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Deconstructing Tropes in Jordan Peele’s Get Out

By now, you’ve either seen or heard about Jordan Peele’s new movie, Get Out. And honestly, if you haven’t seen it, you better do better. And that means seeing it in theaters, because it’s better that way.

SPOILERS AHEAD, Y’ALL

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Daniel Kaluuya freaking the f*ck out in Get Out.

 

Jordan Peele is one half of the mastermind behind Key & Peele, a sketch comedy duo who use humor to address larger issues, like systematic racism. They are also the reason why my brother-in-law calls me Jay-Quellin.

Get Out has received nearly universal praise, dozens of think-pieces, and a list of things that one black movie-goer is now afraid of after seeing the movie, including but not limited to tea cups, bingo, and white girls. For quite a while, the film had a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a feat. Of course, every movie has its critics, and this one came in the form of a probably problematic review titled “Return of the Get-Whitey Movie” that used words like “ghetto,” and drew parallels to old minstrel show tropes. Yikes! Put a pin in that, we’ll get to it later.

As a white woman, I am used to watching horror/thriller movies where women like me are either the protagonist or more likely the protagonist’s helpless love interest. Women who look like me are always the victim, always innocent, sometimes even virginal. Get Out is the opposite. Stereotypical white girl Allison Williams (she was on Girls for god’s sake) plays a two-faced racist who entraps young, handsome, athletic black men and convinces them to visit her suburban home where her equally racist family members supplant their own brains into the bodies of their younger, stronger, more melanin-blessed victims’ bodies. Damn.

In Get Out, Peele consciously subverts the trope of the innocent, virginal white woman and the “lascivious moor”, or for those of you not familiar with Othello, a black man overcome with violent sexual desire for a white woman.

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Othello (1964). James Earl Jones plays the title character.

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Othello (1970). I’m pretty sure this actor is in blackface. And check out those tribal tattoos! 

 

The trope of the villainous black man and the innocent white woman goes far beyond Othello, though. Whether art mirrors life or the other way around, this trope became very much a reality for eight young black boys charged with rape of two white women that never actually happened. You know them as the Scottsboro Boys. Unfortunately, this would not be the last time a black man paid for a white woman’s privilege. Emmett Till was tortured and lynched in 1955, at the age of 14. His accuser admitted that she lied… about 50 years too late. This article clearly illustrates how America has yet to pay for this crime.

This is the all-too-fertile ground upon which, consciously or not, we watch Daniel Kaluuya as protagonist Chris single-handedly murder every member of the Armitage family, in a comeback that had the white, liberal, elite audience members in Coolidge Corner Theatre cheering for the deaths of… erm… white liberal elites. As a young white woman watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel weirdly semi-empowered by it? Stay with me on this. I noticed that by flipping the script, by portraying a white woman as sexual, as violent, as calculatingly evil – Allison William’s character was given more of a measure of power than the typical helpless, clueless white girl in a horror flick. Maybe empowering isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s just more honest.

Because, really, white women are terrifying.

Get Out is relevant and meme-able precisely because we have not forgotten these tropes. They exist within our subconscious, looming, informing the way we greet each other on the street, the way interracial couples talk about meeting their partner’s family, and the way we watch movies.

Remember that review I mentioned earlier?

Here’s a quote from reviewer Armond White, who I must include is an older black man who probably identifies as conservative and definitely has a weird chip on his shoulder against Obama:

“[Daniel Kaluuya]’s dark-skin/bright-teeth image inadvertently recalls the old Sambo archetype … Sambo lives matter.” – Armond White, National Review

Wow. Let’s discuss.

The image I posted at the top of this piece has quickly become the most iconic image of the film, featuring actor Daniel Kaluuya in wide-eyed terror, tears streaming down his face. The is the image I imagine White referring to when he talks about Kaluuya, because it is the most widely publicized. Which is weird, because the Sambo archetype is most notable for Sambo’s sunny disposition and a constant smile. Sambo was used as a tool to convince slave owners that slaves were actually happy in their chains, and that they wouldn’t be able to exist on their own without the benevolence of white masters. In the case of Get Out, it is clear from the outset that Chris is uncomfortable even going to his girlfriend’s uber-white country home, and very much not into the whole being tied down and enslaved thing.

But Armond White isn’t alone in his, hmm… confusion? Earlier this week, another prominent black conservative got confused about the slave narrative, too.

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The moment most baffling to me in this review was when he calls the film a “a limited, doomed picture of race relations.” Because… where have you been? Not only does this film draw connections to horrific incidences such as the Scottsboro Boys trials and the murder of Emmett Till, but black people are still living with the ramifications of legitimized, government-sanctioned racism today. The clueless notion that America is any further along than it was in the age of Jim Crow is a myth perpetuated by privileged people who are willfully ignorant. That sentence sounds just like the members of the Armitage family who “would have voted for Obama for a third term,” but conveniently exploit black people for their own selfish needs. But racism is over, right guys?

And yet, the real horror of Get Out isn’t the white individuals, but the structure that allows them to senselessly brutalize and dehumanize black bodies for fun, games, and bingo.

 

At the end of the film, when Chris is nearly done killing off his captors, I saw the most chilling shot of the whole movie. We had spent nearly two hours with this character, watching him use every skill imaginable to outwit and outfight his oppressors, and he was so very close to escape. All of a sudden, we see the infamous red and blue lights. My heart dropped in my chest. Am I really about to watch the protagonist get shot by cops, after all both the character and the audience have been through up until this point?

And that’s what drove the movie home, for me. Because yes. I might have to watch this character get shot by cops.

Victims of systemic racism and police brutality are human beings, the protagonists of their own lives, with hardships they have overcome and challenges they have faced and grown from. And in the blink of eye, a black man (or woman) in America can go from the hero of their own story to the villain of a supposedly post-racial world.

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