coagula

I Want to Talk to EVERYONE About “Get Out”

So much has already been said about Jordan Peele’s scintillating debut horror film “Get Out,” that following the blizzard of reviews and thinkpieces it inspires is starting to feel like reading an entire freshman class of essays on the same Shakespeare play. However, the movie is good enough to invite the kind of theorizing that people do on masterful works. Everyone seems to see it differently. I have read excellent pieces on the microaggressions in the film, on the starkly presented difference between Black and white experiences, and on the importance of subverting the white gaze for the central message of the film.

I’ve now seen “Get Out” three times in the theater. This is unusual for me; even “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a film I could watch every day until I die only got me into the theater twice. The first two times I saw “Get Out” were part of a friend’s proposed experiment. She asked me to see it with her in Oakland, at a theater where nearly all the customers are Black. On the following day, she proposed we see it again in a nearly all-white theater in San Francisco. An artist herself, my friend told me that the audience makes up a significant portion of one’s experience of seeing a movie. She was right.

The third time I saw it, I was out in a suburb in Southern California with my cousin, who had free movie tickets to burn. He was taking his Black boyfriend to see it and asked if I wanted to come along. The question came at the end of a long day and a lot of sushi and sake, and at first I wasn’t sure I could stay awake. I needn’t have worried. “Get Out” is an electrifying film even on third viewing. This last time I saw more than I ever had, and realized there were things to I needed to talk about. Without trying to whitesplain a great film to anyone, I’m sharing my thoughts.

First, I want to say some things about my experience with “Get Out” in very different theaters with different groups of people. Next, repeat viewing has helped me identify a subtly embedded and absolutely brilliant motif of predator and prey throughout the film. Finally, I want to reflect on what audiences carry with them when they leave the theater after having seen Jordan Peele’s riveting work in suspense and social commentary.

By this point, if you don’t know that there will be spoilers I don’t even know what to tell you. This isn’t an exhaustive list of everything I spotted in this film; that’s not a good use of anyone’s time. This is what stood out to me. Feel free to point out any glaring omissions in the comments below.

The first time I saw “Get Out,” I was in a completely packed theater in Jack London Square in Oakland. The movie was so popular in its opening week that the staff immediately informed us that the theater had been oversold and we might have to take a refund and leave. Looking at the angry line of people wrapped around the block, my friend and I were shocked that we got in with our day-old Fandango tickets.

We found seats and got excited. As an Oakland resident of a handful of years now, I know that audiences in my town will tend to be a little noisier than in other cities where I’ve lived. However, it’s never been distracting to me. People’s reactions and talk typically center on the action at hand and make it more fun to watch. Immediately, the Oakland crowd delivered on the expectations I had and then some. Even in the opening scenes when love interest Rose Armitage insists that her white parents aren’t racist and main character Chris Washington has nothing to fear, there were clucks and clicks of disapproval, delivered in such a tone as to remind our hero that he ought to know better.

Other standout moments included Rose’s explanation of the tall Black man raking outside her parents’ house (“That’s just the groundskeeper”) were met with immediate call-outs from the house (“His name?”) When Erika Alexander rolled through in her cheeky and memorable cameo, more than one person yelled out MAXINE in reference to her much-beloved character on Living Single, the truly excellent 1990s sitcom featuring Queen Latifah. As the tension mounted, the Oakland audience prefigured Chris’ good friend Rod as the voice of reason. Each time Chris doubled down, made himself vulnerable to the creepy white people around him, excused their micro- and macroaggressions, people in the audience called him out. They didn’t do it as if he didn’t know better; they said it exactly the way that Rod would say it only moments later on the screen. They were reminding him of what he already knew: that he was not safe among suburban or rural whites, and that his beautiful girlfriend was gaslighting him.

The audience shared their triumph every time Chris gained a little ground, every time he killed one of his captors or got a little closer to escaping. When the final scene showed us the incoming police car just as Chris was about to kill his betrayer, there was an absolute uproar as if the whole house had been defrauded. Chris’ ordeal could not finish on the note of the unending nightmare that is the treatment of Black people by American police officers; a nightmare that was already pointedly included in the first act of the film. The relief that washed over every row of seats in the theater was so real that I could see people literally wiping their brows as the moment passed.

In comparison, viewing the same film on the following day in an all-white theater was a subdued experience. Every reaction was more subdued than what I had observed in Oakland, to the point where there was no reaction whatsoever in the house to the way the auction bidders appraised and evaluated Chris’ body, or to the blatant discomfort of the white gaze when the audience sees it through Chris’ lens. The white audience laughed at different jokes; not cringing at the villains insisting on their lack of racism by way of love for Obama, but giggling at the story about Rose biting her toenails or laughing nervously at the deep strangeness of a man running at full speed toward Chris out of the dark woods. There were small cheers for Chris as he managed to escape, but no collective triumph in it. There were literal sighs of relief when the police car rolled in, with only one small voice saying “oh no” a few rows behind me. The white audience believed that Chris, unarmed and righteous Chris, Chris with whom we have all come to identify, would surely be safe if the cops showed up. How soon we forget.

The predator-and-prey tableaux that appear throughout the film are not subtle. However, a third viewing helped me see that it’s more deeply embedded than I first perceived it to be. The early introduction of the deer with the accident Chris and Rose lines up with the later revelations on how Chris’ mother died, establishing a connection between him and a classic prey animal. Our first introduction to Mr. Armitage gives us some early wiggins as he gives a carefully-worded diatribe against deer. He’s talking about an herbivorous pest that he probably has had to drive from his garden more than once, but his verbiage (phrases like “taking over” and dead deer on the side of the road pitilessly labeled “a good start”) evokes frank and disturbing conversations many of us have overheard from bigots discussing border crossings or mass immigration. The line between man and deer is blurred.

The connection is made even more strongly once Chris is unequivocally taken prisoner in the Armitage basement, where he sits below the mounted and stuffed head of a trophy buck. (More qualified writers than I have pointed out the importance of the word ‘buck’ here, where a young Black man’s body is literally up for auction.) The great, violent turning point of the film takes place when Chris pulls down that very mounted head and uses it to impale his neurosurgeon-captor before the half-ritual, half-science of the “coagula” can take place.

coagula

Solve et coagula. #ifyouknowwhatimean

However, when I saw the film for the second time, I realized a subtler theme on the other side of this coin. The Armitages are clearly the predators here, but the symbolism is far less prominent. Rose’s stuffed animal beside her bed is a lion. It’s a soft lion; the apex predator rendered cute and cuddly just as Rose’s beauty and easy charm disguise her own true nature. Chris is disconcerted with its button-eyed gaze in the night and decorously turns it to the wall, as one would a family photo beside the bed of a lover. Rose’s bedroom also features a poster, included in many long shots, of something called “Death Cheetah.” Rose herself bears the name of a flower known for concealing its blood-drawing weapons from the unwary picker who sees only the beauty of the bloom.

I must confess that even in my first time seeing it, I suspected Rose’s inevitable betrayal. This was largely because Rose’s first appearance on screen takes place in an artfully edited juxtaposition: her face evaluates a pastry case as she chooses what she would like to eat. Interspersed with this pretty and singly innocuous moment, we see Chris for the first time. He is naked to the waist and shaving in his bathroom mirror; we even see him draw a little blood. Subconsciously, we relate the two. She is the eater and he is to be eaten. He bleeds in the mirror as a song by Childish Gambino refers to the beloved as my peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid. None of this is an accident. Predator: meet prey.

The introduction of the older Armitages is slower and at first blush they seem embarrassing, but harmless. Their microagressions are tiresome but their affect is mostly a “Meet the Parents” silliness. It was not until my third time in the theater that I noticed Mrs. Armitage’s office chair, from which she hypnotizes and terrifies Chris, has lion’s heads carved into the finials of its arms. She is the most insidious of the predators in the house, and ultimately the most dangerous.

Jeremy Armitage, Rose’s brother, appears in the film’s first scene behind a mask. He perpetrates a much more up-front style of kidnapping than his sister, and appears inferior in every way to his patrician roots. His car plays a vintage recording of the song “Run Rabbit Run,” underscoring his position as a hunter. Scenes shot in his white sports car reveal a small ornament hanging from his rearview mirror: a silver bird skull. This pales in comparison to his sister’s trophies of headshots mounted on her walls, or their mother’s lion-headed chair. This is in keeping with Jeremy’s twitchy mannerisms, his shitty manners, his déclassé interest in MMA fighting, his ungenteel drinking. Jeremy sticks out from his family like a sore thumb, playing something like Faulkner’s own fey degenerate nephew, twirling a lacrosse stick and speaking in an accent no one else seems to have. If they are lions, Jeremy is the Scar in this family.

scar

The climax of the film binds so many things together. The expectations of the audience are met, exceeded, and subverted at once. Prey turns antlers on predator and achieves an almost impossible victory. The police car slips into the world of the film, symbolizing either doom or safety depending on who you are. Leaving the theater, I realized how the first and last scenes of “Get Out” worked to shock the movie-going public. Horror films typically begin with a sacrificial white girl; we are aware of the stakes because we see her distressed or destroyed by them. Think of the skinny dipping girl in “Jaws,” or Drew Barrymore in the first “Scream” movie. “Get Out” opens with the strangling and capture of a lone Black man in the suburbs. Those are the stakes, and most audiences are not familiar with them presented in this language.

“Get Out” ends with supreme indifference to the prone and bleeding body of a white woman. The red and blue lights of the police car fade from her eyes and leave her to die there without comfort or assistance, alone. Parallels to deaths like the murder of Michael Brown seem inescapable. Most audiences are not familiar with that kind of outrage visited on a white body, no matter how richly deserved. We like our white villains blown up or chucked off a cliff where we do not have to relate to them. I found the use of cameras, both included in Chris’ identity as a photographer and his phone-as-weapon flash-cannon employed to awaken the imprisoned Black people, an intriguing reference to these times in which surveillance of the police is so necessary and so dangerous. It’s a brilliant tool for a modern hero like Chris.

I listened to each audience as they left their respective theaters. In Oakland, the mood was effusive. A few kids were looking up the word “coagula” on their just-reactivated phones. An older couple was laughing loudly at the social media stories of white people who had been offended by the film. Rod’s better lines were repeated for comedic effect. The line for the next showing had already formed in the lobby, and a young Black man stopped my friend and I as we walked out to ask us if we had liked it. We told him we thought it was incredible and couldn’t wait to see it again. He turned to his white female companion and said, “SEE?” I’m not sure what point we proved for him, but I was glad to do it.

The San Francisco crowd was quieter. I caught a few hushed conversations on what a shame it was that the academy generally ignores horror films, and how there should be a prize for the best debut director. I heard “Moonlight” in there more than once, but couldn’t discern why.

The last time I saw the movie, the suburbanites had their priorities straight. A loud teenage girl in a row in front of us turned to her friends and said, “Old people swear up and down they’d vote for Obama in a third term and then they turn around and vote for a shitbag like Trump.” Her friends giggled more than they gave their assent, and the giggles rippled outward.

“For real, though,” one of her friends said. “People would do that shit if they could.”

“I think that’s kind of the point,” the loud girl shot back.

peele

I think she was right.

Go see “Get Out.” See it more than once, if you can. Look closely and tell me what I missed.

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