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Get Out (2017) initial reactions and review

20 Nov

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.


My thoughts:

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).

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10 Comments

Posted by on November 20, 2017 in mitchell

 

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10 responses to “Get Out (2017) initial reactions and review

  1. A Masked Avenger

    November 20, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    I’m pretty sure the TSA subplot is intentional comedy. It has too many callbacks to the Key & Peele “Al Qaeda Meeting” sketch. Especially note his final line in the movie, and the part where he tells a bunch of police detectives, “I have the same training as you — except more than you, because terrorism and shit.”

    As for the girlfriend, I can’t comment intelligently (being white and male myself), but I think it was vital that she ultimately be in on it because of the race angle, rather than misogyny. Jordan Peele has joked that Get Out is a “documentary,” and I suspect he’s only half joking. The point — I THINK — is that even an open-minded person is ultimately unable to fully empathize with a foreign culture. What’s creepy or menacing to him is normal to her, and it’s hard or impossible to (a) realize that he’s feeling that way, (b) recognize that he has good reasons for feeling that way, and (c) admit that he’s right and she’s wrong.

    I’ve already made the disclaimer that this is guesswork on my part, but I’m thinking that a key part of the subtext is that interracial relationships do periodically experience crises in which something awful happens to one partner, while the other partner has trouble realizing that it even happened, let alone recognizing its magnitude. “Oh, I know he’s a dinosaur, but that’s just uncle Charlie. It’s kind of his tagline to say ‘the 14th Amendment marked the end of America.’ I doubt even he actually knows what he’s saying. We tune him out. Certainly none of us *agree* with him!”

    Just my $0.02.

     
    • mcbender

      November 20, 2017 at 7:47 pm

      I appreciate your input. I can well believe the TSA thing was a callback; I can’t really comment, not having seen the original sketch. My point there is that I think that, regardless of intent, it comes off as legitimising and endorsing the TSA and that’s what I wanted to push back against. I didn’t actually mind Rod’s character or his role in the film.

      On the girlfriend thing: I think it’s possible you may be misreading me but I’m not entirely sure. What I would have preferred for the film to have done was to make a distinction between active conspiracy and passive complicity; I am not saying it should not condemn the latter as well. So keep Rose’s denialism and minimisation, defending and enabling her parents and disbelieving Chris, but allow the characters’ relationship to have been genuine (rather than nothing but lies all along) and use her lack of understanding to create further tragedy rather than turning her into some femme fatale caricature. The “oh sure it sounds bad but Uncle Charlie is like that” angle could’ve fit right in.

      I think that makes the point you’re asserting better than the film as written does – right now I think it is literally impossible not to see a two-headed core message of “white people are racist” and “bitches be lying”. It’s worth commentating on the cultural gaps in interracial relationships that may be impossible to bridge – in fact I’ve read plenty of commentary on that and how people deal with their partners being unintentionally racist – but I don’t think Get Out does that effectively because in using “abduction and body hijacking conspiracy” as metaphoric replacement for racism it also eliminated any notion of passive participation that would have enabled it to address that.

      But I’m another white guy sticking my nose in where it may not belong, so take my opinion for what it’s worth also.

       
  2. Rose

    November 20, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    Thanks for the info, I will not watch that movie. I do not think that “weaponising misogyny against racism” will inevitably backfire, I just think it is wrong.
    White men have been oppressing white women, and black men have been oppressing black women for far longer than white people have been oppressing black people, and it is completely possible for the world at large to return to that stage of things.

    It would just be wrong. And anyone who’d fight racism with misogyny is a horrible person.

    And as a woman, I totally see the misogyny here. If the woman was just another villain and was shot unceremoniously, that’d be quite different, but the combination of the honey trap trope with the attempted strangulation is an especially unfortunate one … and I am not quite sure that it is not also racist. I mean, if you show a white man trying to murder a woman with his bare hands, and portray him as being right, you reinforce the misogynist idea that “domestic violence can be justified!”. If you show a black man doing the same, you have the same misogyny there, but you also reinforce the prejudice that black men are violent. (Of course black men want to have their slice of the male privilege cake and part of male privilege is getting to be violent against women, so the black male audience might even like it – I just wonder whether they do themselves a disservice in the long term. White people tend to see black male violence against white women in quite a different way than white male violence against women. )
    Crude as it sounds, shooting the woman with a gun would have been less problematic – it is the “civilised” way in which police deals with actual criminals and is not so strongly associated with male domestic violence against women.

     
    • mcbender

      November 21, 2017 at 6:49 am

      I think you’ve said what I wanted to say better than I managed to say it – for better or worse, I think I tend to default to condemning things like that on pragmatic terms because that kind of argument can be more likely to get through to the people who need to hear it. But it means I often end up saying that instead of the more straightforward moral condemnation, when it ought to be in addition, and that’s probably worth apologising for. Mea culpa.

      That said, I don’t want to play oppression olympics here, and I don’t necessarily think how old a particular oppressive system is (and they’re all interrelated anyway) necessarily says anything about its severity or the urgency of dismantling it.

      You have a really interesting point about that particular scene also being framed in racist terms – honestly, it looked like that to me also, although I suspect if anything they intended it ironically (not that that makes it any better). What’s even weirder to me about it is that the gun was already in the damn scene, so the strangulation was utterly superfluous (if they wanted to show Chris struggling over whether or not to kill her, they could just as easily have had his hand waver while holding the gun or something), and she’d already been shot in the gut by the groundskeeper so it wasn’t a question of whether she would die, but only how quickly.

      What disappoints me most about this film, I think, is that its portrayal of the various dimensions of anti-black racism was so well done that it’s obvious the writers were capable of nuance and understanding. There are a lot of subtle parallels and double-meanings, there’s symbolism with various props, it makes parallels to slavery and colonialism and cultural appropriation, a brief scene with an Asian man comments on “model minorities” and oppression olympics: there’s a lot going on here to engage with on race and a lot of it manages to be relatively thoughtful. And yet where gender and sex are concerned it was happy to throw women under the bus for the sake of drama without even bothering to ask questions about whether or why it was doing it. I think it offends me more when something is so clearly close to being good or even great, and falls short due to some kind of really basic error like this.

      I don’t know if anyone has really been talking about the misogyny in this film (I just saw it on Sunday so I’ve not followed much discussion yet), but they ought to be – especially because it received very high levels of critical acclaim (I’m led to believe it broke records for that, at least initially). The people who recommended this film to me are all men, and in speaking with them today I did get the impression that it owes some of its appeal to the misogyny, and the revenge fantasy against lying women; to their credit (and I’m stretching a bit here in offering it), they at least didn’t argue much when I pointed that out and eventually agreed that it was present. So at best this film is counterproductive: it may well raise awareness of racism in white male viewers by activating their misogyny, but as I continue to say, shifting targets slightly is not progress (and moreover, I think it might be worse: in claiming the mantle of a progressive film and encouraging viewers to feel more enlightened about social issues from its commentary, it may encourage those viewers to pat themselves on the back and not examine the misogyny which it is feeding them in similar quantities).

       
  3. Derived Absurdity

    November 25, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    Reading this (as another white male), I’m not entirely sure you understood what the function of Rose as a character was. She wasn’t just another random white person, she was specifically a representation of “white femininity” and how white womanhood has been (and still is being) weaponized as a tool for white supremacy. White women historically have been just as enthusiastic upholders of white supremacy as men (note how many white suffragettes argued for the right to vote by saying how degrading it was that they had less rights than black men, or how they utilized false rape accusations and sexist tropes of pure fragile white womanhood to get thousands of black men lynched for decades, or how 53% of them voted for Trump), which was illustrated with Rose. The idea that white women, being oppressed by men, are often thought to be natural intersectional allies of other disenfranchised and oppressed groups, specifically African-Americans, but when push comes to shove, they often will look out for their own (racial) self-interests before their’s and throw non-whites under the bus. That’s the sad historical truth. Rose was a commentary on that.

    I really don’t think it’s misogyny to note that white woman have been just as complicit in white supremacy as men, and they have historically used their femininity to do so. This is something many African-Americans are perfectly aware of, and many of them intuited that during the movie.

    I also think the manner of her death can be defended. First of all, I never considered strangulation to be a gendered form of murder, but maybe that’s just my ignorance talking. But her murder allows the creepy moment of her smiling as Chris keeps choking her, which can have multiple interpretations: it can either mean she thought she was vindicated in thinking that black men are inherently physically aggressive/violent, or she can just be feeling ecstasy at being choked by a black person, who she fetishizes. That also led to the scene of her calling for help when the cop car pulled up, yet another instance of her attempting to use her femininity to save her.

    Your idea of making Rose an example of white clueless complicity in racism is an interesting one, and could have worked, but it couldn’t also have worked as an example of weaponized white femininity at the same time, because white women haven’t been naive and cluelessly complicit in upholding racism. It was either one or the other. I guess Peele went with the latter. I think it could have worked if he had made the brother the avatar of clueless white ignorance. That might have been better than what we got.

    I also don’t think the twist invalidates the meanings of the microaggressions earlier in the movie, it reinforces them. The twist is obviously taken to be metaphorical, a commentary on how white people often fetishize black people’s bodies. The elderly whites didn’t “hate” Chris like a stereotypical racist, they wanted to be him. They held him in high esteem, or at least his body. They didn’t treat him as just another regular person who happened to have black skin, they thought he was fundamentally different… “better” in some ways than whites, which is still a racist belief. This is exactly what white people do when they patronize black people with microaggressions like praising their physical fitness or whatever. It fit perfectly.

     
    • mcbender

      November 27, 2017 at 3:03 am

      I wanted to take some time before responding to this to make sure I actually thought it through; I continue to feel uncomfortable with the stance I’m taking toward this film and want to make sure I don’t say something I will later regret (that said I’ll probably end up doing so anyway). That said…

      I don’t think it’s that I’ve misunderstood it, precisely – I am aware of a lot of the context you mention – but you’re right to criticise me for not addressing it or perhaps for being more ambiguous than I should have. I think you’re almost certainly correct about that being intent; I just don’t think it was executed well, and I think there are a lot of unfortunate aspects of that execution that end up doing significant splash damage.

      The one scene I think really does work in this context is the ending, when the police car drives up (before Rod is revealed to be the driver) and Rose goes out of her way to play up the image of innocent white femininity under attack by a savage black male aggressor, presumably to trick the police into siding with her (and it would probably have worked if the driver had not been Rod, giving us the original ending). Whatever problems I had with the strangulation aspect (which I understand is probably there specifically to give the image of Chris as savage aggressor more weight; it works well to serve that purpose, but I find it problematic because I don’t think that’s enough benefit to counteract the costs of putting yet another such image on the screen), that was a great scene and runs exactly parallel to the lynching narrative (as I’m sure it was meant to).

      Likewise, in a vacuum a lot of the other things probably wouldn’t be as bad as they read to me here. But utilising all of the honey-trap femme fatale tropes (and explicitly saying that a presumably loving relationship of nearly half a year’s duration was nothing but lies the entire time) feeds into cultural narratives of feminine dishonesty far more than it actually engages with white women’s racism. We don’t need more things telling us not to believe women right now: see e.g. what Melissa writes here http://www.shakesville.com/2017/11/what-we-mean-by-believe-women.html as I think that context is relevant here. (I have also had far too many conversations with men whose default attitude toward relationships is adversarial – even with women they claim to love – precisely because they assume they will be lied to as a matter of course. Including some of the men who recommended this film to me, who felt validated in that attitude by it. This doesn’t exist in a vacuum.)

      (I can’t say false relationships never happen, but ironically the most common perpetrators of them are undercover police exploiting female activists in order to infiltrate their groups… e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UK_undercover_policing_relationships_scandal )

      And I realised when writing this comment that Rose isn’t even the only the instance where the film seemingly uses a woman being dishonest as a punchline – we’ve also got the (Black) female cop Rod tries to get help from, who brings her partners into the room to hear his story only for it to be revealed she never believed him at all and just brought them in to laugh at him. This is a film that seriously doubles down – triples or even quadruples down, when you also consider Creepy Therapist Mom and Georgina the servant/victim – on the idea that women cannot be trusted. There is not a single trustworthy woman anywhere in the film. This is, to say the least, a troubling pattern.

      Some of the problem may also be because the film is relatively short, and has so few major characters. This would not be as big an issue if there were other young female characters in the film, in which case Rose would no longer be the sole representation of heterosexual femininity (I qualify this because her mother Missy is also a major female character, but she is openly sinister and narratively asexual and therefore serves a completely different representational role; even then, she’s not exactly a counterpoint to “women are fundamentally liars”). If they had had more time and a larger cast, maybe there could have been a second Armitage daughter or something (instead of letting the brother off the hook) either to play the “weaponised white femininity” role instead of Rose, or to play the clueless enabler instead of Rose as I initially suggested. Or someone else. Something, anything to get a single woman in the film who isn’t a lying schemer.

      I’ve already said I think the film does a good job depicting and calling out the subtler forms of racism, such as what is commonly called “benevolent racism” (e.g. the “superior body” fetishisation you pointed out), and I know Peele claims to have written the film in response to the naive belief that Obama’s election meant we lived in a post-racial society. It’s not all bad; to the contrary there’s a lot of good to be said about it and I think there’s a lot of value to be had in discussing it (I found this piece quite interesting for instance https://theestablishment.co/get-out-and-the-revolutionary-act-of-subverting-the-white-gaze-c769cb620496 ). But none of that makes the misogyny defensible, nor do I think we should ignore it.

       
      • William Wehrs

        November 29, 2017 at 5:53 pm

        I think the best solution would have been to make the best friend a woman. This would have solved the film’s seeming endorsement of the disgusting phrase “bros before hoes.”

         
      • mcbender

        November 30, 2017 at 3:19 pm

        That is a really elegant solution and I’m ashamed not to have thought of it!

         
  4. Derived Absurdity

    November 27, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    You make some good points.

     
    • mcbender

      November 27, 2017 at 7:51 pm

      So do you! If nothing else, this film certainly is making me think, so it definitely deserves credit for that at least.

       

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