Image Credits: Universal Pictures

The Commodification of Black Bodies in Get Out

By Eva Phillips - April 24, 2017, 8:00 AM

Bodies are the immediate object of intense focus in the opening moments of Jordan Peele’s astronomically smart Get Out (2017). After the jarring opening scene—in which we fixedly watch a black man as he is stalked through what we presume to be a white neighborhood, choked out, and dragged into a car, his body subjected to the whims of a masked man—the film jump cuts to a quick tracking shot of sprawling, swamp-esque trees and foliage as a haunting song plays, a song that evokes the aching somberness of a slave hymn. The film then cuts to a scene set to Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” and as the camera interposes close-ups of a muscular, glistening man shaving (whom we soon discover is the protagonist, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya) and close-ups of gorgeous black-and-white photos of a pregnant black woman, a black child, and other abstractly shot portraits, we are implored by the song to “stay woke.” This extreme focus on Chris, his physicality, and the positioning of the bodies in the photographs in his apartment is interrupted by a shot of a white woman (who we soon learn is Chris’s girlfriend Rose, a perfectly cast Allison Williams), serenely observing a pastry case. As an audience, we do not yet understand that this interrupting shot of Rose is an augury—her presence signals a sinister disruption that imperils the individuals who we see in the opening scenes. Her seemingly innocuous scrutinizing of pastries is in fact a signal to something far more sinister—to voyeurism; to deplorable desire; to the degradation of someone to the point of rendering them an object for consumption and usurpation. Without our consciously registering it, Jordan Peele brilliantly alerts the viewer to the danger the film holds.

It is critical to think of the black characters in the first moments of the film—the man who gets abducted, Chris in his post-shower state, the various individuals captured in Chris’s photos—as bodies or as caricatures. Considering them this way is problematic—but to enter the insidious racial dynamics that drive Get Out, regarding the black characters in the opening scenes as bodies or caricatures is necessary both to understanding the foul ethos of the white characters who appear later in the film and to the true horror Peele wants to convey.

In very broad strokes, Get Out depicts a trip-to-meet-the-girlfriend’s-parents weekend gone horribly awry. Chris and Rose drive across miles of woodlands—cleverly shot to make the audience feel as if they are traveling through the belly of the South (to signal the ensuing bigotry?), when in fact they are in New England—to visit Rose’s family, the Armitages, at their opulent, plantation-like home. Chris is gradually confronted with not only awkward, vaguely racist interactions, but also with the eerie, hyper-genteel “house helpers,” Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who both seem to function as slaves for the Armitages. Things start to rapidly disintegrate as the weekend unfolds, as Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener) pushes hypnotism on Chris to allegedly cure his smoking, and Rose’s brother becomes more threatening, wanting to wrestle Chris because of his physical features.

As the danger of the film gnawingly increases, there is an interesting parallel structure happening within the narrative. Chris’s best friend and dogsitter for the weekend, Rod (an astounding Milton “Lil Rey” Howery) begins to suspect something nefarious is happening, based on his premise that a black man should never go to the family’s house of a white girlfriend, and on the discovery that a missing jazz musician is inexplicably at a party at Rose’s house. Rod concocts a seemingly absurdist scenario: Rose’s family and friends and are abducting black people to turn them into sex slaves. When Chris does not show up after the trip, Rod reports his worries to a police detective (a fantastic cameo from Living Single’s Erika Alexander), who proceeds to mock Rod for his hyperbolic ideas. “White women...they’ll get you every time,” the detective dismissively and unintentionally ominously laughs.

[spoilers follow] Rod’s storyline functioning as a parallel to Chris’s spiral into danger is the crucial element to the film’s superb humor and excoriating truth. Rod is designed to read as a caricature, the crass, assumptive persona of a black moviegoer. But what Rod truly does is function to defy that caricature, as Rod is the only character in the film with proper insight. Rod ludicrously though accurately assesses the depersonalization that is transpiring during the film. He delivers a spot-on assessment of how black characters are degraded to the point of simply being bodies, features, traits, just as the opening scenes portend. To some extent, Rod’s hypothesis that the white characters in the film are abducting the black characters for sex slaves is a smidgen absurd and intended humorously. But in an achingly real sense, as it turns out, Rod is utterly correct. The concept behind Rod’s theory is the prevalent phenomenon of creeping, clandestine, yet wholly pernicious racism that is demonstrated by the Armitages, who do actually abduct black victims for the physical capabilities, talents, or characteristics which they lack themselves. Every aspect of this premise is masterfully defined. The Armitages’ silent yet ruthless racism and vile “sport” of capturing, brainwashing, and lobotomizing black victims is established on inheritance and patrilineal practices (Rose’s father adopted the practice from his father, and he eagerly aims to pass it to his demented son). In this way, the family and the white people in the small town function as a metaphor for white racism—it is an established, inherited practice that is so routinized that it is as banal as a family dinner. Depersonalizing, kidnapping, and desecrating black bodies is a practice so ingrained in their culture that Rod’s comically ludicrous “sex slave” plot is more sickeningly comical because it is effectively accurate. The heinous plot enacted by the Armitages and the other white people in the film is so excruciating to watch because it capitalizes on commonplace, inherited, deplorable racism. The satire of the film, then, is the satire of not realizing how pertinent every aspect of the film’s racism is to actual life.

The film portrays a kind of racism that transcends the explicit signs that people so often define as the only evidence of racism. Instead, racism manifests as microaggressions or, more disturbingly, as colonialist aggression. There are moments of squirming racial pandering—the one older white golf fan’s remarks about loving Tiger Woods upon meeting Chris—and subtle yet noxious conversational adjustments—Rose’s dad’s reliance on saying “man.” And overwhelmingly, there is the impetus for the sinister scheme of the film—that the white characters seek black characters out for their traits, for the things which they want to master and possess. They identify them by caricatured traits, they capture them, they force them to undergo hypnosis and a lobotomy to effectively strip them of their personhood and identities. Because the black bodies are simply that to the white characters—bodies. Bodies that they are obsequious to, to capture, to manipulate for their own purposes. Even Chris, who is targeted for his extraordinary talents as a photographer, is told by the man who “purchases” him, a blind art collector (Stephen Root), “I want those things you see with.” This is one of the ways in which racism erases black identities: black bodies are stripped of all qualities, all distinctions, except for a single, “useful” feature.

As the film reaches its ruthlessly unbridled denouement, the parallel structure that carries most of the film reaches its breathless culmination. Chris desperately attempts to escape the Armitages’ home, realizing that even his beloved Rose is in on the devious plot (in a moment that bizarrely evokes a scene in Titanic, although I may be too far down the nerd rabbit hole). These scenes of escape are interposed with moments in which Rod calls Rose on the phone to try to trap her in the lie (he does) and divine what exactly is happening to Chris. As we cut back to Chris’s escape, we watch him brutally attack the various members of the family, and while the violence is surprisingly not gratuitous and even triumphant, there is a haunting, unfamiliar dread.

A 2017 audience, an audience agonizingly aware of police brutality, of countless murders and physical degradations enacted on black bodies on a daily basis, feels an undeniable triumph that Chris escapes, that he upends the “sunken place” of hypnosis that symbolizes mental, physical, and institutional enslavement. And yet this audience fears how this can be sustainable, what will happen to Chris for literally and symbolically escaping. When we hear police sirens in the final moments, that dread overwhelms—until the parallel structure comes to a glorious end, and we see Rod emerge from his TSA car. This is, of course, the ending audiences are craving, the ending that is deserved.

These motifs of subtly pernicious racism—the usurpation and desecration of bodies that is internalized as casual envy, the outright disregard for black identities—are brilliantly presented to rip apart the audience’s awareness. And these themes remind us of the dire reality of the world we know. They remind us that Rod’s theory isn’t hyperbole. It’s a parallel image of what is actually transpiring.

When not considering the possible, perhaps insidious ways the characters from Quentin Tarantino's films and the characters from American Horror Story may be interconnected, Eva Phillips spends most of her time considering whether getting her second post-graduate degree is really her best bet. Eva spends an unnecessary amount of time writing about the interplay of femininity and violence as well sexuality and psychosis in film, while settling in more intimately in the surprisingly not derelict city of Pittsburgh.