Get Out and Du Bois: Sociology at the Cinema
If you haven’t had a chance to see Jordan Peele’s thinky-horror blockbuster, Get Out, you should. It’s the story of a young black photographer named Chris and his new girlfriend, Rose. Things start getting really uncomfortable when they visit her white, suburban liberal family. And then things get really crazy.
Get Out pays homage to many of the usual tropes of the horror genre that kept me on the edge of my seat, but it’s the biting social commentary that kept my sociological imagination on high alert. It is a fun film, but it’s also an unflinching allegory for race in America that doesn’t let the white liberals in the audience off easily. You should not read any further until you see it, so go ahead. I’ll wait…
I am not a huge fan of horror movies, but the observations on race made it a thoroughly satisfying experience. Like the best science fiction, the best horror films always have some kind of social commentary. Rosemary’s Baby, for example, is a classic horror film that examines the politics around women’s’ bodies. The Stepford Wives is about suburban conformity. They Live (one of my favorites) is a 1980s film about how capitalistic media and consumption lull people into passive, uncritical automatons. (The list can go on, back through Night of the Living Dead to Frankenstein and Dracula.)
Get Out swells with symbolism (e.g., Chris picking cotton to stuff in his ears). The bad guys aren’t in white robes and pointy hats but are seemingly well-intentioned, liberal white folks. Chris withstands a barrage of subtle comments (e.g., mentions of his physique, slipping into slangy “Sup, my man?” language, etc.) with a kind of knowing that almost every African American likely knows well. Chris has heard it all before, smiling and deflecting while giving enough of a pause to let everyone know—including the viewer—that they don't go unnoticed.
Still, Chris knows something doesn’t quite add up. The ubiquity of microaggressions in the second act of the film doesn’t just foreshadow the sinister third act, it also gives the audience a sense of the very real tension all African Americans face: “How do I distinguish instances of misinformation and ignorance from serious indicators that something deeper and more problematic is afoot?” In the case of Get Out, it is the latter. The movie tells the audience that the doubts and anxieties Chris wrestles with are not just figments of the imagination, but signals of very real horrors.
There is so much to analyze through a sociological lens. There’s the opening, which flips the perceived fear of an African American walking through a white suburban neighborhood as a potential threat, to envisioning African Americans as potential victims to violence: While larger white society might fear the black man, Peele reminds the audience of the fears and threats that come from being a black man, even when doing nothing more than walking down the sidewalk. (The actor who plays Chris, Daniel Kaluuya, is British and sued police in a residential neighborhood of London for assault and wrongful imprisonment after the police mistook him for a suspect.)
There’s the transformation of a slave auction into a game of Bingo. There’s the portrayal of the indifference of the police in the film matched with the reminder of the importance of cellphones in recording police brutality and violence to black bodies in contemporary America. There’s the ending, when the red and blue flashing lights arrive, which likely triggers the audience to think: “Chris is going to get blamed for everything.”
Let’s tackle the big one. In the third act, we learn that Chris has been captured in order to be subjected to the “Coagula process.” This transfers the brain from an elderly (White) person into the younger (Black) body. In so doing, the mind of the host is relegated to what they call “The Sunken Place.” The host’s mind would still be conscious but not in control, becoming a passive observer as the new mind takes over.
This sort of dual consciousness is reminiscent of W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness. There are several super smart commentaries that explore the connection, but I think we can go a touch deeper into the complexity of what director Jordan Peele is saying about the concept.
In The Souls of Black Folk—"Souls” being plural—Du Bois strikes a hopeful tone. The double consciousness is continual struggle-through-coexistence of the white and African American mind that is central to the African American experience. It’s not an easy relationship. Du Bois envisions double consciousness as a burden but it also offers the “gift” of second sight to African Americans in a way that is unavailable to white Americans. As Du Bois explains:
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face (p. 2).
Du Bois notes that these two warring sets of ideals bring about something new and greater. Peele, however, demonstrates what the double consciousness would be in the hands of a dominant white culture. The black mind is not seen as an equal in the “Coagula process.” It is colonized and relegated to the back.
It’s no mistake that Chris is an artist, however. Peele is an artist, but also the arts are what Du Bois saw as being one of the central (but not only) contributions of African Americans. Du Bois notes that African Americans “have a message for the world” and after the oft-quoted paragraph above W.E.B. Du Bois mentions the struggles in the “soul of the black artist.”
Why were the Armitages and their cult-like group (The Order of the Coagula) abducting only African Americans? Well, they express admiration, throughout: “I’d vote for Obama a third time,” “Black is in fashion,” “I met Tiger Woods!” etc. When Rose’s father is eager to give Chris a tour of artifacts from his worldly travels, he states that “it’s such a privilege to experience another person’s culture”—a thought that perfectly summarizes western cultural tourism in its paternalistic othering.
The process of body snatching for these old white folks isn’t just to live forever. These people are not the old form of racism but a new one, in fetishizing and objectifying the black body, they want to be black. It’s a privilege, for the cult, to inhabit the black body. You don’t, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists suggests, have to hate to still perpetuate white domination.
So, it is no surprise that the person whose brain is to be transferred into Chris’ body is that of a blind art collector, representing color-blind racism. Jim claims that he doesn’t care about color of Chris’ skin. In the long tradition of whites appropriating black culture, the art dealer wants him for his “eyes.” While it serves as his potential downfall, photography ends up saving Chris. Recalling how smartphones have recorded police brutality in the final scene—literally in the street—Chris uses the flash on his camera to make his escape.
There was so much more to write about, but I’ll stop there. What did you think?