The Social Commentary Behind Jordan Peele’s Get Out

Director Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film Get Out, released to overwhelming critical acclaim and massive box office success, documents the story of a young African-American man named Chris Washington who travels with his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage, to a rural country estate in order to meet her parents. Beyond the ornate interior and immaculate lawns of the home, Chris quickly discovers the innocuous-appearing family engages in a new-era form of slave trade, one which involves the transplantation of ailing white people’s minds into the vessels of black bodies. The elements of the film—including the characters, plot, and setting—weave a complex montage of suspense and social commentary. Overall, the film uniquely portrays to the audience a stylized version of the modern African-American experience. Peele strategically incorporates extended metaphors and clever subversions of conventional horror tropes to ultimately create a timely satirical critique of the systemic racism present in the contemporary United States.

The extended metaphors mentioned above play a pivotal role in the film. One of the most prominent metaphors is the literal commodification of black bodies by the Armitage family. By transplanting a white person’s consciousness into the “vessel” of a black body in a procedure referred to as “The Coagula,” the white characters in the film hope to achieve “superior” physical attributes in order to avoid illness, medical conditions, aging, or death. In this way, the white characters are forcefully possessing the bodies of the unwilling African-Americans that Rose brings home to her family. The emphasis on the white characters’ fixation with Chris’ physicality at various points throughout the film underscores the racist notion of the white characters that black bodies are physically superior.  Moreover, Rose’s father plants the suggestion that people of African descent have more athletic success when he recounts the story of his own father losing to Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. The Olympic loss of the Armitage grandfather implies a long-rooted familial obsession with the physicality of black bodies and hints at the underpinning motivations behind the transplantation procedures.

One cringe-worthy scene involves the Armitages’ friends and family bluntly showering a montage of microaggressions on Chris, channeling a plethora of racist stereotypes to inquire primarily about his physical abilities. Eventually, the viewer discovers these microaggressions are not elicited for conversational purposes between the characters, but rather because the guests are evaluating how much they want to bid for the vessel of Chris’ body in a game of silent bingo. Therefore, the microaggressions planted by the Armitage family are purposefully framed as masking a violent form of dehumanization. The bingo game, conducted in the backyard of the Armitage house, eerily parallels a slave auction in its similarities. The idea of a wealthy white group bidding large amounts of money to essentially colonize a black individual’s body expresses the filmmakers’ illustration of a modern kind of slavery, one in which African-Americans are once again cruelly treated as property.

Above: Armitage family and friends gather for a game of bingo to bid on Chris’ body.

The parallels between historical slavery in the United States and the transplantation slavery of the film can also be drawn in the motivations of the blind art dealer. Later in the film, the blind art dealer asserts that he does not care about Chris’ skin color and therefore was not “racist.” Instead, in one of the movie’s creepier moments, he claims he wants the artistic photographer’s “eye” that God gifted Chris. “I want your eyes, man,” the art dealer hoarsely whispers to Chris in the holding room. The dealers’ allusion to the religious beliefs underlying his desire to take over a new body proves to be similar to the religious justification previously used by “Christian” American slave-owners to defend their own support of slavery. More specifically, many pro-slavery arguments that materialized in the nineteenth century focused on discerning religious justifications from biblical narratives to promote racism and grant legitimacy to the ownership of colored human beings. One such ill-founded belief claimed black humans were created by God solely for physical labor due to their “superior” physical abilities, something that is echoed in the Armitage family’s plans to harvest Chris’ body.

In addition to the white commodification of black bodies, another metaphor heavily conveyed in Get Out is the minority experience in a setting predominantly controlled by white people. To function in society as a racial minority, the film suggests one must conform to the expectations and roles perpetuated by the majority. The authentic component of the individual always exists below the surface of mechanical daily actions and routines but it is constantly concealed behind a false “white” front. For instance, in the midst of the Armitage family event, Logan, one of the four African-Americans present, robotically interacts with Chris around the throng of white attendees surrounding them.

Above: Logan (a white man’s consciousness invasively existing in the body of a black man) and his wife Philomena stiffly interact with Chris.

This visibly awkward strain present within Logan results from the clash between the white consciousness and the mind of the “host” individual trapped in the Sunken Place, as well as the inability of the “host” to authentically respond to Chris’ casual conversational attempts. The accidental flash of Chris’ camera then triggers the violent awakening of the person to which the body actually belongs within Logan, implying the quiet existence of someone beyond the artificial surface-level presentation. In this way, Logan’s “host” body represents the front minorities often must fortify in order to succeed socially, personally, and professionally in a society largely controlled by white people. On the other hand, the individual who emerges after the flash of Chris’ camera embodies the genuine personality traits and mannerisms minorities hide in order to fit into the limiting mold of white expectations.

A third significant metaphor is the Sunken Place where Chris finds himself after the hypnosis facilitated by Missy, Rose’s mother. While Chris and Missy talk late one night, Missy begins to scrape a spoon against her glass teacup, an action which soon places Chris in a paralyzing trance he cannot escape. This trance fundamentally shifts Chris’ perceptions of his environment and even the way he inhabits his own body. He finds himself not in the present moment but locked in a dark abyss of his own mind almost as a third-party observer to his surroundings. Missy and her family use hypnosis as a tool to directly gain control of the minds of their black victims, who are then surgically modified to harbor the invasive consciousness of a white person.

The Sunken Place becomes the state of existence the victims permanently adopt once the transplantation occurs, where the victim exists as a passenger to the operation of their bodies. On the surface level, the Sunken Place metaphorically stands for Missy’s complete control over Chris. On a deeper level, as Peele explained to Variety, the Sunken Place represents the constant “state of marginalization” and restricting obstacles long faced by African-Americans, especially the prison-industrial complex, which disproportionately targets black Americans and their communities for non-violent crimes such as marijuana possession. Comparable to Chris’ inherent inability to physically and mentally free himself from the confines of the Sunken Place, the film indicates African-Americans are too often fenced into entrapping cycles of poverty, crime, and violence.

Above: During a hypnosis, Chris finds himself trapped in a dark mental abyss where he cannot control his own body.

Along similar lines, Peele interestingly includes subversions of conventional genre tropes to produce a wholly unconventional horror film. These subversions collectively defy common narrative norms including the lack of a white savior figure and the antagonistic role of the police. Perhaps one of the most surprising twists unpacked by the filmmakers is the reveal of Rose as a key agent of the Armitage family’s body-snatching agenda. As Chris struggles to leave the estate for the safety of New York City, it is revealed Rose manipulated him to bring him back to the Armitage family so the surgical transplantation could be conducted, her character serving as a type of black widow figure. By refusing to grant Rose innocence in the situation, the filmmakers effectively dismantle the audience expectation for the innocuous white woman to save the protagonist from his encroaching fate. Besides surprising viewers, this artistic decision functions to overthrow the white savior archetype present in a vast majority of films about the African-American experience. Unlike Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures and Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave, Get Out does not include a white character who serves as reassurance to audience members that not every white character is a racist or antagonistic force. Thus, the film purposefully ignores the white apologist trope when the viewer discovers Rose is also involved in the transplantation process.

Above: Rose subverts the white savior trope when she is revealed to be involved with luring victims for the transplanting.

Furthermore, an additional provocative subversion is the role of the police in the film. In most horror films, the police are seen as a comforting reminder of safety and protection from the villain or monster in the narrative. Generally, the arrival of the police signals the end of the movie, the idea that the protagonist is removed from the danger now being handled by a large institutional force armed with the size and means to adequately handle the posed threat. Despite the conventional usage of police in horror films, the local police operate in Get Out as a direct source of hostility and malevolence towards Chris. The first interaction with a police officer transpires early in the film shortly after Rose’s car collides with a deer. When the cop unwarrantedly demands Chris’ license much to his discomfort, it becomes clear the police in the film are not there to rescue Chris from the terror that awaits him. In contrast, if the film centered on a white protagonist, the racial profiling and undue suspicion from the police would be a non-issue and would therefore render the presence of the local police as consoling and encouraging.

Above: A local cop confronts Chris and demands his ID.

The second and final appearance of the police comes during the nail-biting conclusion of the final scene, when Rose predatorily pursues Chris into the depths of isolated woods with a rifle. Chris narrowly escapes a violent death by awakening the consciousness of the African-American groundskeeper with a flash of his mobile’s camera, who then shoots Rose. As a wounded Chris stands over Rose’s bloodied body, and Rose screams for help, the flash of police sirens emanate from the distant darkness. At this point, it dawns on the viewer that Chris, an innocent black man, might be fatally shot by the local police for the racially-biased assumptions they would formulate regarding the scene around him: the dying white woman calling for help on the ground, the blood on Chris’ body, the rifle nearby. Immediately, the audience recognizes the police are not there to aid Chris in escape; instead, they might even prevent him from escaping the situation. The stakes at this point are that much higher since the protagonist just scarcely fled the menace of the Armitage family.

Employing the idea of the police as a threat as opposed to security references recent contemporary events of police brutality on individuals and communities of color. Similarly, the subverted role of the local police connects to the metaphor of the Sunken Place for the prison-industrial complex, in which the police perform a constitutive part. In spite of the sudden conflict presented by the police sirens, the viewers are relived to find Chris’ best friend, Rod, the primary comedic relief, behind the wheel of a TSA vehicle. The fact Rod, another African-American man, instrumentally helps Chris leave offers a supplementary subversion of the white savior trope because it completely rejects the idea of a black man being saved by a white person. Alternatively, the only savior for Chris is another black man. In any other situation, the scene would have almost certainly resulted in Chris’ incrimination, as prejudiced police officers responding to the scene might have immediately made the racist assumption Chris was the hunter rather than the hunted.

Well-made horror films effectively channel widespread social anxieties into a narrative that builds off of the audience’s fears to construct a chilling, believable story. Jordan Peele’s Get Out artfully channels the daily implications of systemic racism faced by millions of African-Americans into a suspenseful horror film satirizing racial relations. The film begins by emphasizing unpleasant interactions with local police and uncomfortable onslaughts of conversational microaggressions but gradually transitions into illustrating a terrifying form of modern slavery. By expertly lacing together extended metaphors and genre trope subversions, the film serves to encapsulate an accessible allegory on contemporary black identity and the American minority experience. It is for this reason that Get Out will stand distinguished among the most memorable horror films of the past two decades for years to come.

The Cultural and Historical Influences on ‘The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven’

Sherman Alexie’s 1993 novel The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of interrelated stories focused on the happenings on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state. Centering mainly around a Native American man named Victor, the collection depicts candid accounts of life for the Spokane peoples, both the joys and overwhelming difficulties they’ve continually faced for centuries. Alexie expertly weaves cultural and historical details into a compelling, educational narrative to ultimately illustrate the nature of life on the reservation.

Located in the eastern segment of Washington, around the unincorporated community of Wellpinit, the Spokane Indian Reservation consists of approximately 159,000 acres. In 1881, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed an executive order to forcibly place the Spokane-area tribes in the relatively small area they now inhabit today, compared to the three million acres once lived upon by the Spokane tribes. The population currently stands at 2,085. Historically, the Spokane people were semi-nomadic for the majority of the year and established winter villages for three months each year. In the 1950s, uranium deposits were found on the reservation and mined from 1956 through 1982. Currently, the inactive list remains designated as a Superfund cleaning site, meaning it exposes the local population to harmful contaminants.

Above: A map outlining the ancestral geographic territory of the Spokane tribes, with the current reservation labeled in white.

One of the most prominent Spokane religions was known as the Dreamer Cult and emerged from colonization pressures during the latter half of the 1800s. The Dreamer Cult combined traditional native spirituality with Christianity. However, despite the Christian influence, the Dreamer Cult leaders aimed to abandon the culture and beliefs of European colonizers and encourage a return to traditional lifestyles. For example, the Dreamer Cult advocated a return to spiritual dances such as the Prophet Dance and the Spirt Dance, visions, and feasts. Alexie includes multiple references to dancing in the text, notably so in the story “A Drug Called Tradition.” In it, Victor narrates, “We dance in circles growing larger and larger until we are standing on the shore, watching all the ships returning to Europe. All the white hands are waving good-bye and we continued to dance, dance until the ships fall of the horizon, dance until we are so tall and strong that the sun is nearly jealous” (17). Clearly, Alexie incorporates the Spokane tradition of dancing into the story and associates newfound devotion to indigenous Spokane culture and the natural world with the departure of European colonizers.

Above: A Spokane man dances in a traditional ceremonial outfit at a 2015 festival.

Similarly, Alexie contextualizes life on the reservation by including eye-opening descriptions of the rampant poverty among the Spokane community. According to the American government, the unemployment rate stands at 25.84% and the poverty rate at 32.57%. Over one third of the children born in the Spokane Indian Reservation live in extreme poverty by national standards. In the first story of the collection, “Every Little Hurricane,” Victor watches his father repeatedly open his wallet in the hope that money will appear. When it doesn’t, and the family needs food to eat, “Victor’s mother […] would pull air down from empty cupboards and make fry breads. She would shake thick blankets free from old bandanas. She would comb Victor’s braids into dreams” (5). The absence of full cupboards, consistent food, and blankets reveals the degree of hardship felt by Victor’s family as well as native families all over the country. Victor comments that often there was no money for Christmas gifts.

Finally, Alexie underscores the devastating impact of alcohol on the Spokane communities in multiple stories. Victor frequently describes his parents’ and extended family’s alcohol abuse. Julius, a star basketball player on the reservation, destroys his athletic talent when he succumbs to the consumption of alcohol. Victor’s father would “come home after a long night of drinking [and] feel so guilty that he would tell me stories as a means of apology” (26). In “Every Little Hurricane,” Victor’s uncles engage in a drunken brawl at a New Year’s Eve party. Victor’s father’s alcoholism is the most detailed, as Alexie purposefully writes to indicate the catastrophic emotional ramifications this type of addiction can have on a family unit. These issues aren’t unique to the Spokane tribes; rather, they are widespread and plague native communities throughout North America. A 2008 study by the CDC found that over 1 in 10 Native American deaths are related to alcohol abuse compared to the national average of 3.3%. Additionally, alcohol can have a particularly large influence among Native American communities during adolescent development, leading to a substantially greater risk of addiction and dropping out of school compared to the non-native population.

Short Reflection 2: The Theme of Decadence in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

Nightwood, the 1936 modernist novel written by Djuna Barnes, follows the character of Robin Vote and the emotional havoc she wreaks in the lives of the people around her. Set in locations ranging from Berlin and Paris to North America, the novel effectively conveys the decadence of the 1920s in the West, primarily through the characters of Robin Vote and Jenny Pertheridge. The obvious emphasis on decadence within the novel presents itself through portrayals of wealth morally and materialistically, signifying an era of unparalleled consumption, leisure, and luxury, the levels of which had never been previously seen to such a wide degree.

Above: A photo capturing a group of men and women dining together in a restaurant in Paris in the 1920s. Restaurants, cafés, and bars were havens for artists during this era.

Historically, the economic and cultural factors underlying the “Roaring ’20s” period influenced a dizzying accumulation of wealth and shifting cultural interests that grew to define the decade. For instance, the total American wealth doubled in value from 1920 to 1929 and created a consumer society marked by affluence and the spread of consumer goods. In Europe, where the majority of the novel transpires, the American outflow of industrial production, distribution, and consumption sparked avid economic interest among Europeans. Opulent goods and elegance were more accessible than ever before, with the advent of luxurious automobiles, ocean-liners, and trains. Most associated with this time period, however, are the changing social norms which occurred in conjunction with this newfound wealth. Public behavior transformed dramatically, partially as a result of the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Austria and Germany. Sexual norms and ethical conceptions were also changed by large-scale employment of women during World War I, as the bulk of the male population was sent to the fronts. This social change saw openness towards previously taboo behavior, such as alcohol consumption, women smoking in public, and the blooming of nightlife in cabaret-type venues.

Above: An American “flapper” posing with a luxury car of the 1920s. The mansion and the car depicted suggest the money needed to fund such a lifestyle.

In Djuna Barnes’ novel, the emphasis on excess serves to contextualize the setting and the timeframe of the story, specifically the characters’ display of “moral” decadence. Robin, the main character in the novel, is first introduced to the reader as a somnambulant, a sleep-walker who straddles the line between night and day, the night functioning as a metaphor for the hidden vices and behaviors lurking beneath the familiarity of the day. When the Doctor first meets her, Robin is passed out in a drunken stupor, and the reader learns this is completely common for the troubled nomad. Moreover, the significance underlying Robin’s nightly forays into alcohol and sex lies in her abandonment of Nora—who can be viewed as representing monogamy and commitment—for cheap thrills with others, romantically or otherwise. When Nora firsthand witnesses Robin’s unfaithful behavior with another woman, the reader is wholly conscious of the chaos Robin emotionally inflicts upon Nora. These actions align with the reader’s perception of moral decadence, especially so with Robin. Her moral compass is virtually non-existent as far as the reader is concerned and her lack of commitment—to her relationships, to her child, to herself—consistently highlights her status as a permanent nomad, moving from one person to another as if she is exchanging accessories rather than human beings. Another example of moral decadence is Jenny’s casual theft of other’s belongings, her apartment a collection of “first-hand plunder” which was “teeming with second-hand dealings with life” (Barnes 72).

Furthermore, decadence appears in the characters’ free disregard for money, particularly with Robin and Jenny. Barnes elaborates on Jenny, Robin’s lover, “She was generous with money. She made gifts lavishly and spontaneously. She sent bushel baskets of camellias to actresses because she had a passion for the characters they portrayed […]” (73). Jenny’s decision to send arbitrary gifts to artists she idols encapsulates her level of wealth compared to the financial struggles faced by most individuals during this time. Jenny’s status as a four-time widower who moves from location to location, unheeded by any financial burden, supported by the money left behind by her dead husbands, signifies a lifestyle largely unattainable. Additionally, Barnes’ detailing of Robin as bored and unfulfilled underscores the luxury the characters in the novel have to struggle to fill their empty time, untouched by the demands and obligations of a job. Robin’s nomadic wandering can also be seen as a symptom of her boredom, as she resorted to “haunt the terminals, taking trains into different parts of the country, wandering without design” (176). Her decision to aimlessly travel without purpose illustrates her privileged status as a perpetually disinterested outsider untouched by the struggles faced by the vast majority of the population.

Above: A 1921 photo of Djuna Barnes, the writer of Nightwood, a novel many believe to be semi-autobiographical.

Decadence both morally and financially indicates the trend of modernist emphasis on excess and consumption. In a period of changing social dynamics and societal norms, against the backdrop of new wealth circulating throughout Europe and the United States, the story of Nightwood unfolds against a setting which grants the reader a deeper understanding of the characters’ qualities and actions. A striking metaphor used by the Doctor towards the end of the novel can serve to best emphasize this point: Robin and the other characters are “like the ducks in Golden Gate park […] everybody in their kindness having fed them all the year round to their ruin because […] they are all a bitter consternation […] being too fat and heavy to rise off the water, and, my God, how they flop and struggle all over the park in autumn […]” (Barnes 170). In much the same way as the overweight ducks, Robin abuses the resources freely available to her to a point where she can no longer fully function as a normal member of society, or at least as an individual in sync with the daily occurrences of life.

Comparing and Contrasting Dave Chapelle’s Netflix Specials with HBO’s 2 Dope Queens

BBE Literary Podcasts (Brendan K., Billy M., and Eric X.) evaluate the similarities and differences underlying the comedic styles and presentation of Dave Chapelle’s 2017 Netflix specials (Equanimity and The Bird Revelation) and the first episode of HBO’s 2 Dope Queens.

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Short Reflection 1: Epistles, Legislation, and Identity in William Craft’s Narrative

In the narrative Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: Or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, William Craft utilizes epistles, allusions, and identity exploration to effectively illustrate the prejudice and inhumanity institutionally, socially, and fundamentally directed towards African-Americans in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. The autobiographical tale focuses on an enslaved married couple who devise and partake in a successful escape from their master to the safety of the northern U.S., and then England, following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. Simultaneously incorporating the genre conventions of a slave narrative, Craft creates an emotional and powerful portrayal of a husband and wife desperately seeking the fundamental human right which was denied to them based solely off the pigment of their skin: freedom.

Above: Portraits of William and Ellen Craft, the couple at the center of Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom

One of the key epistles highlighted by the text is correspondence sent by Reverend Samuel May to Dr. Estlin in 1850. The letter is a vital component to building the narrative because it traces the events leading to the Craft’s narrow escape from slave-catchers in Boston to the safety of England. May comments on the tense political and racial landscape from which the Crafts need to flee, “[…] they nobly vindicated their title and right to freedom […] by winning their way to it; at least so they thought. But now, the slave power, with the aid of Daniel Webster […] has stimulated the slave-holders generally to such desperate acts for the recovery of their fugitive property, as have never before been enacted in the history of this government” (88 – 89). Furthermore, the arrest and legal charges brought against the slave-catchers attempting to recapture the Crafts contributes to the sense of political polarization evident between the North and South at this time, especially in the dawn of the Civil War. May’s point that the Crafts need to flee to “the shadow of the British throne” to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (91) underscores the hypocrisy underlying the American government’s support of slavery.

Along similar lines, William Craft includes allusions to political legislation which heavily influenced the trajectory of slavery and the legal rights (or lack thereof) of African-Americans and slaves during this time. For instance, Craft provides an in-depth summary of the legal rights of colored individuals in the Southern states, emphasizing the low legal status for blacks cemented by state laws found throughout states including Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Craft’s descriptions of the extent of each law encapsulates the arbitrary natures of the laws themselves, as Craft points out: “[…] the slaveholders make it almost impossible for free persons of color to get out of the slave States, in order that they may sell them into slavery if they don’t go” (38 – 39). Moreover, the legislation reflects the far-reaching extent of the laws and the deeply ingrained inequalities composing the institution of slavery. Craft also mentions the Fugitive Slave Act and the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision to contextualize the political climate and frame the government’s decades-long effort to oppress African-Americans and slaves.

Above: An 1851 flier posted around Boston, warning African-Americans and colored persons of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Additionally, Craft explores the identity of slaves as “chattel” in the narrative, particularly through descriptions of slave auctions. The slave auctions function as a vehicle to convey the inhumane objectification and violence faced by colored persons and slaves during this historical era; like merchandise, slaves were “brought to the auction stand and sold to the highest bidder” (19) as they were essentially recognized as “mere chattel, to be bought and sold, or otherwise dealt with as [their] owner might see fit” (30). The implications of the slave auctions—families being forcibly separated, the violent fates that awaited slaves following the sale, and the blatant cruelty exhibited by the white bidders—are an emotional appeal to the reader signifying the degree of brutality present in this commodification. Correspondingly, the widespread institutional disregard for the humanity and well-being of slaves completely dictated the political, social, and cultural realities for African-Americans in the United States.

Above: An illustration showing an 1861 slave auction in Virginia.

Each literary component of Craft’s autobiographical tale collectively builds to construct a taut, emotional narrative encapsulating the short- and long-term effects of the institution of slavery which pushed the Craft couple to execute a precarious escape from the barbarity of the Southern states pre-Civil War. Strategically integrating epistles, allusions, and identity exploration, Craft weaves a dynamic and dramatic chronicle of his experience which has grown to not only represent the horrors and tragic atrocities faced by countless individuals suffering under slavery but also the exhaustive lengths people took to escape from it.