“Getting Out” of Post-Racial America

Around the midpoint of Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, the film’s black hero, Chris, finds himself trapped at his host family’s party punctuated by awkward exchanges with various white strangers. Seeing the only other black partygoer, Chris approaches with a greeting “Good to see an old brother ’round here,” before patting him affectionately on the arm. The scene stands out as one of the few moments that Chris’ near perpetual state of unease vanishes briefly until he finds that the man’s mannerisms are far too WASP-y for him to be anything but more unsettled. In a movie that is ostensibly about the hidden horror of racially tinged faux-pas, Peele presents a moment of racial solidarity without a hint of reproach. This brief moment neatly encapsulates the film, which opens on the same black partygoer (this time exhibiting sufficiently explicit blackness) being abducted in a white suburb and ends with Chris being rescued from a body-snatching suburban nightmare with the arrival of a black friend to drive him home.

Indeed, Get Out’s vision of an America where a well-to-do black man can’t safely stroll down an upscale neighborhood at night is less remarkable than its vision of a world lacking any possibility of racial reconciliation. “If you haven’t seen the movie, maybe there’s a good white person in it,” remarked Jordan Peele at a promotional panel discussion. Or maybe not. Peele certainly hopes his white audience will cringe at the many awkward racial exchanges that Chris endures in the film. In Jordan’s words: “I’ve heard white viewers react somewhat more vocally to certain seemingly innocent interactions, like the scene where an older white guy goes up to Chris and says, ‘I know Tiger [Woods].’ You can hear a sense of recognition from white audiences, like Oh my God, I’ve done that.” Certainly within a film that portrays kidnapping, murder, and forced lobotomy, focusing on such trivialities seems strange. Though this response from white movie-goers seems less than unexpected on the part of Jordan Peele.

Within the world of Get Out, the only escape for the black protagonist is immediate and unapologetic separation. But within the world of the audience, the white audience at least, Get Out encourages one to observe and learn from any number of social slip-ups that might impede total integration. The black audience is, mercifully, spared from any real-world takeaway besides validation that there is something insidious about their weekend cocktail parties with WASP friends. At a basic level, this dynamic presents a contradiction at the heart of Get Out.

Of course, the prima-facie way to resolve this contradiction is to read Get Out as a cautionary tale against racial complacency. Jordan Peele seems to have something like this in mind when he explains what he was trying to convey in the film:

“The idea of, ‘We’re past it – we’re past it all!’ For me, and for many people out there – as all black people know – there’s racism. I experience it on an everyday basis. This movie was meant to reveal that there’s this monster of racism lurking underneath some of these seemingly innocent conversations and situations.”

Far from me to say that any explanation of Get Out should be dismissed merely because it adheres glovelike to a convenient narrative, but Peele’s explanation of his own film could not be more self-serving. Every character who stumbles over their words into the racist uncanny valley is either white or revealed later to be possessed by someone who is white. Get Out was sold as a scary satire of race relations, but it reveals a general perspective on the world in which Peele eschews even a cursory gesture towards introspection. Every problem arising in the fall-out of the American post-racial myth is entirely external to himself and the groups to which he belongs. He needs to do nothing differently, and if he does, it is to be more vigilant in calling out the trespasses of other groups from which he is immutably excluded.

Now, a movie reflecting its director’s own myopic resentment is nothing new, and the themes expressed in Get Out would certainly be quite at home in niche genres of American film-making. But Get Out does not stand isolated from the culture that received it, and mainstream American culture greeted Jordan Peele’s film with a megaphone of praise, pronouncing Get Out not just worthy, but great. At the moment I am writing this, Get Out sits in third place on RottenTomatoes.com list of the top 100 movies ever made, behind The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane. Critics are not simply acknowledging good technical craft and a well-told story, they are endorsing Peele’s vision and message at all levels. Quoting just the top critic blurbs that accompany the near-unanimous positive reviews, one can read the following:

“Cultural appropriation shifts from ‘problematic’ to ‘horrific’ in writer-director Jordan Peele’s sharp take on the scary world of stuff white people like.”

“Writer-director Jordan Peele has fashioned a smart, scathing commentary… as a base for his allegory on the horror of race in America.”

“Peele doesn’t just subvert a genre often dinged for making people of color expendable cleaver-fodder. He also flips pearl-clutching, white-flight anxiety about predatory black men on its ear, turning a gated community into the real danger zone.”

I could post more, but there wouldn’t be much point since, by in large, none of the quotes stand distinct from the rest. Among the positive reviews from the mostly white critics, there seems to be near unanimous approval of Peele’s social critique. But perhaps it is too much to ask that critics detect a lack of self-examination in a film that asks others to examine their role in American race relations.

I don’t think it would be contentious to say that film critics are predominantly progressive in their worldview.  But it is notable that as much as Get Out exists as an open cinematic attack on America’s white progressives, the film has been openly embraced by the community it criticizes. Strangely enough, white progressives read Peele’s critique not only as valid but heroic. Mind you, this is a critique that aims to rip apart the mannerisms of an ethnic group to which white progressives belong, a critique in which one race ’s yearning for homogeneity is passed over without a second glance while another’s inability to sufficiently achieve heterogeneity is portrayed as a veil that obscures demonic racism.

It is a common observation that white progressives do not live as if their idea of American race relations were true. Find a well-to-do social activist and you will invariably find him living in the type of predominantly white community they vehemently preach against. This particular type of cognitive dissonance is often explained away as “white guilt.” But if it is guilt that motivates progressive sympathy, it’s a strange sort of guilt that manifests in loud pronouncements that ultimately cost nothing. Perhaps one explanation of this phenomenon is that rich progressives are indeed the “good White people” who are totally unconcerned with preserving their status and privilege. But perhaps not.

In America today, upwardly mobile white progressives remain the most privileged members of their own ethnic group with an unrivaled ability to make their voices heard both on a national and international level. White progressives also stand out worldwide, as uniquely willing to denounce their own group’s “white privilege”. Framing privilege in racial terms could be understood as a certain type of social responsibility, perhaps even altruistic. But a closer examination of the realities in 21st century America may lead one to doubt how extensive the presence of “privilege” is across “white” American once one departs from areas dominated by rich white progressives.

Despite its persistent claim to be “intersectional”, the presence of a white lower class seems absent from Peele’s vision of America. The concept that the rich white Armitage family from Get Out might share their “whiteness” with a poorer white America unable to sequester themselves in gated communities or dedicate effort to “checking their privilege” seems only grudgingly acknowledged in the modern progressive vision. To Peele himself, meaningful class divisions in American are spoken about as if they were a quaint myth from a previous era of American history:

“As far as the class question, I think black – you know, from my experience, blackness totally trumps any kind of class question. You know, I don’t – you know, this is – maybe Ben Carson aside, it’s, you know, no matter who, you know, I run into, there’s going to be a connection that’s more powerful than any economic difference.”

Perhaps this is the case, but one can be forgiven for thinking that Jordan Peele is telling his white progressive audience just what they want to hear. Ethnic loyalty is cheap for those who are upwardly mobile, and it is interesting to note that rich progressives are the only party looking to scrap the concept.

For great progressive believers living in newly gentrified urban neighborhoods or pastoral suburbia, like the Armitage family in Get Out, cultural heritage and even nations can be picked up or abandoned at a moment’s notice. Should their dreams not manifest under the circumstances, well, perhaps the grass is greener on the other side. Demographics can change, national and racial boundaries can shift, but wealth will always buy privilege. However, for poor white people whose dreams are inevitably anchored to their geography, their nation, and their own bodies, there may, in fact, be no way to get out.

 

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