Get Out: The Impossible Dream

I don’t watch horror films. I was eight years old when I went to see The Invasion of the Giant Ants with my brother and ended up under the seat for most of the show. No escape. I’m still recovering from Psycho way back when. The last one I watched was The Exorcist in 1973. No thanks. So it was with trepidation that I agreed to watch Get Out with my boys after New Years. Billed as a horror film and with a trailer to substantiate that claim, it turns out Get Out is not of the horror genre, but a film about horror: the everyday horror of racism, white supremacy and the plundering of black bodies.

From the opening scene until the last moments of this brilliant film by comedian and Academy Award winner, Jordan Peele, we are delivered into the world of fear that is a constant for black people in our country. In fact, despite the sinister dramatics about to unfold in the body of the film, it is the opening moments that highlight this fact and continue to haunt my psyche. Trying to find his way in a quiet and obviously white, suburban neighborhood, a lone black man is jumped from behind by an anonymous assailant and put in a chokehold. He quickly falls limp, is dragged to his assailant’s car and dumped in the trunk where he is trapped as his unknown captor speeds away.

Peele wastes no time introducing us to the reality of black fear: their bodies are not safe, and at any time they can be stolen, raped or murdered. This is an utterly disarming introduction and it just gets worse from there. In portraying this terrifying reality right out of the gate, Mr. Peele creates a cinematic testimony to the literary work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between My Country and Me and more recently, Eight Years in Power. Both of these books are stark accounts of racism and black life in America, past and present, and the ever-present danger of black lives being plundered by whites. Listen to Mr. Coates’ words to his son:

Here is what I would like you to know: In America,

it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is our heritage.

The mutant form of white supremacy on display in this film brings us to a modern plantation in an apparently liberal New England town. Here the privilege of privacy allows a family comprised of a contemporary Dr. Frankenstein and his bewitching psychiatrist wife, a black magic hypnotist, to do as they please with the black subjects delivered to them by their seductive daughter, Rose. Three generations of a family exist together, as convinced of their right to exploit black bodies as were their ancestors from the south hundreds of years ago. Only in this 21st century version, they seek to occupy those bodies not only for profit and pleasure but to ensure control and dominance over mortality.

The horror of Get Out is that there is no getting out. No Exit. Despite society’s willingness to dream up a happy ending to the problem of racism by perpetuating the illusion of evolving racial attitudes, this film exposes the myth of such progress. The movie’s black protagonist, Chris, will soon encounter the reality behind this seduction because he is in actuality the guest of a white family in the practice of stealing body and soul from black people for the purpose of satisfying their own capricious wants. In short time, it becomes apparent that Chris is next in line to be sacrificed.

And this family does not act alone. A host of willing participants arrives at the plantation in a caravan of black cars that resembles a happy funeral procession. The assortment of all white neighbors arrives at the afternoon lawn party in unison, a parade of eager guests, happy because the funeral is not theirs and eager because they know the good doctors will provide them with their heart’s desire: a chance to be born again in a black body made the slave of their wishes.

All this comes with a big white, friendly smile. Why not? For one guest, the prize is a black sex toy destined to become a slave to the insatiable, no longer frustrated appetite of a shameless white widow. For another, a blind art dealer, the envious longings of decades will be realized by stealing what he covets so much: the eyes of Chris, who is a brilliant photographer, capable of seeing with unflinching accuracy what others dare not.

And that is precisely the challenge of this remarkable film—we are challenged to see the real horror of white supremacy. We see the cold-blooded Nazi doctor in his laboratory methodically carving through a skull into the primal stock of the human brain. We see his partner in crime, the ruthless witch mother, who readies their black victims by casting a spell, every bit as imprisoning as chains and effectively enslaving body and mind. We see their daughter, Rose, transform from a playful, charming and progressive liberal into the cold hearted instrument of deception who delivers the prey to her father’s laboratory. And the son, who turns out to be the faceless kidnapper from the film’s opening moments returns and reveals the unmasked face of sociopathy driving this evil enterprise.

We see this and realize we have been duped. We have been in a trance believing in the innocence of our country and the dream of progress towards our ideals. Black people are not safe from the predatory reach of white supremacy and we, the audience, are not free from our wish to believe it is not so.

And here is the catch. Although Chris looks at the world through eyes that are large and perpetually projecting a bemused skepticism, eyes that are not afraid to see the cruelty of life as it is, and although he does not entirely buy the picture Rose paints of her liberal family when she invites him to her house for the weekend--he goes along. Why does he deny his better judgment?

For one, Rose’s performance is commanding. Along with Chris, we are captivated by her. She is bright eyed, sexy and feisty. Not to mention quick thinking, which is on display early in the film when the plan goes off script because her car strikes and kills a passing deer. (Remember the deer!) When a police officer arrives on the scene, she exercises her progressive stripes by what looks to be a protest on Chris’ behalf, protecting him from the officer’s racially motivated intrusion into his identity. In retrospect, we realize the defense of her boyfriend was motivated by self-interest and the necessity of preventing a paper trail of their journey from being on the record.

What makes Chris vulnerable to the seduction of Rose and the white man’s trap is the wound he carries in his heart; that wound leads him to accuse himself of abandoning his dying mother. What makes us vulnerable to the hypnosis of the culture is the wound we carry in the cells of our bodies that we cannot bear to face: the wound of slavery and the blood on our hands. White supremacy feeds on the vulnerability of shame and the compulsion to hide from that truth.

Chris’ deep feelings of guilt allow Rose’s mother to penetrate his psyche and access the repressed personal trauma shadowing his life. Once inside, with access to his pain, Chris is 

Get Out 3 defenseless and the witch doctor skillfully maneuvers her patient, not with the intent to help him work through the trauma, but with the dark purpose of establishing complete control over his conscious mind. And what is her instrument of power? A teacup. A pristine, porcelain teacup and a shiny silver spoon. Perfect. What better symbol of what Mr. Coates refers to as American innocence? The brutality of white supremacy successfully transformed in our age of enlightenment into the delicacy of an English teacup, whose rhythmic tingling casts a hypnotic spell over Chris every bit as binding as shackles and chains.

The plundering shrink is successful in taking his mind, as she has been with countless others and Chris falls through a psychic trap door into oblivion. Tumbling through an existential void--powerless and speechless, he falls into an endless night. As he tumbles through that endless night, Rose makes a stunning and revealing statement. A statement nearly lost in the cacophony of climactic events that are unfolding, but one that exposes the naked reality of white supremacy consciousness. Now cold and detached, Rose pears into the dark tunnel of Chris’ descent into psychic annihilation and comments innocently enough, “You were one of my favorites.” What? Your favorite what? Toy? Dog?

Having taken possession of body and mind, completing the process of transferring ownership of that body to the eagerly awaiting white recipient can begin. The operating room swings into gear. Chris is taken to an adjacent room in the basement where the final preparation begins to ready his mind for annexation. He is strapped into what looks like an old fashioned electric chair and is subjected to further hypnotic torture. What the doctors of evil have not counted on is a surviving thread of imagination and ingenuity and his enormous will to survive. In a stroke of improvisational genius, he uses the “cotton” stuffing from the arm of the chair accessed by the frantic clawing of his fingernails and stuffs it into his ears, effectively silencing the tea cup and making it impotent. Once the grand emblem of Southern capital, cotton is now his, and working for his release.

From there he is liberated to possess his body for himself and his escape. And he does so with a vengeance. Finally we get to see Chris unshackled. His ironic, ambivalent smile is gone. He now embodies the rage of millions upon millions of blacks, kidnapped and enslaved, and like Nat Turner the night of his rebellion Chris goes on a killing spree. First is Rose’s loathsome brother, who comes to retrieve him for surgery. Chris pummels him with fist and foot and he is left lying in his own blood. Next is the father. Remember the image of the innocent deer? No more! Witness to the cruelty that once took its life with the same casual privilege, the deer joins Chris in his furious attack on those who would destroy him. Sensing a disturbance, the doctor comes walking from the lab, but Chris is now armed with the head of the deer, antlers in full glory and in one of the most gratifying killing scenes in the history of movies, Chris drives those trusted antlers into the throat of the mad doctor who with a look of incredulity on his face stumbles into his laboratory and dies on the cold floor, choking on his own blood. Ah.

Trying to make his escape, Chris encounters and puts an end to the mother—and the dreaded teacup. Hurray. He finishes off the brother as well, stamping out the white brain in the process. One is forced to admit how good these killings feel. Now, in the black of night, he must make a break for it. Fleeing the horror of the household with him, we unknowingly enter the madness of the film’s finale. Or should I say, finales? Because at the film’s conclusion, we are left with a tale of two endings. With carnage on the road and the family dead or dying, Mr. Peele presents us with a curious option. Which ending do we want, and why? Ending #1--Chris’ loyal black brother, Rod Williams arrives on the scene. He has miraculously tracked Chris to the plantation. The two young men sit in the car spellbound. You want to yell, “Get out, get out of there,” but they do not move. Chris, in particular, is in shock and can only stare down the road at the bloody bodies and wonder how his friend found him. Ending #2—a police car arrives and Chris is taken away, almost certain to be charged with murder, and doomed to spend his life in prison.

Why two endings? What are we to make of Mr. Peele’s final statement? Is the rescue of Chris a feel good Hollywood finale recognizing the power inherent in black brotherhood? Is the arrest of Chris a statement of hopelessness acknowledging the agile power of white supremacy to mutate, punish and incarcerate blacks? Maybe both. But perhaps what we have here is recognition of the power of history that Faulkner identified when he told us there is no such thing as the past. What we can never “get out” of is history. The history of racism and white supremacy that lives and breathes today as it has for centuries. In his introduction to the 1981 edition of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison said the following:

…what is commonly assumed to be past history is actually

as much a part of the living present as William Faulkner insisted.

Furtive, implacable and tricky, it inspires both the observer

and the scene observed, artifacts, manners and atmosphere and it

speaks even when no one will listen.

Either ending brings Chris to the same place: his life is over. The world is dead. He can never remove himself from the cruel reality of the place he inhabits. He can never again observe the world behind the safety of his camera lens believing he is separate from its wrath. Though he has escaped this nightmare, his body and life, which he once thought to be his, are now consumed by the truth of race in our nation. And he can never get out. Nor can we.

Does this mean the horror of this film is that we are trapped in a never-ending story of evil and despair? Doomed? No escape? Or, are we to be forever put into a mindless trance by that damn teacup? Possibly. And yet, this is the rare film that wakes us up. That insists we look at what is real. That does not perpetuate the dreamy delusion of inevitable progress, or the fiction of a just, white society. Far from it. What hope it offers is that we can look at the truth head on. The horror of it all--and the truth that recognizes our condition is like a Chinese finger puzzle; by trying to get out, that is by turning a blind eye or falling for the trance inducing seductions of the system, we tighten the grip of our entrapment.

This movie won’t set us free, but it can help to break the trance and give us back our hearts and minds. In possession of ourselves we may, together, pursue what Mr. Coates has called, “The Beautiful Struggle.” It may look something like this:

The question of how one should live within a black body,

within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life,

and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.

That beautiful struggle belongs to all of us. It is beautiful because it has meaning, in and of itself. It is not the heroic struggle to triumph over evil, or the fantasy struggle of a grand solution, but the day in and day out beautiful struggle to stay awake. To stay awake and stand in that which there is no escaping. Standing in the struggle. Standing in the beautiful. Standing in the painful, the shameful, the unbearable. Standing in fear, in despair, in outrage, in ignorance, and yes, in horror. Standing in the question, in the longing, in joy and sorrow, in peace, in living and dying, in love and more love and a broken heart. And in silence. Standing together.

Mr. Peele and Mr. Coates have given us a much-needed shock to the system. Their work has the power to snap us out of the trance. It shouts, “Wake up!” “Get out, Get out!” Get out of that hypnotic trance--break the teacup! Get out of the Dream, the elaborate, seductive, beguiling and sinister American Dream. Read! Read Baldwin, Coates, Morrison, Faulkner, King, Ellison, Wright, Harris--read, meditate, talk, listen, feel, see and Question, Question, Question. Struggle to end the trance. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. It is our struggle to see what is real and take a stand.

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