8 05 2017

“I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this […] through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away,” then-President Barack Obama stated upon the occasion of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me.”

The terror that white people feel when a black man enters a space they historically dominate has gotten a surge of attention in recent years. (Some might say it’s the underlying narrative of the 2016 presidential election.) This tension appears most in the police shootings of unarmed black men, though it also appears in dialogues surrounding everything from cultural appropriation to #OscarsSoWhite. The issues, of course, are nothing new. The means for traditionally underrepresented voices to make their opinions heard, however, are.

With his feature debut “Get Out,” writer/director Jordan Peele finds yet another method of expression: the thriller genre. From its ominous opening scene in which a black man ambles uneasily through a Stepfordian suburb, the film engrosses us in the acute and hyperaware perspective of a minority navigating a predominantly white culture. That also requires shining a light on the dark flip side of the equation that helps construct blackness – white myopia or blindness.

As Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) prepares to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (a perfectly cast Allison Williams), we become painfully aware of how the vast gulf of racial privilege affects their read on certain situations. She cannot understand why Chris simply gives his license to an officer calmly by the side of the road when it’s clear he did nothing wrong. She has a post-racial mindset that makes her think it’s unnecessary to specify Chris’ race before arriving. Race is something Rose can forget about. It’s not that easy for him.

At every turn in the Armitage manor, there’s something new to make Chris uncomfortable. Be it signifiers like lacrosse sticks and bocce balls or a galling microaggression, reminders of his deficiency in cultural capital surround him. Chris was either locked out of these opportunities altogether or, more likely, given fewer opportunities to participate in the dominant culture.

And none of these offenses come at the hands of openly bigoted individuals. The Armitages and their ilk in “Get Out” are getting their news from The New York Times, not Breitbart. In fact, the patriarch Dean (Bradley Whitford) goes out of his way to clarify that he voted for Obama twice and would have gladly done so a third time, if he could. Yet even if they don’t seem ready to form a lynching mob, there’s still something gently unnerving about them. (Until, of course, the genre elements kick in – at which point it’s no longer gentle.)

The vision of prejudice put forward by Peele in “Get Out” is one of racism without racists. The villains are not people who say the N-word or try to keep schools segregated. They are apathetic beneficiaries of the status quo who think that racial progress reached its zenith with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, at which point America fully paid of the debt of its original sin. Any system that still produces inequities is, to them, mere coincidence rather than evidence of institutional bias against people of color. At one point, Rose’s mother Missy (Catherine Keener) calls to attention her shame at the appearance of having two black housekeepers tending to them like old-fashioned plantation workers. “I hate the way it looks,” she says. Notice Missy’s word choice. She hates the optics of the situation. Not the situation itself.

Peele, paying homage to thrillers ranging from “Psycho” to “Basic Instinct,” finds the means to make this kind of everyday racism frightening. The white liberal tolerance for black bodies, but not black identity, takes on a literal form at the Armitage household. Their welcoming facade conceals a well-oiled machine to wash away blackness and reassemble it in their own likeness. This method of oppression somehow sounds straight out of a sociology textbook, yet it’s also the stuff of cinematic brilliance. At times, the social issues do seem to drive the thrills, rather than the usual setup where thrills illuminate social issues. Peele’s sheer thematic and stylistic audacity allays most misgivings, however.

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the white moderate from the Birmingham jail in 1963. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” The villains of “Get Out” tend to look over an explanation such as this one from Dr. King, looking to less cultured countrymen whose racial animus may exist out of sheer unfamiliarity with different groups. But divides in America persist because of people like the Armitages and their less overtly sinister real-world counterparts. Those quick to absolve themselves of their role in the country’s polarization impede achievable progress. A-3halfstars



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