SEEING THROUGH THE LENS OF ANOTHER
(A Commentary on Get Out)
Two black men seated in the row in front of us continue to turn around and stare. They remain quiet until the film’s end when people begin to make their way out of the theatre. As we start to collect our things, the two men quickly turn towards us saying, “watch out for her,” as a provocative comment or “warning.” Jayden, my friend, laughs a bit and continues to gather his things, while I find myself slowly sinking into the chair out of embarrassment and discomfort. I sit quietly for a moment to process what they mean. As a white female at the movies alone with my black friend, I now share the same agenda as Rose and her family? How does a film’s portrayal of white antagonists all of a sudden make me like them? I say “them” as if I’m alluding to a collective group of people, whose whole character is preconceived by nothing other than media representation and cultural bias. How ironic. It would be unfair to say I can completely empathize with racism and lack of representation. Upset by their generalizations, I want to respond, but I don’t. Because at this moment, I realize the film’s intention and more importantly what I should learn from it.
While racism of any kind is unsettling and scary, Get Out goes beyond the apparent horror of it all. Instead, writer and director Jordan Peele takes a multidimensional approach to representing racism literally and figuratively through the lens of another. Overlapping genres and unconventional protagonist-antagonist roles allow a white audience to “experience” racism in a way that articles, magazines, and news outlets fail to do. Within its taboo on interracial relationships, suburban racism, police brutality and “political correctness,” the film thoughtfully addresses contemporary culture wars and the discomfort it brings, both small and large (domesticated and horrifying).
Not really knowing much about the film, Jayden and I anxiously walk into the movie theatre. As the opening scene begins, a lost young black man nervously walks the streets of a primarily white, suburban neighborhood. Jayden leans over and points towards the screen explaining the significance of the man’s hoodie and setting in reference to Trayvon Martin. A black audience would recognize that fear - a fear of living as a minority in “White America.” And for a white audience, they merely see a black man walking late at night through a suburban neighborhood. As the scene continues, the man appears unsettled by the unfamiliar sounds and settings. A nearby car begins to follow him. Confused at first, he continues walking to avoid any conflict but soon realizes something is off and starts frantically walking back to safety. The angle quickly shifts to a close-up of his wide, bloodshot eyes. He stares straight into the camera projecting his impenetrable fear onto us. I grip the chair as the tension slowly builds. All at once, the stalker abruptly comes out with a knife, forcing the man into the trunk of his car. The mysterious figure and stark contrast from no action to sudden attack with jump-cuts create a tension that is familiar both culturally and as part of the suspense genre. Being the supposed scary movie fanatic, I try not to show any physical signs of shock. Although the man appears lost, we only hear his breathing which increasingly becomes more frantic. At first, he seems calm until immediate action shifts the scene from suspense to full-on horror movie mode.
As we continue watching, we see a more domesticated genre featuring the main characters Chris Washington, an African American, and his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage, who invites him to tag along for a weekend at her parents' house upstate. Chris initially worries her family will disapprove of their interracial relationship despite her reassurances to him, “They’re not racists. I would have told you.”
Conventional horror aside, Peele takes it a step further by adding periodic breaks of humor and cringe-worthy political correctness. This blending of race savvy satire with thrill and suspense maintain engagement with a broad audience while simultaneously projecting a social critique of contemporary race relations through a unique cinematic perspective. In her Get Out review from theverge.com, Tanisha Robinson writes about the strategy behind Peele’s incorporation of “racially tinged awkwardness.” In this “meet the parents” scene, Chris is welcomed in an “awkwardly forceful…would-be Liberal-alley” way (Robinson). This behavior continues later in the film, when family friends attempt to talk to Chris by commenting on his “muscular arms” or saying, “my husband plays golf…he’s a huge fan of Tiger”. Although the intention is to make him feel welcomed, this “political correctness” creates a sense of difference and isolation, a tension that projects onto both a black and white audience. Reinforcing this idea of extreme liberalism points to reminders of white privilege and power “not just on a broad societal level, but in situations as small as social gatherings and casual conversations” (Robinson). In a way, its tensions relieve some of the more blatant horrors but carry a more subversive commentary on the way white people continue to treat and ignore contemporary racism.
While all movies seek to create a particular engagement with the audience, the comedy, horror, and suspense presented in Get Out specifically feed on a desire to “provoke a physical reaction” from the viewer. As Peter Debruge from Variety puts it, Get Out is more of a “race-based horror movie” combining “genuine thrills with a no-holds-barred critique” of obvious and subverted racism. Thought-provoking elements of time restraints and plot twists, unravel new, relevant information. But with so much suspense, the audience needs to breathe and engage with the mystery of it all. Analyst, speaker and screenwriter Daniel Calvisi claims that thrillers like this use a technique of “tension and relief” that allows the viewer to stop and think over the film “before being pulled back into the race.” One of the most critical components of a thriller is projecting a realistic tension or fear throughout the film (Calvisi). Through a blending of “race savvy satire” with thrill and suspense, Get Out maintains this engagement with a broad audience while simultaneously projecting a social critique of contemporary race relations.
In his interview for the New York Times, Peele discusses his own experience meeting his white girlfriend’s parents: “I had a Caucasian girlfriend a while ago. I remember specifically asking if the parents knew I was black. She said no. That scared me” (Peele). The language of perspective and vision serves as one of the most important cinematic components in explaining fears such as this. “I didn’t want even to see an adjustment on someone’s face when they realized it’s [his race as her boyfriend] not what they thought” (Peele). While his weekend didn’t escalate as much as the film itself, the blatant horror serves as his way of representing much of his suppressed paranoia at that time. To “see the world through the eyes of a black person for an hour and a half,” a white audience experiences a new kind of fear rarely represented in film and media (Peele).
As the protagonist of Get Out, Chris narrates most of the film through ways of seeing, whether it be through phone, camera, or eyes. On a larger scale, vision serves as a critical component in allowing black people to explain white supremacy from their point of view. As a photographer, he often walks with a camera around his neck as a distraction or filter to the off-putting encounters with Rose’s family and friends. In many ways, Chris’s camera also functions as an extension of his own eyes. This sense of sight is used as a symbol to express racial bias that often goes unnoticed through a white lens. It is also through this lens that Chris accidentally triggers the flash on his phone while trying to take a photo of Logan, one of the Armitage's only black “friends.” But once Logan sees the flash, his demeanor immediately changes from composed to triggered, and he repeatedly shouts , “Get out!”. Despite several reassurances of Logan’s history with "light-induced seizures,” Chris immediately registers his reaction as a warning. Just as phones and video recordings have uncovered injustice of police brutality and other acts of racial aggression, cameras in Get Out serve as a tool of exposure.
During the Armitages’ annual party, Chris wanders off with his camera where he runs into one of the guests, Jim Hudson. As an art-photography dealer, Jim speaks highly of Chris’s work, despite being legally blind. In contrast to most of the guests, Jim doesn’t seem quite like the other white people at the party. His inability to see anything, more specifically race, gives Chris a sigh of relief. However, the scene later reveals his character and intentions are not what we think. Jim desires a perspective outside of art and photography. More literally, he wants to see the world through Chris’s point of view without any of the social challenges of being black. Jim wants to inhabit his body merely for its “superior physical abilities,” saying later in the film, “black muscle can be useful if separated from its black mind.” It's no coincidence that Jim is not only blind, but also colorblind. These extreme and subtle components point to a more troubling reality of post-racial America.
In fact, the whole plot of the film plays off of the idea of cultural appropriation.While we don’t see confederate symbols or white hoods, most of the characters seem obsessed with black people. At the Armitages’ party, the guests arrive in a line of black cars. In this sense, the black body is a “shiny car” awarded conscious value only when a white driver sits behind the wheel.
Peele uses vessels in the form of vehicles, eyes or physical bodies, as a way of criticizing the white marveling over the black image without respect for the black mind.
As we start to collect our things, the two men quickly turn towards us saying, “watch out for her.” Jayden, laughs a bit and continues to gather his things while I uncomfortably sink in to my chair. My eyes rapidly shift from left to right out of feelings of paranoia and isolation looking around to see who is “watching” me. One of the most important lessons I took away from my real-life coda to the film this is how perspective can affect an environment for empathy. Peele notes that the work of his film comes “By seeing the world through somebody else's eyes, and that's what great story does…that’s what a strong protagonist does” (Peele). His film had been my lens, allowing me to see what I’d not seen before. In that moment, my black friend was warned to be fearful of me and I was put into a position that I didn’t fathom because I’d never had to understand or experience my race made so visible. Now real the question is, what will the rest of white America Get Out of it?