My apologies to our regular readers for our silence recently; we’ve had a lot going on offline and haven’t had as much time to write as we’d have liked (though we do have a few more posts in the works that should be coming relatively soon). Thanks for your patience. In the meantime, have a thing I dashed off pretty quickly.
One of my coworkers recommended “Get Out” to me recently; I ended up watching it last night, and wrote up my thoughts shortly afterward to aid in the subsequent discussion. I hadn’t really intended to do a blog post, but I realised it would probably be publishable with a bit of minor editing and there might be discussions worth having about this film. The remainder of this post will contain spoilers for the film, and for various genre reasons this is a film which is probably best watched unspoiled, so if you are interested in seeing it you may not wish to proceed. That said, I was not nearly as impressed as I was led to believe I would be, and can give it only a lukewarm recommendation at best, so I am not necessarily saying to stop reading this post if you haven’t seen the film.
Also, as an advance warning, this is a film that deals directly with racial issues and seems to have been written by Blacks primarily for Black audiences; as such, I feel a bit uncomfortable as a white person criticising it and there may well be things I missed due to not having the cultural context. Let’s get that disclaimer out of the way.
Here’s my attempt at a brief summary, before getting into my reactions and analysis.
“Get Out” (February 2017; IMDB) is a horror/mystery film. It opens on the main character Chris Washington and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (a black man and a white woman) preparing for a weekend visit in which she’ll be introducing him to her parents. It starts off with Chris being made uncomfortable by the family’s casually insensitive racist remarks and other creepiness (including Rose’s mother, a psychiatrist, tricking him into a nonconsensual hypnosis session), the family’s black servants behaving oddly, etc. The next day is apparently the annual gathering of family friends (friends of Rose’s grandparents), many of whom behave in creepy insensitive and entitled ways; it’s revealed that this party is actually the cover for a scheme in which the parents auction off the bodies of black men for a sort of brain/personality transplant for the benefit of their (elderly, white, many disabled) friends and the entire family was conspiring to entrap Chris and use his body for this purpose (the procedure is primarily carried out by the psychiatrist mother and neurosurgeon father, the children’s role is to entrap and kidnap victims). There is also a subplot involving Chris communicating with his best friend Rod (a TSA agent), and their trying to puzzle out what happened to a former friend they recognised who had gone missing and turned up at this gathering acting like a different person, which leads to Rod investigating this conspiracy. In the end, Chris narrowly escapes having the procedure performed on him (a blind art gallery owner won the auction because he admired Chris’ photographic skill as described to him by his assistants, and wanted the use of his eyes), kills the Armitage family in his attempt at escape (aided in part by some previous victims trying to rebel against their bodies’ new occupants) and is rescued at the last minute by Rod.
This film does a good job of depicting the creepiness of microaggressions and some of the subtle ways in which people trying to convince themselves (and others) they’re not racist end up coming across as even more racist by doing so (good example here is the father’s “I’d have voted for Obama’s third term”, Rose vehemently denying her parents are racist, etc; there’s also a lot of blather along the lines of “benevolent racism” about black men’s supposed physical superiority, etc; the insistent unsolicited advice about smoking may also fall into this category on a social class dimension). Then it goes into conspiracy theory territory and, in so doing, seemingly invalidates its good messaging on that for the sake of the horror story (every such statement is given a double meaning, in a way the film flashes back to later during the reveal). I suppose it’s possible to read it as reinforcing the horror rather than invalidating, but I can’t help interpreting the core message as “microaggressions were bad in this case, because they’re actually about a conspiracy to kidnap and lobotomise black people so their bodies can be used by elderly white people who buy them at auction, therefore they can’t possibly be as bad in any other scenario”. That said, the film is quite effective as horror, and I thought it did a good job of depicting how isolated and distressed the main character Chris felt as a result of this (and a few other factors, such as the other black people behaving strangely), and it starts off subtle enough before escalating. Likewise, the scenes of characters trying to expose the conspiracy and being disbelieved and laughed at were also quite well done.
I admit I did not quite predict the twist – as soon as hypnosis was mentioned I suspected entrapment and some kind of mental reprogramming was the goal of the conspiracy, but I didn’t quite get to “total body transplant” (which, for added horror, they claim will have the body’s original owner locked in but unable to control; this makes no sense biologically considering they’re depicting a physical brain transplant, but it’s what the film goes with and does end up being relevant to the plot) and was merely expecting the victims to be sold as slaves. I also was not expecting the girlfriend Rose to be in on the conspiracy, and think it might’ve been a stronger film if she hadn’t been (based on the initial setup and how convincing they played it as a loving and supportive relationship, I started out expecting it to be a play on parents who are theoretically against racism but freak out at the idea of their daughter dating a black man, “it’s fine as long as it’s not my daughter”). That was definitely how the initial setup read to me, but then the twist was that Rose is actually a honey trap (possibly with a race fetish) who entraps black men and uses “introducing them to her family” as the setup for kidnapping. (Extra whiplash because she’s almost a textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl prior to that switch, to the point I kept wondering if she was actually played by Zooey Deschanel; maybe my brain was playing tricks, but I honestly found the resemblance uncanny. It may have just been the hairstyle.)
There is also the fact that the Rose character seemed convincingly surprised when her parents mention the upcoming “party” (which is really the auction of Chris’ body); I think that would have made more sense as “wait, you’re going to do that to my boyfriend too?” rather than just turning out to be a lie in retrospect. That could’ve played with ideas of tokenism and the way a lot of bigoted people will make exceptions for the ones they know personally, and Rose’s disbelief at Chris’ anxiety and paranoia a commentary on people’s unwillingness to believe others’ lived experiences (instead of just being manipulative gaslighting).
As a result, while I found the setup quite compelling (and the depiction of microaggressions), overall I felt like the film degenerated into a misogynistic fantasy in which women’s claims of love and support are lies and entrapment. I think this is supported by the denouement of the film, in which Chris effects an escape at the last minute, kills Rose’s family and tries to leave, only to be confronted by her; the violence against her is depicted in a very gendered fashion, namely attempted strangulation (after he convinces a fellow victim to shoot her and then himself) while she tries to beg him off with claims of love before he eventually leaves her to bleed out when rescued by his friend Rod. This is very similar to a phenomenon Anita Sarkeesian commented on in one of her Tropes Versus Women in Video Games videos, in which writers go out of their way to concoct scenarios in which gendered violence against women is the correct thing for the character to do (she discusses this in Damsel in Distress Part 2, calling the trope “The Mercy Killing”, that is the form it takes in games but this seems to fit the larger pattern). If he had just picked up the gun and shot her I probably wouldn’t be making that precise criticism – there’s still the underlying trope that women cannot be trusted, but at least the “correct” response would not be an explicitly gendered form of violence and a scene in which a black man chokes a white woman. (Chris seems unable to go through with it, which is something at least, but it’s still a contrived scene that didn’t need to be there.)
I am not entirely sure how I would fix this, because a version of the film in which Rose was actually ignorant of the conspiracy would have probably had a very different message (I do think it’s significant that every white character we see in the film turns out to be party to the conspiracy, and I can get behind a film that raises awareness of the idea that all white people are complicit in racism). That said, given that Rose’s brother is also involved in kidnappings (in the opening scene we see him snatch a man off the street and choke him into unconsciousness before stuffing him into the boot of a car), her being involved is in some ways redundant. Maybe they could have made something of the idea that an uninvolved Rose’s willful ignorance of what her parents were doing is what was enabling them, and therefore still stay on message? Regardless, instead the end result is a film that, to my eyes, fails at intersectionality (and in so doing falls into a pattern whereby many people in discussing anti-black racism focus specifically on men without realising they are doing so). Weaponising misogyny against racism may work in the short term on occasion but will inevitably backfire in the long term battle against all forms of kyriarchal oppression.
I also really didn’t find the ending believable as a happy one. A police car drives up to find Chris in the aftermath of the confrontation with Rose, surrounded by bodies and covered in blood. There’s a bit of bait and switch in which they raise an expectation of Chris being arrested before revealing it’s actually Rod driving the car and coming to rescue him; Chris gets in and they drive off. There’s no possible way that would be the end of police involvement, and I can’t see any scenario in which Chris could tell his story and be believed – even Rod struggled to believe him before the ending, and in the last scene we saw him in prior to it he’d been laughed out of the police station when trying to get help. I was expecting an additional scene of Chris and Rod together in a mental institution, or something like that, after being disbelieved and dismissed as crazy by the authorities (and because there’s no evidence, the Armitages’ house burns down).
(I have since learned that this was not the original ending, and that it was changed because they wanted something less bleak in the current political environment and in the context of black men being killed with impunity by police. The original ending would have had Chris taken away by police, disbelieved and arrested; Rod tries to convince him to think of any evidence that would exonerate him but he doesn’t care, and he more or less gives up on life although satisfied that he stopped the brain transplant conspiracy. I can understand why they changed it to go for something a bit more hopeful, but I don’t think it really worked and the scrapped version seems truer to the tone of the film.)
Oh, and Rod is a TSA officer portrayed nothing but positively, and that ends up being the justification given for his detective skills. Which, no. Fuck the TSA. It’s invasive security theatre and of at best dubious efficacy for its ostensible purpose of preventing “terrorism”.
Also, apart from any ideological/messaging critiques, I think a lot of the twists in this film come across as a sort of lazy trope subversion. I normally like that sort of thing, but when it’s in a context of commenting on and exploring the implications of the initial trope; here it seems more like a sort of trolling: “Oh, you thought you were watching Movie A? Actually, it’s Movie B! Oh no wait it’s Movie C! Haha, fooled you, sucker!”. It seems to be playing with audience expectations for the sake of tricking them rather than for the sake of the story or its message.
“Get Out” is a well-crafted and well-acted film and, while horror is not a genre I particularly enjoy, did manage to be reasonably compelling. That said, had it not been recommended to me I would definitely not have chosen to watch it (and doubt I will be watching it again). Given the above muddled messaging, I am also not sure I feel comfortable recommending it to people who do enjoy the genre (even if I appreciate what I think was the original intent of using racism as the vehicle for a horror story, and using that horror to comment on racism).