s conclusion. Get Out does not concern itself with solving the greater issues that create the problems within it, but instead it seeks to simply identify the symptoms of said problems and illustrate them. This choice is a valuable one, and as a result the film gives a visualization of a particular brand of racism that is too rarely seen, so that a serious social conversation can take place. Get Out does not contain an over-simplified brand of racism, and it is a better film for it.