Spoiler alert: Unpacking the secret messages in Jordan Peele's breakout film
“Stay woke, niggas creeping. They will find you and catch you sleeping,” sings Childish Gambino in Redbone before his soulful high pitched vocals warn you not to close your eyes. Apart from being great mood music, the track sets the tone for Get Out perfectly. Those lines, which play over the intro to the film, are emblematic of Jordan Peele’s masterfully written horror comedy, and help us unpack the metaphors within.
In essence Get Out is every microaggression a black man has ever faced – but supersized. (For those who are unaware, microaggressions are ”any brief verbal or behavioural indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights”.) The film is littered with them as Chris, the main character played by Daniel Kaluuya, visits his white girlfriend’s family home. It’s how a casual inference that Chris is good at sports and has an athletic build can turn into him almost being put in a headlock at dinner, how the fetishization of black bodies and penises can inspire a man’s wife to opt into a scheme that would insert her husband’s brain into a black man's body to have sex with him. It’s a big leap, but racism isn’t rational.
While I could wax lyrical at the fact that as a horror enthusiast of colour (we will henceforth be known as HEoC) I got to watch a film where the black character was not an underdeveloped secondary sidekick who died in the first five minutes, it’s the sophisticated commentary veiled by humour that intrigues me. Written in response to the gross misunderstanding that racism was cured as soon as Obama took office, the film builds on the fears of marginalised people who have their experiences ignored or belittled.
The plot follows Chris as he navigates an uncomfortable trip to an extremely white community that use black people as hosts so that they can become immortal. As their consciousness is sedated in the Sunken Place, the old rich white people whose brains were transplanted into the host control the bodies. It’s all incredibly bizarre. So just in case the deeper meanings passed you by, here they are unpacked:
THE ISOLATING NATURE OF RACISM
By Kaluuya’s admission, his portrayal of the protagonist is somewhat like Peep Show whereby there is a conflict between what the character feels and what they actually do. Such is the isolating nature of race in a predominantly white circle. If you’re at a family gathering of a partner from a different ethnic background, as Chris is, ignorant comments have to bounce off you like rubber bullets. Not many would risk the awkwardness of pulling someone up on their stupidity in a scenario where you are an invited guest. You wouldn’t want to come off as aggressive, don’t want to offend, and you’re not entirely sure that anyone would understand that the behaviour being exhibited is ignorant anyway.
As such Chris spends the majority of the film internalising his experiences, making polite faces to questionable statements. So much of the movie is what isn’t said. Chris is constantly checking himself and policing his interactions while every white person in the film fails to do the same. His girlfriend Rose Armitage was seemingly unaware that race would ever be a problem and ridicules him throughout for his suspicion that everyone is acting really fucking weirdly towards him. Her brief moments of self-awareness are greeted warmly by Chris despite the fact she is an absolutely useless ally – just because he is happy she is acknowledging his experiences at all. Her father’s only lightbulb moment comes when he acknowledges that having black servants doesn’t look good, but then proceeds to suggest he can’t be racist because he would have voted for Obama three times if he could’ve. A statement that is as funny as it is uncomfortable.
“In essence Get Out is every microaggression a black man has ever faced – but supersized”
THE COMPLEXITY OF THE SUNKEN PLACE
Despite her friendly face and playful laugh, Rose’s psychiatrist mother Missy is arguably the scariest person in the whole movie. The repetitive clinking and stirring of the spoon in her tea cup is her modus operandi, forcing her victims into hypnotic submission under the guise of helping them quit their bad habits. Her hatred of smoking seems extreme until you realise it is really a hatred of black men dating her wholesome succubus of a daughter. It is through her that the endless abyss that is the Sunken Place is introduced. While you are mentally in the Sunken Place, you can see the injustice being done to you but you are completely unable to stop them. In reality, the Sunken Place is much more complex than a psychotic trance. After the film’s release, Peele revealed it is a metaphor for black people being marginalised, “No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.” It simultaneously pokes fun at black people who are complicit in their own oppression: think of all the black Trump/ All Lives Matter supporters who claim they don’t see the racism other black people tirelessly campaign against. Cue Sunken Place memes of Kanye West and Ben Carson.
THE SUBTLE COMMENT ON CULTURAL APPROPRIATION
Upon reflection, most of the people in the town who opt into the abduction of black people are doing it purely for aesthetics. The guests at the party have admiration for Chris, as one of them notes: “black is in fashion”. If they are not motivated by racial hatred, then they are stealing black people’s bodies just because they think it would be cooler to be black. Peele is showing us what would happen if cultural appropriation went so far you weren’t just stealing culture, you got to be black but with a white mind – which apparently is preferred by the Armitage’s.
THE DANGER OF COLOURBLINDNESS AND THE POWER OF SIGHT
The only window between the Sunken Place and the real world are Chris’ eyes, the driving inspiration behind the winning bid for his body. After he is wrangled by the Armitage family, he is informed he is to be sold to a blind art dealer who chillingly confesses “I want your eye, I want the things you see through” after he admits he couldn’t care less what colour he is. Herein lies Peele’s take home message for white viewers: just because you proclaim to be colour blind doesn’t mean you’re helpful to black people at all. If you, like Rose’s faux innocence in not thinking his race would be a big deal to her family, the community that believe black is trendy, or like the blind art dealer who cannot see race don’t help to stop the injustices you know happen around you then you are complicit to the oppression.
So how do black people get out of the Sunken Place? By staying woke like Childish Gambino told you to. Interestingly, Georgina is the only person who externally shows an awareness of her oppression despite being in the Sunken Place. While in close proximity to Chris her struggle is palpable whether that is when she jolts while pouring his tea, or when Chris says “If there’s too many white people I get nervous,” and she cries as if she has something to say. If there was a woke award, it would go to her.
“While you are mentally in the Sunken Place, you can see the injustice being done to you but you are completely unable to stop them”
And the audible forewarning from the score saying “don't you close your eyes” reiterates that sight and camera lenses are the main way out for most, which is perhaps a comment on why Peele made the movie in the first place. The two expose a lot about the identity and perspectives of the characters throughout. As a photographer, Chris spends a lot of his time taking photos of the people around him. It serves as a barrier during the uncomfortable party scene and also provides enlightenment: leading him to Andre at the party and momentarily waking Andre up through flash photography. A key catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement and protests has been viral videos and photography, aided by the widespread use of mobile phones.
The use of sight and cameras illustrate how the whole film is a vehicle for social awareness. By the end of the film you've seen how small beliefs have put Chris' life in danger so in many ways you see the world as Chris views it. Therefore, when the red and blue flashing lights of the police car approach as he is stood over Rose's body it denotes more fear and anxiety. Even though he is the victim, you expect that things will only get worse and you fear that he will be punished. This film is an awakening flash to aid black people's journey out of the Sunken Place and a way for white people to see the silent struggles we face daily a little more clearly.