Monday, February 27, 2017

"You'd be a Beast": Get Out and Race

As most people reading this already know, the central story of Get Out begins when Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) brings her boyfriend Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet her parents. What begins as a racial comedy of manners, a satire of well intentioned liberalism, quickly descends into horror, but the question is what kind of horror? what is the dark secret waiting for Chris? The question of narrative is inseparable from the theme of the film. What kind of horror movie it is cannot be separated from what horror of racism it will depict.

At first, the odd mannerisms of the black maid and groundskeeper, as well as one strange party guest, suggests that we are watching The Stepford Brother in which the town's black population has been restored to some pre-civil rights fantasy of docile servants and well dressed dinner guests. As Chris says to his friend on the phone, an America that "missed the movement," left behind by civil rights and the sixties. Initially Get Out appears to  another one of those films in which a new person is brought into a community only to become a victim of its dark secret. I am not sure what to call this particularly sub-genre or even if it is one. The best examples of this genre, examples the writer and director Jordan Peele knows well, are films like The Stepford Wives  and Rosemary's Baby (Both written by Ira Levin). To perhaps take it seriously as both a movie about race and a movie steeped in the genre and subgenre's of horror is to examine the way in which the latter shapes the former. In other words, to take it seriously as an examination of the nightmare of race is to examine the way in which the genre does a kind of dream work, shaping and transforming its primary trauma. (One could even use such a method to examine the various "horror of racism" novels that have appeared in the last year, such as The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle and Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, both of which take Lovecraft and thus a different sub-genre of horror as their point of entry). 

This would be one horror story about race. Racism as the fantasy of a return to an old hierarchy and order. Racism as nostalgia or vice versa. To take the parlance of our times, America made great again. However, racism as nostalgia is itself anachronistic. It identifies racism with only the most overt and heavy handed assertions of racial superiority and hierarchy. As the film's plot unfolds, as it begins to show that there is more going on than simply brainwashing African Americans to emulate the butlers and maids that populated the movies of the good old days, it also shifts its definition of racism. The shift begins when Rose's brother Jeremy joins the family gathering. He immediately begins to chide Chris for not being interested in Mixed Martial Arts, stating that with his build and genetic makeup, he would be "a beast" with proper training. This fetishization and reduction of the black man to his body, continues into the family party the next day, as guests touch Chris, and ask Rose if the rumors they have heard about black men and sex are true. Chris is a photographer, a point that is underscored at practically every moment in the film. His talent and ability is described by white characters as "his eyes." It is somatized, made a physical attribute of the body rather than a skill developed by a mind and body, not an achievement of an individual but a fact of nature. This is no longer race as order and hierarchy, but a racism that esteems, admires, and even fears the black body as it reduces individuals to just their body. Jesse Owens can be admired for his physical prowess, but that does not mean equality, or that he is seen as human.  

To cite Balibar on the body as the intersection between class and race:

"This process modifies the status of the human body (the human status of the body): it creates body-men, men whose body is a machine-body, that is fragmented and dominated, and used to perform one isolated function or gesture, being both destroyed in its integrity and fetishized, atrophied and hypertrophed in its 'useful' organs. Like all violence, this is inseparable from a resistance and also a sense of guilt...This is an unbearable process for the worker, but one which is no more 'acceptable," without ideological and phantasmic elaboration, for the worker's masters: the fact that there are body-men, mean that there are also men without bodies. That the body-men are men with fragmented and mutilated bodes (if only by their 'separation' from intelligence) means that the individuals of each of these types have to be equipped with a superbody, and that sport and ostentation virility have to be developed, if the threat handing over the human race is to be fended off."

In a seemingly throwaway joke the audio of the United Negro College Fund can be heard while Chris' friend Rod watches TV. This can of course be understood as a joke about mind control (and brain transplants), but minds are also wasted as individuals are reduced to bodies. Being revered as a body, as a skill, a strength, etc., is also always being reduced to it.

While Peele's film was initially conceived during the Obama administration, intended as horror film for post-racial times, its focus on the black body, on its skill and prowess extends its critique into the era of Trump and the alt-right. As it has been often noted, the term "cuck" has become a preferred pejorative that the alt-right and its extended online universe uses for its enemies, a term with a complex racial and sexual history, but one that cannot be separated from the envy and fear of black bodies. (As I aside I wonder how much porn informs not only the online world's view of sex, but race as well) Modern racism is less a racism of hierarchy and superiority, than one infused with fear and strange envy of the other. 

As the film progresses we learn that the "family's" plan is not simply to reduce black people to maids and servants, but to reduce them to their very body, to make them the substrate for minds. The hypnotism and mind control is only phase one, the final completion of the plan, phase three, is to transplant aging white brains into healthy black bodies. White lives are extended, and expanded, by not just black labor, but also bodies. Or, if one wanted to read the allegory differently, the recipe for success in a racist society for those with black bodies is to take on white minds, to see themselves and the world as white people do. Peele's film smartly combines this revelation, with its seventies paranoia film trapping, with another much more intimate and contemporary one: Chris' realization that Rose is in on the plan, that he has been betrayed by the person he most intimately trusts. It is this last point, the intimacy of racism as something that enters into every relationship, even one's self conception. This is simultaneously the film's greatest tribute to films like The Stepford Wives or Rosemary's Baby, which were most frightening when they deal with husbands betraying their wives for some success and control in this world rather than when presenting a world of fembots and devils, and its most trenchant criticism of racism as an intimate relation. As one tagline for the film states, just because you're invited doesn't mean that you're welcome. Racism is not just exclusion or segregation, but it can include a kind of inclusion that invites the body in, for its talents, but does not welcome the mind or the person. 

I do not entirely want to give away the ending, or spoil the joke, but it is worth noting that the last horrifying image that the film gives us is of a police cruiser. This too can be considered a nod to the history of horror films, a reversal of the ending of Night of the Living Dead, but it is also the point where the film's allegory collapses into reality. The movie leaves the theater before the audience does, reminding them that the real horrors are not mind control, secret cults, or even racist body snatchers, but red and blue flashing lights and what passes as normal life in contemporary America. 


Dimitris said...

As I see it, the most relevant film reference to Get Lost is Frankenheimer's "Seconds" (1966). Seconds also belongs to the same horror subcategory of "mind transplant" or "deal with the devil" etc, but it is somehow a reversed image of get lost, ie from the point of view of the master, not the slave.
The upper class, fat, old and lacking any kind of juissance hero gets surgically reborn (into the body of Rock Hudson no less) and into a stepford community of happy and affluent Dionysian hippies - a sex and drugs kind of thing (it's 1966 after all), only to discover that this is just not enough, or what he really wanted: the (social in its essence) object of his desire was after all unattainable, he just cannot become a "hippie" and blend in. The realization of this fact is what automatically makes him a body (in the sense that you used for bodies in your post), demotes him to being a part of the lower class -- and thus expendable.
Very interesting for one more reason, the fact that Frankenheimer was actually very conservative, as his own Manchurian Candidate can attest -- but this was 1966...

unemployed negativity said...

Yes, that is a great observation. I went with Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby because they were mentioned and referenced by Peele. Also Seconds does not have the same sort of betrayal. Seconds is a great movie.

Ben Rosenzweig said...

Seconds doesn't have the same betrayal, but then he is alienated from pretty much everyone and that is not accidental - the betrayal is by the company that was supposed to be helping him, "got to find the cadavers somewhere!" as I think might be the last line of the movie, referring to how deaths are faked so they can assume their new lives.