[Spoilers abound! Get out now!]
Hi! I’m White! Yep! Capital-W White. So let us go then, you and I, and cauc-analyze Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Sure, it’s a film about the black male perspective, and I have no experience seeing or being in the world from that perspective, but…here we go anyway!*
“Why black people?”
Late in the film, as Chris is tied up, forced to be an observer of his existence, he asks Milton from Office Space about staplers. And then, when Milton reminds Chris that this isn’t a crossover film, nor has there been any precedent for fourth-wall breaking, Chris adjusts his concerns, re-acclimates to the film’s universe and internal logic, and asks, “why black people?” My mom insisted on repeating this question multiple times after we left the theater because the movie “never answered the question.” Except the film does answer it.
When Chris first meets Milton, before he understands the situation he’s trapped in – a modern slavery, where white people hold silent auctions to literally take over young black bodies (talk about appropriation) – Milton explains his genetic disease that caused him to go blind one day. He had devoted his life to a dream of photography; eventually, he had to accept that he didn’t have “the eye.” Chris does.** And that’s why he purchases Chris, or at least how he rationalizes it, maintaining to the end that it isn’t about race. (Sound familiar, White people?) Anyway, Chris empathizes with Milton’s situation, concluding, “shit’s unfair.” Milton agrees. And whether we like it or not, that’s part of the answer to the question, “why black people?” Because life. Because shit’s unfair.
At the same time, let’s not displace “White people” with “life.” Life isn’t unfair so much as it is. It’s full of inexplicable change that we desperately try to explain anyway. People, caught in all this fickle is-ness of life, choose to be fair or unfair. Do they always know what they’re doing? Do people see clearly, i.e. see that what they’re doing might be wrong? Or once a reality takes hold in someone’s mind, is it too late to change it and them? How responsible are we for our actions? I’m not looking to vindicate Whiteness and its terror here, but I am wondering how free any of us are to create the conditions of social reality. How often are we just caught up in it, unable (as much as unwilling) to see it differently? Is it possible that our blindness, like Milton’s, is genetic, that one day we just wake up unable to see?
Philosophize all you want, but there are very real consequences for how people experience their lives. Chris didn’t choose any of the material conditions that ensnare him, nor the psychological prison that parallels his physical chains. He’s hypnotized into this particular part of it by his White devil girlfriend’s mother. Turns out White people inherit their oppressive behavior, whether they’re aware of it or not. And then they do some doublethink shit and keep the system running, all the while thinking that they’re right to do so. It’s just how it is, after all. Live with it.
So Chris gets duped into “the sunken place,” which is some straight up psychedelic shit that I’ve experienced before. Thank God that’s not how I live day-to-day. Or is it?
It’s been argued that to be is to observe, i.e. that our life is a mental projection which at best we get to watch. We don’t actually have control over what’s happening, we just get to narrate it after the fact. In this paradigm, we are always only rationalizing our lives, never affecting what is or what’s to come. If we accept this premise, we are all already sunken. We are floating in a Twilight Zone void, watching our lives unfold, screaming without sound or effect for freedom. How do we (can we?) wake up into the present? In the film, it’s the flash of a camera that liberates us, which is ironic because the flash of a camera typically captures us. It freezes us in a past moment and creates the illusion of a lived reality.
All this talk of illusion might just be convenient absolution for Whiteness. If history is just one epic procession of shifting matrices, then no one’s to blame. “Shit’s unfair.” Chris is a victim, but so are all the White suburbanites. Lil Rey Howery’s TSA agent character begs to differ; he just acts, despite what may come and against the logic of “come what may.” He has only himself to trust in his effort to save Chris; he reaches out for help from the people (black) he figures will understand his “insanity” (imagining that White people are still oppressors), but they laugh at him. Refusing to let reality be what it is, he becomes the deus ex machina, which may be what we’re all striving to become. We want to get out of this machine and experience our own divinity, i.e. our capacity to change life. Chris liberates himself by picking cotton (kudos to Fuller for that pick-up), and in shouldering that historical legacy, he enacts revenge on his White oppressors; however, in order to show that he’s in control of himself, he doesn’t kill his evil girlfriend (Christ, is this what White people are hoping will happen as some sort of twisted Puritanical reconciliation, like we deserve this punishment because we’re all original sinners anyway?). In this act, he asserts his humanity and denies White assumptions of his “beastly” nature. He escapes White mind control, which was trying to convince him that he is a certain way because he’s black (as if that has ontological implications in itself). He writes his own story; he has “the eye” for it.
So why black people? Because White people. (And I continue to capitalize White because of historical domination/imposition.) There’s no escaping history or reality, and the sooner we step into the films that are our lives instead of being helpless spectators in a void, the sooner we can get to creating a new reality. Reject the old film, the old narrative. Turn off the projection and dare to see something different. We all have “the eye” for it, though it’s easy to choose an eye that sees for us.
*We all have the right to make meaning, and I’m not interpreting anything here as absolute. I’m simply playing with possibility. I hope you won’t deny me this opportunity which is totally a privilege but that’s not a reason not to do something. Because while White people are the film’s villains, and it’s easy to mythologize them as such (see: because it’s historically true) in the world it’s satirizing, it’s fruitful for everyone to share experiences, as long as no one’s claiming dominion over the film’s (or life’s) meaning (impossible anyway). Just as the film invites its audience into Chris’ experience, I’m doing the same.
Ah, White hedging…
**There’s plenty to say here about physical/metaphorical sight, but I’m tired of deconstructing that trope. I will say that Peele uses it well.