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How Get Out deconstructs racism for white people

“Stay woke.”

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
The face of a man who knows when to smile and nod.
Justin Lubin / Universal Pictures
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Jordan Peele opens his superb new horror film Get Out with the refrain of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone”: “Stay woke.”

It’s a straightforward message from the film to its protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black man whose visit to his girlfriend’s parents’ house quickly turns into a nightmare of suburban racism. Unlike your average clueless horror protagonist, Chris is woke as hell to what’s happening to him.

Get Out ingeniously uses common horror tropes to reveal truths about how pernicious racism is in the world. It doesn’t walk back any of its condemnations by inserting a “white savior” or making overtures to pacifism and tolerance. No: In this film, white society is a conscious purveyor of evil, and Chris must remain alert to its benevolent racism. He has to in order to survive.

Major spoilers for Get Out follow.

With Get Out, writer-director Peele doesn’t just present a standard horror film with a black protagonist; he’s not just subverting the hoary “black guy always dies first” trope. What Peele is doing is much more elaborate and complex. Get Out is a movie laden with standard horror tropes — creepy suburban artifice, attempts to gaslight the protagonist, mind control, bizarre medical experiments, you name it. What keeps those tropes from being rote is that Peele uses the modes of horror to make viewers feel what daily life is like for real black men and women.

Mainstream moviegoing audiences rarely get to see this viewpoint onscreen, let alone presented this unapologetically. But the horror genre has long been ripe for social commentary precisely because it subverts the idea of what is “villainous” by allowing us to subtly empathize with the thing we fear while exploring why we fear it.

Horror fans know and respond to this subtext within the genre — they expect the “other” to be humanized even as it’s being confronted and destroyed. (See, for example, the ways in which last year’s horror hit Don’t Breathe allowed its villain to be a three-dimensional, and therefore all the more terrifying, antagonist.)

In Get Out, the “other” is a rich white dude who is fully unknown and unknowable in a way cinema rarely allows; the viewer has to interact with him solely on the genre’s terms. That is, if we’re to take Chris on as our avatar, we are forced to see white society as the terror it is through his eyes.

Through the framing of horror, Get Out invites an unprecedented level of audience empathy with black characters. White audience members eagerly respond to Chris as the protagonist because they accept his narrative as part of the genre they already enjoy.

But Peele’s film is doing double duty: It’s also explaining to white horror fans — like me — the things young black men have to do in order to survive our white society.

Here’s how the director does it.

1) Get Out frames violent black resistance as a necessity born of desperation

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
The face of a man who knows when to smile and nod.
Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

To talk about the tools and horror tropes Get Out uses, it’s helpful to understand the basic plot. Chris’s white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), invites him to spend the weekend at her family’s house in suburbia.

Everyone there, from her parents to her parents’ white friends and neighbors to her family’s black servants, are acting strangely. Increasingly suspicious and scared, Chris eventually falls victim to a community-wide plot to abduct black men and women and fuse their brains with those of older white men and women in a horrific eugenics experiment. His only option becomes escape by any means necessary — which in Get Out’s case means open violence.

Mainstream American culture considers violence heroic in certain socially sanctioned contexts — “just” wars, certain sporting events, self-defense, etc. This view extends, for the most part, to our pop culture, too: Our heroes from movies, television, and video games are often loners standing up to an unjust system, using violence to accomplish whatever they need.

But when violence is used as a means of resistance by minorities or the disenfranchised, culture and pop culture tend to take a different view — it becomes something to be avoided at all costs. (See, for example, the recent wave of anti-protest laws currently sweeping the US.)

Black resistance movements in the US have long been demonized and punished for even the hint of potential violence. This has remained true whether the resistance has taken the form of organizations like the Black Panthers, spontaneous protests like the 1992 Los Angeles riots, desperate survival tactics like those used by the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or ongoing activism like the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Black citizens are not allowed, within the cultural narrative, to be “heroic through defiance.”

Hollywood echoes this narrative, reinforcing the idea that violence is bad and minorities should only use it as a means of attaining harmony and unity. Even in horror, a genre teeming with sanctioned violence, black characters are typically only allowed to use violence when they’re working alongside white characters.

For example: Even though the recent Purge franchise is savvy about the way violent power structures dehumanize minorities and the working class, it explicitly condemns minorities who attempt to resist rather than work with the white establishment. The series’ radical black protester evolves into a terrorist, leads a violent resistance group against the ruling all-white patriarchy, and has to be stopped by our heroes. These heroes include a band of black men working with a white savior, a senator for whom one of the black men heroically sacrifices himself. As I wrote in my review of The Purge: Election Year, the franchise “only values violence as a tool of resistance as long as it helps white people.”

Get Out obliterates this narrative completely. Through the first two-thirds of the film, Chris is strategically silent while enduring a fusillade of casually racist behaviors, and it’s clear he’s learned this maneuver through countless social interactions. Chris’s silence is deliberately designed to avoid hostility and create an appearance of politeness and compliance. He remains nonviolent until the last possible second, to his peril.

The film emphasizes Chris’s rising levels of fear and his patient attempts to remain calm and be on his best behavior in order to contextualize the escalating, life-threatening danger of his situation. In real life, the dominant narrative about black struggles to coexist within white society is that the black individual is the troublemaker, the source of agitation, and the problem to be dealt with. But because we’re so conditioned by horror as a genre to the trope of the “guy trying to convince himself everything’s fine when things are clearly not fine,” the audience remains on Chris’s side, even as his pushback against white suburbia escalates.

When Chris finally does resort to violence, it’s a cathartic and empowering moment, and there’s no platitude about peacemaking to be found. In Get Out, black violence isn’t a temporary step to harmonious assimilation with white people; rather, white people are intensely racist and need to be stopped. By making audience members — including white ones — relate to this feeling of desperation so clearly, Get Out challenges views on real-life black resistance and protest.

2) White feminism is portrayed as a bluff

A scene from Get Out
This is not what intersectionality looks like.
Justin Lubin / Universal Pictures

The femme fatale is a huge trope — not just in cinema but in real life (see Amanda Knox). In horror, she’s often a young woman who uses her apparent naiveté to mask savvy manipulation of the people around her, particularly her lovers (see Haute Tension, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane).

On the surface, Rose seems warm, progressive, and awake to the realities of racism. She seems like the perfect kind of person to support Chris in surviving and fighting the white racist community he finds at her parents’ house.

But Rose is the embodiment of “white feminism,” which prioritizes what white women want and need while ignoring social issues faced by minorities. Rose is consistently dismissive of Chris’s concerns about her family, asserting that her family is not racist in the least, citing her father’s love of Barack Obama as evidence. And when she defends him against the suspicions of a racist local police officer, she does so by speaking for him and over his objections. In one scene, she professes to be baffled by her family’s apparently oblivious racist aggressions toward Chris, which shows how well she recognizes and pays lip service to the act of being a good ally, even as she secretly uses that knowledge to further her family’s racist agenda.

A common criticism of white feminism is that white women want to be seen as supportive of minorities as long as their interests align, but when crisis moments arise, they support their own interests at the expense of minority groups. Rose’s behavior in the film is consistent with this critique, and when the crisis moment arrives in Get Out, this pattern is made crystal clear: She’s only been superficially supportive of Chris in order to manipulate him into aligning his interests with hers.

When push comes to shove, she betrays him. Worse, she never had his back to begin with. Beneath her winning exterior, she’s just as complicit in Chris’s oppression as the rest of her family. This twist reflects a larger, longstanding argument that white feminism has never prioritized racial equality as part of its agenda and has often actively worked against the cause. Rose’s feminism might be a more polite version of racism, but it’s still racism.

3) White microaggressions are framed as masking real dehumanization

It’s okay — they’re fans of Tiger Woods.
Justin Lubin / Universal Pictures

Making someone believe their perception of reality and their interpretation of events is wrong is a universal psychological tool for establishing control over someone else. It’s a common practice that we haven’t really had a word for until recently, as the concept of “gaslighting” has gradually entered the broader cultural consciousness from modern psychology. And the term “gaslighting” comes from a famous horror film — 1944’s Gaslight.

One of the most common ways gaslighting plays out is through the use of microaggressions. A microaggression is a seemingly innocuous casual comment or gesture that’s typically used to dismiss and degrade the experience and identities of women and minorities and other marginalized people. The power of a microaggression is that it’s often framed as casual ignorance — so if you get mad about it, you look like the oversensitive one. It’s used to consistently wear down and dehumanize your identity, while creating plausible deniability that can be used to make you look, well, crazy. And the “I’m not crazy, really!” narrative is the foundational trope of nearly all horror.

In Get Out, as in real life, white people’s seemingly innocuous comments on Chris’s race are not innocuous at all — though at first they’re presented that way. Chris endures a social nightmare: a garden party full of rich white people who invade his space, touch him without permission, prod him, and explicitly objectify him physically and sexually. They do all this while expecting him to approve of their benevolent approval of black people.

All of this is initially portrayed as well-meaning, if annoying; as my colleague Alissa Wilkinson wrote in her review of the film, “These clueless white people are trying to be cool in front of Chris, whom they just sort of think must be cool because he’s black, and he’s indulged it.” But this is how microaggressions are calculated to come across — they’re statements and actions made with the intent to pass for clueless behavior while masking deeper forms of racism.

And ultimately that’s exactly what they’re revealed to be in Get Out. All those comments at the garden party have a specific purpose — they’re about assessing Chris as a physical specimen, assessing the quality of body parts that are about to be placed on a literal auction block. Even his spiritual attributes, like his artistic talent, are explicitly broken down into objectified physical parts; his talent as a photographer becomes reduced to his artistic “eyes,” which are commodified just like the rest of him.

The comments Chris endures in good faith aren’t attempts to genuinely interact with him; they’re buyer inquiries from a horrific parade of consumers inspecting new merchandise. Get Out portrays the partygoers’ “benevolent” racism as what it actually is: a cover for a system of dehumanization.

4) Code switching is portrayed as a tool to make white people more comfortable

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out
Spidey senses tingling.
Universal Pictures

The trope of unnatural artifice set against a weirdly dystopic suburban backdrop is one of horror’s most common. It has been memorably deployed as a statement about feminism (The Stepford Wives) and the nature of conformity (The Burbs, Disturbia). Get Out also uses this trope to explore the danger of conformity, but applies it to a specific conformist act black men and women perform every day in real life: Code switching, or the act of adjusting your speech and mannerisms to adapt to different cultural or social contexts.

We all code-switch in different situations, but within black culture, code switching is often crucial to fitting into white-dominated professional and social environments. Before he wrote and directed Get Out, Peele referenced code switching frequently on his sketch comedy show Key & Peele, and he uses it here to create one of the film’s creepiest aspects: the brainwashing of the black men and women Rose’s neighborhood has previously abducted.

Chris first suspects something is off about the community because of how strangely its few black members are behaving. They all look, speak, act, and dress extremely oddly, even anachronistically; basically, they sound like old white people. There’s a reason for that. The men and women who are behaving this way have been forcibly abducted, and their bodies are being used as vessels for the brains of elderly white men and women.

Get Out frames code switching as a skill that can work against the self-interests of black men and women because it can make social interactions all about white people’s comfort rather than their own. Chris’s own code switching does nothing but increase the danger he’s in. And the horrific medical experiments that silence the film’s other black victims are an extrapolation of the real-life assimilations that happen when black men and women move within white culture.

In a crucial moment, one of the victims is able to break free of his brainwashing and warn Chris that he’s in danger. In that moment, he switches back to the person he used to be, and Chris realizes that he knows and recognizes him — he’s a guy Chris used to know who dropped off the map. This becomes the key moment that allows Chris to figure out that something is seriously wrong. Seeing through code switching to a more authentic identity becomes a vital survival tool.

Get Out’s literalism is its core strength

In Get Out, as in many horror films, there is no overarching fantasy metaphor. Instead, the bad thing is the real-life thing that was threatening to be bad all along. Small social slights and tiny injustices of casual racism are heightened and intensified and finally revealed to be masking the most hideous form of racism there is: slavery.

The film’s overarching theme is that its horrors are literal. In real life, the politenesses of casual racism — what Wilkinson describes as “racist behavior that tries to be aggressively unscary” — are consciously deployed efforts to reinforce prejudice. Words and actions that seem banal turn out to mask gargantuan evils in Get Out because in real life, those tiny, trivial things are born of a larger system of devaluing human lives.

By framing that system as a horror film, Peele makes audience members of all races understand, in a visceral, unprecedented way, how demoralizing its effects are on the people it targets. In real life, minorities caught within that system can’t get out. But by outlining some of the tools with which racism perpetuates itself, Get Out also suggests that we can all use our newfound awareness to demolish that system and build something better.

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