Racial Paralysis in The Sunken Place: Get Out

If you look back on the history of horror cinema, you’ll find that many make use of timely social issues in order to convey powerful commentary on their respective subjects. The great visionary horror director George Romero continually did it in his Dead series; with Night of the Living Dead tackling race relations during the height of the Civil Rights movement, while Dawn of the Dead took shots at consumerism and its power to basically turn society into zombies. Recently, The Purge series of films explores classism, the classic Rosemary’s Baby is related to feminist ideas, and the cult-favourite They Live looked at the power of the media.

Get Out, by comedian-turned-horror director Jordan Peele, is a modern example of how horror films are often utilized to depict poignant social commentary. It’s quite amazing that Get Out was Peele’s first time being in the director’s chair for a film, as well as his first foray into the horror genre. Get Out is so successful in so many aspects that it ends up not only being one of the most impressive debuts of the last decade (so much so that Peele actually was awarded an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), but also perhaps the most socially charged mainstream horror film in that timespan as well. His second film, Us, was released to much fanfare and praise this year, and deservedly so. With systemic and structural racism buried so deep in some people, they don’t even see that they are the topic of these films themselves. Which makes it all the more important to keep them coming.

Get Out’s central character is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a 20-something black man in a relationship with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), who plans to take him along for a visit to her family’s classical New York state home for a family get-together. Chris is noticeably skeptical about the trip and coyly asks Rose if her parents are aware that he’s black, implying that he believes he may not feel welcomed by Rose’s family because of the colour of his skin. Rose’s on-the-nose rebuttal attempts to strike down his fear: “My dad would vote for Obama for a third term if he could,” she replies, with the punchline of the joke landing a handful of scenes later when Rose’s father recites this line verbatim to Chris.

And it’s moments like these that are some of the best in Get Out: it remains a biting satire plainly hidden beneath a rotten exterior. Peele has certainly looked at similar issues concerning race relations in the past through his comedy, but here he takes a much more subdued approach. The film is foremost a psychological horror-thriller and regularly intersects the built-up tension with well-timed jokes and often funny reactions from the characters. However, Get Out can and should scare you, especially in its final act when all of its cards have been laid out, and definitely after its credits have rolled and you’re left to reflect on its potent themes. But to Peele’s credit, you may find yourself laughing as much as you’ll be gasping. And if you don’t take a long, hard look at yourself at the end of this movie, you haven’t watched it right.

For Get Out explores the various ways in which racism rears its ugly head in society, some more subtle than others. I truly don’t believe that any white (or any ethnicity to be honest) person hasn’t been guilty of at least one of these behaviours during their lifetime.

Meet The Parents

Dean and Missy, Rose's parents in Get Out stand looking at the camera, slightly ominously.

Those words are horrifying enough. Everyone knows that meeting the parents is about as awkward and unpleasant an experience you can go through. Even worse if your parents are covert racists under the guise of liberals, and your partner is from a different background.

From the first interaction Chris has with Rose’s parents, Dean and Missy Armitage (played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), we get the sense that there’s something…especially peculiar about them. Dean repeatedly attempts to fit in with Chris in increasingly cringe-inducing ways, which gives the impression of slight hostility between the two. Opposite Dean is his psychologist wife Missy, who insists that Chris allow her to perform her hypnotherapy on him to cure his addiction to nicotine. Chris politely declines, still visibly doubtful of the family’s integrity.

People like these two probably don’t even believe they are racist but it’s embedded in their DNA, passed down from the generations before them. As with the protestation that they aren’t racist—despite having a black gardener and a black housemaid—because they voted for Obama is just so altruistic it hurts. How many people do you know that cheer on their favourite black athletes every weekend and also voted for Trump or Brexit? These are the greatest people in the world to them until they aren’t doing well for their team; then the racial slurs start slipping out. I bet if my parents saw Mo Farah in a hoodie in their local Tesco they’d absolutely shit themselves. It’s all good when he’s winning gold medals for the country though right? As long as he’s providing entertainment and bringing glory to the nation then he’s 100% British.

Brotherly Love

Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) sits with lit candles in front of him.

Then there’s Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who is the most outwardly malicious toward Chris in the beginning, but still not so much so that Chris feels truly threatened by him. Chris (as well as the audience) is likely willing to shake off Jeremy’s routine as being no worse than any other protective brother looking after his sister’s well-being. But here he is, the epitome of upper-class racism, so confident that he won’t get in trouble for his behaviour that he just does what he wants. Rednecks with money are all people like him are. But the money makes them more dangerous. While their racism is more in your face—and therefore more shocking on the surface–rednecks are easy to spot and avoid. They can’t even hide their hatred. If you have money though, you are more likely to get away with it—Just look at Trump; how is his presidency even still a thing? At one point, Jeremy plays the banjo; I was waiting for the infamous Deliverance tune, but subtlety won through.

Meet the Grandparents?

What Chris is most concerned about, though, stems from interactions with the two black servants under the family’s rule, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson). They move with purpose, but only in order to complete the Armitage’s chores; they don’t speak very much, but when they do it’s robotic, awkward, and very creepy. But like the family, who are just as off-putting to Chris—albeit in a totally different way—for much of the film, neither party take it far enough to truly convince him that his suspicions have been right all along.

Peele constructs his first act in such a grand and complete way that you’ll likely have your own ideas as to what’s going on as you’re watching the film. But where Get Out ends up is legitimately surprising, and the payoff is well worth the wait. As much as you will think you might have the plot figured out from the opening moments, the film doesn’t end up simply being about a family of racists who intend to hurt or kill a young black man due to the colour of his skin. Get Out isn’t so much concerned with being a commentary on overt racism against a singular target—in this case, Chris—as it may seem at the outset. Rather, the film presents something that is perhaps even more sinister and disturbing—systemic racism perpetrated by a white, self-described “liberal” family.

An old photo of The Armitage Family outside their mansion

It’s important to note that Get Out wasn’t written in a post-Trump society, wherein we’ve watched numerous times over the last few years groups of white nationalists come forward in droves screaming “white supremacy,” almost as if it’s a natural, everyday occurrence. Rather, Peele actually conceived the film during Obama’s tenure in office, making strictly the point to criticize the supposed “post-racial” world so many liberal-minded people believed we were already living in. We were not then and we are definitely not now. Absolutely nothing has changed, it’s just that people aren’t afraid to admit they are racist anymore. This is true horror.

So when the film finally unveils what the Armitage’s plan on doing with Chris by the third act—that a white man’s brain will be transplanted into his black body without his consent so that the man (who is a blind art dealer, can use his excellent eyes)—it’s a mind-blowing, kinda B-Movie type twist. But it’s also one that works extremely well due to the foreshadowing of events that hint to this conclusion throughout the first two acts. We begin to see clues of it not only through the off-putting servants (who we discover are Rose’s grandparents post-surgery), but as well in the almost glossed-over discussion that Chris and Dean have early on regarding black Olympian Jesse Owens who, it’s safe to assume, was the original inspiration for the unthinkable procedure.

The greatest hint we get to the eventual outcome is from one of the film’s best scenes; when Chris meets dozens of the Armitage’s wealthy white friends during their annual get together, and wherein Peele lambastes our society’s objectification of black bodies and white people’s damning appropriation of black culture.

Meet Yourself

Chris and Rose at the family party

The most disturbing part of Get Out for me is the behaviour of Rose, and Chris himself, in the lead up to the surprising ending.

“Nice” white people talk to Chris and about him in ways that make it clear he’s not like them—whether it’s about his “frame” and “genetic makeup” or about black skin “being in fashion” or asking Rose if it’s true that “it” is better. We know what that person means, and so do Rose and Chris.

Chris endures it all with a smile that seems born of years of having to put up with this kind of thing, and we’re allowed in on the joke. 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. He wears the same expression when he and Rose talk to a cop after they accidentally hit a deer on their way up north, and the policeman who responds to their call insists on seeing Chris’s ID.

Rose always speaks up for Chris, which at first you may think is honourable; she’s just protecting her man right? Even he thinks it’s sexy. But look at that closely. Chris is not able to stand up for himself without getting into trouble—the repercussions could quite easily lead to his death by cop. Whereas, Rose, a white woman, knows full well that the cop won’t mess with her. Especially after he learns about where her family live, as that means she has money, so he backs down.

Rose plays every trick in the book to lure Chris into a false sense of security with her. He would never believe she could be racist after five months of dating a black guy, standing up for him at every opportunity, even choosing him over her parents until the very last moment. Rose took his ‘minority’ label as an opportunity to subtly demean him, emasculate him and ultimately hold superiority over him. While she turns out to be a complete psychopath, you do also have to question Chris’ attraction to her—there are certainly elements of internalized racism at play here.

Wealthy white people in the grounds holding their Bingo cards in the air
Modern-day slavery. Wealthy white people play Liberal Bingo to win their very own black man

Get Out is also heavily informed by the horror genre and its many tropes—twisting and inverting many of them in wholly special ways throughout—and its lineage and direct inspiration can be traced back through the decades to the ’60s and ’70s with Night of the Living DeadRosemary’s Baby, and The Stepford Wives being some of Peele’s most important influences for the film. And, of course, as you watch Get Out and explore its themes further, all of these connections become all the more apparent.

Get Out ends up being the most racially-aware horror film to come out since George Romero’s 1968 genre-defining masterwork, Night of the Living Dead. The horror genre is often viewed as wholly misogynistic, and I can understand why—after all, on its surface, the genre, at its lowest and most perverse points, often presents beautiful women that have been stripped naked and terrorized solely for the sake of entertainment. However, many fans of the genre and even many film scholars would disagree with this overarching sentiment.

The protagonist and final survivor of oh-so-many horror films is a lone woman that defeats the evil entity (who is usually a man or man-like creature). She survives the night, something not even her male counterparts could do. You’ll see the ‘final girl’ trope in hundreds—if not thousands—of horror films throughout the decades. We don’t so much as have a ‘final girl’ equivalent for black people in horror films, who are rightly viewed as being often mistreated in the genre, with the running joke for decades being that black characters in horror films almost assuredly die first. Get Out rightfully changed this.

There’s a small number of black characters in the genre as a whole, and that number becomes even smaller if we’re talking about lead black characters. Black characters rarely become the protagonist of these films, unless it’s a predominantly black movie or an unusual anomaly here and there, which is exactly what Night of the Living Dead was back when it initially came out in 1968—a very important anomaly. At the height of the Civil Rights movement of the late ’60s, Night of the Living Dead released with a black male as its lead hero—something never before seen in horror and perhaps unsurprisingly, rarely seen since.

George Romero had stated in interviews that he didn’t mean for Night of the Living Dead to be a racially-charged film, citing that he had no specific race for the character in the script. According to Romero, the black actor, Duane Jones, was only chosen for the role because he was the best actor they knew who could play the part. But greater meaning has been attributed to the film since its initial release, and honestly, it’s a much better film when viewing it through the lens of its underlying racial themes. When the main character, Ben, is mistaken for one of the undead and shot and killed right in the last moments of the film by a particularly lynch mob-like group of all-white zombie hunters, the film takes on a much greater subtextual meaning—even if it wasn’t Romero’s intended purpose. Get Out, on the other hand, is built from the ground-up as a racially charged film, and is allowed to take a much more obvious and purposeful stance with its significant themes.

This brings me to one of the film’s most striking, profound, and unforgettable images: the “Sunken Place.”

Chris floats in the darkness of the Sunken Place

As much as the idea itself is fantastic, it’s Peele’s visual representation of the “Sunken Place” that makes it so harrowing. The few times it happens in the film, we watch in horror as Chris floats through the pitch-black space, screaming internally, unable to do anything but watch as the terror unfolds directly in front of him. While the film depicts the character’s suppression in grandiose, fictionalized fashion through paralyzing hypnosis, in real life, this translates to the paralyzing notion of consequences that may come for minorities when they speak up or fight back—as when Chris couldn’t stand up to the white cop in the early part of the film.

Run Rabbit Run!

It turns out that in the very first scene it was Jeremy who kidnaps Logan, who we see later dapperly dressed like he’s part of a barbershop quartet. During their struggle, Jeremy plays a jovial song in his flashy white car, ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’.  The contrast between the heaviness of the situation and the levity of the song adds a highly disturbing undercurrent to the mise en scène. The unsettling words of the song establish the relationship that viewers will parse out the remainder of the film. The rabbit represents black people persecuted by the farmer, the allegorical white race. The metaphor of Chris as the rabbit is strengthened by the fact that the Armitages slyly serve carrot cake, to Chris on his first night at the house. Chriss desperate flee from the Armitage plantation at the end of the film, with Rose hunting him down and firing at him with her shotgun, parallels the rabbits fleeing from the farmer.

Food For Thought

A blue and white delft tea cup and silver spoon
Other tiny details in the film key audiences into the storys racial underpinnings and implicitly further Peeles commentary. In the first few minutes of the movie, shots cross-cut between Chriss apartment and Rose picking up breakfast for the two of them at a bakery. In this particular shot, the camera pans over a case of all white pastries such as croissants, danishes, and cookies and then widens out to show Rose looming over them. Though this is a tiny detail, Peele couldve displayed an array of foods, such as brownies or chocolate cake, but purposefully didnt. This small detail shows early on that Rose has a preference for lightly-coloured things.

Mrs. Armitage stirs her tea with a spoon to heighten Chriss suggestibility and send him to the “sunken place”. The silver spoon she uses to stir could be a reference to the phrase that a privileged people are “born with a silver spoon in their mouth”. This interaction echoes previous suggestions that white people use their privilege to take advantage of black people by various means, such as cultural appropriation and preference in the eyes of the law.

Lastly, after we discover that Rose is a psychopath that has tricked a plethora of black people into relationships only to abuse their bodies and steal their consciousness, a frame centres her on her laptop. To her right lie a glass of milk and a bowl of fruit loops. Besides it being incredibly odd behaviour (she is a fruit loop) it is a subtle metaphor for her racism. Just as she doesnt want to mix her milk and fruit loops, she wants to increase the separation between races by viewing black people as other-than-human. She swigs the milk, but she eats the coloured cereal one at a time, just as she picks off her black victims one and a time. There she sits, listening to ‘The Time of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing (so, so white) and displays all her former lovers/victims on the wall above her bed.

Rose separates fruit loops and milk while listening to music on her headphones on her bed with her laptop

The end though is happy. Well, as happy as a self-defensive massacre can be. The Armitage family’s underlying racism bites them in the ass, for they didn’t consider that Chris would actually be cleverer than them. He pulls the stuffing from the chair he is tied to and blocks his ears so that he can not be put under Missy’s spoon stirring hypnosis again. When Jeremy comes to take him for his brain transplant, Chris beats him with a bowling ball, then spears Dean with a deer antler—very poetic as Dean had so painfully tried to suck up to Chris when they first met over the fact that they’d accidentally killed a deer on their journey to the house.

So, not only was he more physically able than all of them, but their white privilege masked their vision that despite Chris not coming from a wealthy background, or attending an Ivy League school, that he was smart as hell and streetwise to boot.

In addition, Chris’ friend, TSA Officer Rod Williams, was the only person who believed in Chris. All along he’s portrayed as the light relief; he has what we assume are crazy notions about white people, all of which turn out to be totally correct. You may think this story is unbelievable, I mean what woman who hates black people so much would repeatedly date, and have sex with them? Well, as Rod rightly stated, that’s exactly what Jeffrey Dahmer did, so its not a totally preposterous plot.

Rod begs the police for help but his story is not believed by three cops; a black female, a black male, and a Hispanic male—a nod to the fact that even they have been brainwashed by systemic racism which is hugely prevalent in the police force. Rod saves Chris’ life, driving him away from the house, leaving Rose dying in the road—something that despite all she did to Chris, will cause him anguish, as his own mother was left for dead after a hit and run and his guilt for not calling the authorities while she was missing will haunt him forever.

Get Out is a remarkable film, it is perhaps more politically relevant now than ever, and it is primed to spark long conversations between you and your friends in which you dissect and discuss the film at length—a luxury you’re only granted by cinema’s greatest achievements.

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Written by Laura Stewart

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