Listen to your Ancestors: Black Voices and Other Critical Approaches to Jordan Peele’s Get Out
By: Natalia Urzola
Listen to the ancestors,
You need to run far! (Listen to the truth)
Listen to the ancestors
To save yourself
Listen to the ancestors
- (Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga, Swahili song played in the opening credits, English translation)
From the first time I watched Get Out, I was fascinated by it. Not only as the horror fan that I am, but also as someone engaged in race critique. The fact that a film director was able to present a racial critique in such a clever way was astounding to me. However, some friends who had also watched it around the same time thought the movie was not really that scary, and that it would have been better if it were actually the police who stepped out of the car. Although not my shared feeling, their comments are rather accurate in that they reflect how our society works towards Black people. We are all so used to seeing Black people being apprehended and wrongfully accused that we unconsciously (or consciously) expect films to follow suit. It was not that they found the alternate ending bad, it was that they could not wrap their heads around the fact that the black man was not only the survivor in this case, but also that he was free from facing the police. And that is precisely one of the things that I like the most about Get Out. Jordan Peele masterfully captures present day racism in a self-proclaimed liberal world, both through subtle microaggressions and the not-too-subtle “Coagula” procedure of colonizing the Black body. But he also shows an alternate ending is possible. In a world where the horror portrayed is experience daily by hundreds of people, being able to overcome it all and get out of it triumphant is a real revolutionary move on Peele’s part.
But I am not here to talk about the movie (I leave that to my incredibly talented sister who runs this blog); I am here to talk about the 2020 book Jordan Peele’s Get Out: Political Horror, a book that compiles 16 essays that analyze the film through a critical lens, edited by Dawn Keetly. Let me just start by saying that I was in awe through the entire book. It is an example of how a critical review of films can meaningfully contribute to crucial societal debates (very much like this blog does). The book is divided in two major parts: (i) the politics of horror, and (ii) the horror of politics. Even though each article provides a particular and peculiar perspective on the critical approaches to the film, there is one recurrent aspect throughout the articles: the straightforward aim of Peele in exposing the “postracial lie”, that is, the myth and consequences of a colorblind approach to racialized issues. This is not intended as a full review of each of the articles (I would need more space for that), rather my taking on some of the most relevant discussions presented.
The first part is an ode to horror film history and its undeniable influence in modern society. Ranging from parallels drawn to Shakespeare’s Othello and the Female Gothic to zombie and body-swap movies, Blaxploitation, and antebellum imagery regarding space, authors such as Coleman and Lawrence, Byron and Perrello, and Casey-Williams are keen to show how black stereotypes are prawn upon by film industry. As stated by Byron and Perrello in Chapter 1, ranging from both asexualization and hypersexualization of the black body, to a clear reference to its so-called bestial attributes, or even the space imagery itself resembling a plantation-style home, the white gaze is deeply embedded in horror film history.
The idea of presenting a black protagonist who is a hero is discussed differently in some of the articles: Byron and Perrello, and Blake consider that Chris’s escape was ultimately possible through him turning into the beast that white people thought he was, using his own brute force. However, a different perspective by Juliet Lauro (placed later in the book) argues that although he did recur to his physical strength, he also outsmarted them in their own game, by for example filling his ears with cotton from the chair (a clear reverence to the most profitable slave crop), and using different tactics to fight each of them, showing a more nuanced representation of the ‘rebel slave’, represented ultimately in Chris’ refrain from choking Rose to death.
The second part of the book explores a more direct influence of the film in current American society. Starting with an anthropological/sociological study conducted by Platts and Brunsma on how the race of film critics influenced the way they approached race in their reviews of the movie, the articles under this section directly tackle white privilege and the practice of Othering in America. Some authors, like Keetly and Gaines, are determined to show how W.E.B Du Bois’ double-consciousness, as well as the dichotomy of Othering and Belonging is accurately portrayed by the constant struggles and microaggressions that Chris has to overcome, an aspect that can be seen in the very first scene when he asks his girlfriend whether her parents know he is black, showing how conscious he is of the expectations of the white gaze towards him.
Another salient aspect of the articles is that the whole premise of the Coagula procedure is a clear hint to scientific racism still present in our society, as studied early by Murphy in Chapter 5 and McNally 10 chapters later. The fact that the Armitage are certain that they will outsmart their victims over and over again is a result of the underlying belief that white people is more intelligent than black people. It has never occurred to them that they will get caught, much less that their victims will find a way to beat them. And the idea of the procedure itself, where white people feel entitled to inhabit and own black bodies, praising the physical advantages of Blacks while erasing Black culture, has a direct correlation to eugenics as Citizen points out.
Finally, authors such as Juliet Lauro tackle the current environment of Black Lives Matter protests and the disproportionate killings of Black people by police and law enforcers. Sometimes through a direct mention of some of the Black victims’ names (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice), sometimes through indirect hints, authors make sure to include an analysis on how when Black people demand respect of their rights, this demand is easily portrayed, by the media and society in general, as a violent riot. The articles argue that this similar approach has been taken with regards to the slave revolts. It is a critique on how society turns a blind eye on the root causes of any protest (especially Black people’s protests), and instead focuses on the violence that may or may not erupt from them. On the other hand, the authors’ reference to Chris’s reaction to his mother’s death, and the expectation of failing to do something (anything!) despite being just a boy, shows exactly how Black men are deprived from their childhood in almost every aspect of society. Black boys are almost always portrayed as grown-ups in order to justify the attitude of white people towards them, something that appeared clear in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. It was her intention to portray the Exonerated Five as what they truly were, merely teenage boys and not some sort of enraged monsters as they were treated in the trial that led to their wrongful conviction.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out: Political Horror presents an impressive collection of outstanding critical articles that disseminates the obvious, as well as the not-so-obvious messages of the film and its influence in modern American society. One aspect that I believe is underdeveloped and should have had a more salient role is that of the female characters. Although mentioned in a couple of articles, for example by Byron and Perrello, Coleman and Lawrence, as well as Casey-Williams, a critical feminist approach to the female characters could meaningfully contribute to the debate, engaging feminism from an intersectional and anti-essentialist standpoint. We are left with this feeling that white women can never be a true ally to Black men, not to mention the portrayal of Black women in the film, a dynamic worth studying deeper and analyzing it from a critical perspective. Nevertheless, it is a book that will definitely make you rethink and remember what the movie might have meant to you the first time you watched it, and will invite you to watch it for a second (if not a third, fourth, fifth) time.