Jordan Peele’s Social Horror: Get Out
At the outset, Jordan Peele’s debut feature film Get Out (2017) seems to reaffirm the idea of US social progression. The film’s main protagonists Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), are an interracial couple who we might be what we think of, uncritically, as ‘cool’ people. That is to say, attractive, well-educated, elite––a couple who symbolize the nation’s social and racial tolerance. They are the perfect poster couple for America’s millennial generation, “The most racially diverse generation in US history”1.
When we first meet Chris and Rose, they are preparing to travel to meet Rose’s parents for the first time. Before they leave, in earnest, Chris asks Rose whether her parents know that he is Black. Rose says no and laughs off the ludicrousness of having to make such a pronouncement. She sarcastically performs the conversation, ‘Mom and dad, my uh Black boyfriend will be coming up this weekend, and I uh just don’t want you to be shocked that he’s a Blackman’. Unconvinced, Chris explains, ‘You know, I don’t want to get chased off the lawn with a shotgun’. Rose quickly assures Chris that he has nothing to worry about because her parents ‘Would have voted for Obama a third time’. They are not racist she insists, and when the couple arrives at the expansive Armitage estate, the family’s odd behavior seems to be nothing more than a misguided attempt to connect with Chris.
In these opening moments, Get Out would appear to be a millennial reworking of Stanley Kramer’s comedy-drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). First, at the beginning of both films, a white woman brings her Black partner back to her childhood home to meet her parents. Second, the white woman in both films has neglected to tell her family that her partner is Black. Third, the white woman assures her Black partner that there is no reason to worry because both of her parents are liberals. However, we soon learn that Get Out, unlike Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, is no love story.
The film begins with a prelude. Before the titles, before we meet Chris and Rose, we meet Andre Hayworth. It is night-time. We see a quiet, sleeping, suburban street. The lawns are clean, and cars sit in every driveway (Figure 1). Andre seems to be here to visit his girlfriend, who he’s speaking to on the phone, but he is lost and anxious about his surroundings. ‘You’ve got me out here in this creepy, confusing ass suburb’ he explains into the phone.
‘I feel like a sore thumb out here,’ he says as the camera continues to follow him deeper into suburbia. Here Andre is, of course, calling attention to the homogeneity of the suburban United States.
As Historian Eric Avila has shown, America’s suburbs have long been associated with whiteness2, and popular culture, especially the horror film genre, has worked extensively to reinforce this history. In her comprehensive book ‘Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films’, film critic Robin Means Coleman charts the relationship between suburban geography and racism in the US horror film. She writes, “While Main and Elm streets were now ‘common,’ horror said that these streets were not accessible to just any old member of the public. Implicitly, no Blacks (or any racial minorities for that matter) were allowed”3.
Means Coleman provides an exhaustive list of suburban horror films such as Amityville Horror (1979), Halloween (1979), Friday the 13th (1980), Poltergeist (1982), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) which feature all white casts. As Andrew Wiese writes, the suburbs, particularly on screen, are a “Spatial metaphor for whiteness itself”4. But as Sociologist James Loewen reminds us, America’s suburbs did not fortuitously remain white. “On the contrary, all-white suburbs were achieved”5.
In the Jim Crow South, for instance, so-called Sundown Towns––places that banned non-whites from entering city lines after dark, were used as a strategy to segregate minority groups from white populations. Some communities posted signs such as ‘Nigger Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here’ at the entrance of their town, warning non-whites of the consequences of being found after dark. And even though many Black people often worked or shopped in these spaces during the day, by preventing them from spending the night in the town, residents made sure that physically and symbolically such places remained white.
Andre Hayworth understands this history so when a vintage white sports car slowly creeps into view and begins to follow him, he starts to second guess himself (Figure 2). During the film’s DVD commentary director Jordan Peele explained that he wanted the sports car during this opening sequence to function similarly to the great white shark in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).
And although this horror reference may seem to work on an aesthetic level, if we dig a little deeper, Andre’s presence makes the audience strikingly aware of how this reference fails. The shark in Spielberg’s Jaws hunts its victims indiscriminately. It is indifferent to gender, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity. The metaphoric shark in Get Out, however, is racially motivated. By this I mean to say that the shark, like many of the horrors within Jordan Peele’s fictional world, is solely hunting for Black victims.
These opening moments of Get Out more accurately echo the murder of Trayvon Martin whose only crime was walking through a predominately white suburb at night. This opening sequence does not present suburbia as the cliché unsafe space for everyone; instead, the film states that suburbia is a safe space unless you’re Black.
Moments later, Andre decides to make a break for it, but it is too late. A man wearing a helmet emerges from the sports car and strangles Andre until he passes out and abducts him. Later we learn that the man underneath the helmet is Rose Armitage’s brother, Jeremy Armitage. The whole Armitage clan, it turns out, are the creators of ‘The Order of the Coagula’ a secretive cult who lure Black people to their family home, and then sell their bodies to older members of the cult who are facing some form of physical infirmity. Rose Armitage’s grandfather, we learn, developed a surgical transplantation procedure called the coagula method. In this procedure a white person’s consciousness is transplanted into a Black person’s body, enabling them to live a full life with just a flicker of the victim’s old mind left to passively observe in a temporal netherworld at the very base of one’s mind called the ‘Sunken Place.’
Here, Get Out draws on the tradition of the political ‘body swap’ found in horror films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Stepford Wives (1975). In Invasion, depending on one’s interpretation, alien pods from outer space turn the individualistic US citizen into either a mindless Communist drone or a post-war conformist. The independent woman becomes the vacant robot housewife in The Stepford Wives. In Get Out, the coagula procedure renders the African American victim powerless. They are forced into a metaphorical version of slavery where white people steal their bodies and use them for their own purposes.
Notably, this opening scene unfolds, until the very end, with a long tracking shot that exceeds two minutes. This continuous shot calls attention to itself and directly echoes several films throughout history which begin with similar swooping sequences; for example, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), Boogie Nights (1997), The Player (1992), La La Land (2016), and once again, Halloween. However, just as Jeremy emerges from the car to place Andre into bondage, the camera’s long tracking shot stops sharply. For a camera that was until now overtly mobile, this abrupt cut is uncharacteristic. The camera then moves back even further to present a fixed wide-angle shot of the scene (Figure 3).
This framing creates a jolting sight for viewers, and one could reasonably read this cut as a misguided aesthetic choice or a misplaced shot. However, this cut, I want to suggest, was a calculated decision on the director’s part. By depicting a contemporary lynching through the use and subsequent subversion of a revered cinematic technique, this opening sequence symbolizes the inability and, in some cases, the overt disinterest cinema, but particularly the U.S. horror film, has historically shown in representing the systemic horrors of anti-Black racism in the United States.
Get Out’s ability to evoke the history of chattel slavery within a contemporary horror aesthetic is perhaps the film’s most salient idea. The film is able to narrate how race-based slavery is not an institution confined to the past, nor one that is solely locatable in a particular region such as the deep South, but a national institution, practice, and indelible framework that continues to animate the present.
In this sense, Get Out would appear to be a film that is, at the very least, shaped by the political philosophy of Afro-pessimism. Rather than a fixed ideology, Afro- pessimism is better thought of as a theoretical lens for drawing out a political ontology of Black existence. The writer and filmmaker Frank B. Wilderson is often credited as the first Afro-pessimist thinker, but the theoretical foundations can be traced within the work of Frantz Fanon, Jared Sexton, Hortense Spillers, and Saidiya Hartman. One of the central tenets of Afro-pessimism is a theoretical reinterpretation of the transatlantic slave trade. Instead of defining slavery as a relation to forced labor, it is instead defined as a relation of property. The slave is objectified entirely and legally transformed into a commodity to be used and exchanged. However, it is not solely the slave’s labor-power that is commodified, but their very existence. For what a master wants from their slave, as the Hegelians would remind us, is to be recognized “Since he, like all human beings, wants to obtain a substantive sense of self – and that is something that can only be provided by the gaze of the other”6.
When racial categories structure the master-slave dialectic, however, the master is no longer interested in being recognized by their slave just as the slave is no longer interested in their master. Like all masters, they desire labor from their slave; but when the idea of race is introduced, that is all the master desires. Therefore, the slave is denied the most basic degree of human recognition, and “As such, they are not recognized as a social subject and are thus precluded from the category of human”7.
According to Afro-pessimism, the emancipation proclamation did not signal any break with the configurations of slavery. Instead, the passing from slavery to legal freedom marked the passage from one mode of racialized domination to another. Following abolition, the formal determinations of slavery were absorbed under the racial category of Blackness, thereby ontologising the slave relation as the fundamental reality of Black existence. In other words, to be Black, according to Afro-pessimism, is to be ontologically marked as a slave, and no amount of protest, creative intervention, personal achievements, or personal wealth can make Black Lives Matter.
Get Out best exemplifies these sentiments during its original ending. In this version, Rose hunts Chris down as he escapes the burning Armitage estate. The pair fight on the ground but Chris manages to overpower Rose and begins to strangle her. Just as Rose takes her final breath, the red-and-blue lights of a police car flood the screen. Two armed officers rush over, and the next time that we see Chris, he is in an orange jumpsuit behind prison bars.
In this alternative ending, there is no hope for Chris. He has escaped the Armitage’s paralyzing coagula––a contemporary representation of slavery––only to fall victim to another: America’s prison industrial complex. The structural and physical violence that Black people endure “Remains constant, paradigmatically, despite changes in its “performance” over time—slave ship, Middle Passage, Slave estate, Jim Crow, the ghetto, and the prison-industrial complex”8. With this ending, Get Out would follow the same trajectory as George Romero’s Night of the living dead. At the film’s end, after the persistent zombies have killed all the supporting characters, the film’s main Black protagonist Ben heroically survives. He retreats to the basement of a house to wait out the morning and rescue. Hearing the sounds of the county sheriff’s zombie-hunting posse, Ben emerges from the basement only to be shot dead.
Is Ben murdered because the sheriff thought that he was a zombie or because he is Black? We are never sure. Writer and director George Romero always persisted that he had not intended to make a film about race––insisting that Duane Jones (Ben) simply gave the best audition. However, the film’s final images––stills which unravel behind the credits like Chris Marker’s photomontage, show the sheriff and his men placing a hoard of dead bodies, including Ben’s, on a bonfire (Figure 4). These grainy final moments which evoke images of southern lynching suggest that by the end of the film’s production, Romero had realized the radical potential of his low-budget horror.
However, of course, Get Out does not commit to this ending. The film’s theatrical finale provides a much brighter, optimistic, and idealistic conclusion. In the final sequence, the police car emerges with Chris’s best friend Rod Williams behind the wheel. Rod saves the day, and the pair ride off into safety.
With this theatrical ending, Get Out breaks from Afro-Pessimism and in turn challenges Wilderson. According to Afro-Pessimism, anything less than the absolute overturning of the world’s order, the violent destruction of the full structure of antagonisms, has nothing “To do with Black liberation”9. Get Out, in contrast, imagines a form of resistance to anti-Blackness which is not entirely limited to expressions and events of grand political violence. The film instead suggests that there is a way out of bondage, and it lay within ethno-racial community resistance. It is no coincidence that during their brief respite from the coagula, in which they only have the time to take one action, Logan, Walter, and Georgina all decide to aid Chris’s escape, a gesture of community, instead of self-preservation.
And by this, I do not mean to say the film is necessarily against radical force or its use as an effective and liberating tactic. Chris does violently kill each of the Armitages to escape their debilitating coagula. Nor does the film suggest that the law should be left unchallenged in its total operation. Throughout we are presented with examples of how the law disproportionately affects Black US citizens. For instance, on their way to the Armitage estate, Rose and Chris hit a deer.
The young couple pulls over to the side of the road to recover from the shock; and when a police officer arrives, even though Rose was driving, the officer insists on seeing Chris’s license. Rose pushes back and tells the officer that he has no right to ask Chris for his ID. Chris, on the other hand, mindful of what happened to Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Samuel DuBose, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling––to name only a few, smiles wryly but remains polite and respectful throughout.
And Jordan Peele did leave a small piece of the original ending intact. There are a few well-executed moments of Hitchcockian suspense between the police car arriving, and Rod emerging from the driver’s seat, which provides the audience with a brief insight into Chris’s original fate. The film instead suggests that other and more pragmatically oriented practices of activism such as community organizing––that is, strikes, protests, boycotts should all count as a genuine resistance to anti-Black racism.
1 NBC News, “Millennials: Most Racially Diverse Generation in U.S. History,” March 2014: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/millennials-most-racially-diverse-generation-u-s-history-n46361
2 Eric Avila, Dark City: White Flight and the Urban Science Fiction Film in Postwar America. In: Daniel Bernardi Classic Hollywood Classic Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 53-71.
3 Robin Means Coleman, Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (New York: Routledge, 2011), 148.
4 Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 109.
5 James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (New York: The New Press, 2005), 109.
6 Peter Hudis, “Racism and the Logic of Capital: A Fanonian Reconsideration,” Historical Materialism 26 (2018): 207.
7 Editors, Afro-Pessimism: An Introduction (Minneapolis: racked & dispatched, 2017), 7.
8 Frank B. Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 75.
9 James Zug, “The Italicized Life of Frank Wilderson ’78,” Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Sept – Oct 2010: https://dartmouthalumnimagazine.com/articles/italicized-life-frank-wilderson-%e2%80%9978