New Black Horror: Get Out

Recent shifts towards populist, xenophobic politics have broken the ‘post-race’ illusion and made it painfully clear that we still live in racialised realities. As Michael Omi notes, race is still ‘a fundamental organising principle of individual identity and collective action’ (1996: 179). In particular, the events of 2020 led to a mainstream acknowledgement that race and racism are discursive, structural and material elements of lived experience rather than the preserve of extremist regimes and the far right. Alana Lentin observes that even scholars who wish to deny ‘the centrality of race’ recognise that ‘to do away [with it] completely… would be to “bury it alive”’[1] (2014: 29). Furthermore, Catherine Squires writes: ‘White supremacy is not dead and gone. It is a zombie stalking the land…  the post-racial is…  an era of the “living dead”. The racial ideologies and representational strategies that the “post-” declares to be dead…  refuse to stay buried. They keep cropping up, like zombies’ (2014: 101). In drawing on histories erased from national narratives, many recent films by African-American directors address what Plato termed anamnesis by engaging with deliberately suppressed memories. In Loving (Nichols, 2016) and BlackkKlansman (Lee, 2018), the perceived distance of the period drama is used as a means of highlighting the legacy of public and private racial violence. In horror films, The Girl with All the Gifts (McCarthy, 2016) and Meet the Blacks (Taylor, 2016), interracial families come under threat from white human/zombie agents. But it was Get Out, the 2017 comic horror about a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) meeting the liberal parents of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams), which captured the public imagination and broke box office records.

Written as a critique of what mixed-race director Jordan Peele called the ‘post-racial lie’,[2] Get Out uses microaggressions to create tension, building up to the big reveal where the ultimate horror is conceptualised as the exploitation of black bodies by white capitalism. Its plot bears similarities to the German film Transfer (Lukacevic, 2010), blending sci-fi with horror to explore the plight of young black subjects coerced into becoming the physical hosts of ageing, wealthy, white consumers (thus enabling the latter to live on indefinitely). Both films draw on the false science formulated to justify the enslavement of Africans (and their recategorisation from human to commodity), as a means to explore the economic, physical and social inequality caused by racial discrimination. As such, both explore the contested negrophobia/negrophilia binary that continues to shape Eurocentric popular culture, where black-originated styles and artforms dominate while black individuals suffer disproportionately in the justice system[3] and experience higher levels of poverty and exclusion. 

Get Out begins with the protagonist preparing to visit his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. The perceived transgression of interracial sex is highlighted in its opening scenes when Chris asks his girlfriend Rose, as she lies on his bed, whether her parents know that he’s black.[4] She laughs it off and notes that her father would have voted for Obama for a third term if such a thing were possible. Yet Chris’s black friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) has no faith in such passive liberalism.[5] Here the film reimagines the main premise of landmark interracial romance Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – that behind the patriarch’s liberal façade lies a reactionary bigot who only comes into play when he is forced to deal with his daughter’s desire to marry a black man. Get Out brings this bigot to life in the most extreme way. Yet the fear at the heart of its horror is one rarely acknowledged onscreen; a deep-rooted, intergenerational trauma formed by white supremacy. This fear is legitimised in an early scene when a black man walks through a middle-class neighbourhood; he is stalked, attacked and kidnapped, seemingly for sport, as the song ‘Run, Rabbit Run’ plays on his assailant’s car stereo.

Rejecting the genre’s historical marginalisation of black actors and audiences, Get Out chooses the Other as its intended demographic, with its title urging Chris to leave the white space. When he finally arrives at his girlfriend’s parents’ house – after being racially profiled en route by a traffic cop – a series of close-ups intercut with a moving camera give the audience a sense of Chris’s bewilderment. He is presented to family friends at a party which, unbeknownst to him, preceeds an auction where he will go to the highest bidder. The mostly white guests pose questions using ‘post-race’ language which only thinly veils their racist attitudes. An Asian-American man asks: ‘Do you find that being African-American has more advantages or disadvantages in the modern world?’. Before Chriscan answer, a white man replies: ‘It’s a tough one’. Another declares ‘black is in fashion’ and many guests refer to Chris’s physicality and presumed sexual prowess. The interracial dynamics presented in this scene play into the dialectics of repulsion and attraction underpinning American racial politics.[6]

The film references the slavery era further through its mise-en-scène. The family’s rural home – the movie was filmed on location in Alabama – evokes the plantation house through its columned veranda and exclusively black staff. This is shored up by the intertextuality of the white son’s banjo playing on the porch (an instrument brought to America by Africans, and, in screen culture, forever associated with the rednecks of Deliverance (Boorman, 1972)). There is also the importance of cotton to the hero’s escape, while the weapons used in the film – bowling balls, a stuffed dear head – call to mind the lives of leisure the family have enjoyed through their exploitation of black bodies. Neither of the adult children has a job, or seems to need one. And, while necessary to the plot, the white parents’ medical careers draw attention to the various ways black bodies have been used for scientific experimentation, often without their knowledge or consent.[7] Indeed the danger of Chris’ surroundings becomes clear when he is surreptitiously hypnotised by his girlfriend’s mother, and finds suppressed memories of his mother’s death beginning to reemerge. 

Get Out reimagines the utopic vision of the ‘post-race’ millennium as a continuation of white, heteronormative, elitist social structures, where African-Americans must cover over their difference to blend in – smiling through adversity while the displaced self retreats to ‘the sunken place’. As Chris falls into this space, his body flailing, the lighting highlights the whites of his teeth and eyes, imagery which calls to mind the visual legacy of minstrelsy and blackface. The horror here, as with the minstrel, is the way in which black men are controlled and objectified for white pleasure, acting only as passive signifiers in a society in which they have no agency.[8] David Marriott comments on the ‘spectacular place of black men in white scopic pleasure’ (2000: 6) in his discussion of lynching and the family photos that whites took at those scenes.[9] Frantz Fanon also drew associations between lynching, ‘race’ and sexuality asking: ‘Is the lynching of the Negro not a sexual revenge?’ (1986: 159).  In Get Out, the black man is positioned as an object of scopophilic pleasure within the diegesis and constantly under threat for that very reason, yet the film’s form consistently rejects this reductionism, affirming his individuality, intelligence and complex emotional states.

The final tableau of the couple – he straddles/strangles her on a forest floor – reverts to the familiar blend of sex and death which dominates in representations of interracial couples, where, from The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915) on, miscegenation is the monster within. As she cries for help from the cops, viewers are reminded of the use of state authorities to restrict black movement, and of the enduring cultural images derived from slavery-era myths of the threat posed by black men to white women. By refusing the obvious ending – Chris in prison – Peele leaves the audience with an uneasy sense of closure, as the horror never really goes away. Indeed it is Peele’s denial of interracial romantic love as a fictional resolution for a legacy of racial violence which proves the post-racial lie. Caroline A. Streeter (2012) notes that while popular culture continues to exploit interracial sex alongside more conservative images of interracial love, this does not account for the rarity of certain forms of interracial marriage (white men and black women) or the rarity of interracial marriage as a whole. By challenging popular narratives which suggest that race no longer shapes lived experience or that love can overcome long-standing structural and systemic exclusion, Get Out centralises the perspective of the marginalised, highlighting an important counter-discourse which reveals the reality of living in a racially stratified society.

[1] See David Theo Goldberg, ‘Racial Europeanization’. In: Ethnic and Racial Studies (29) 2006, pp. 331-364.

[2] 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

[3] In Get Out’s original ending, where the black protagonist kills the white family in self-defence and goes to jail, Peele directly addresses the industrial prison complex, the overrepresentation of black men in jail and structural inequality. See clip:

[4] The same question kicks off Stanley Kramer’s 1967 hit Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a rom-com released the year that interracial marriage was decriminalised in America.

[5] A political approach which many claim has enabled the growth of white nationalism.

[6] See Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1993.

[7] Take for example, Henrietta Lacks, the source of the HeLa cell line, one of the most important data sources in medical research. Lacks’ cells were taken during treatment for cervical cancer in 1951. No consent was obtained to culture her cells, nor were she or her family compensated for their extraction or use. More well known is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the US Public Health Service, the study observed the natural progression of untreated syphilis in black men. However the study’s participants were not informed of the purpose of the study or the fact that they had syphilis (nearly half were artificially given the disease). A policy targeting Native Americans, which persisted into the 1980s, saw women undergoing appendectomies receiving tubal ligations without their consent. Meanwhile ‘Mississippi Appendectomies’ became the popular term for the unnecessary hysterectomies performed (again, without consent) on black women at teaching hospitals in the South as practice for medical students. A 2016 study showed that a third of American doctors still believe popular 19th century myths about black patients – e.g. that darker skin is thicker, with fewer nerve endings than lighter skin – leading to disparities in treatment recommendations. See Hoffman, K. M., Trawalter, S, Axt, J. R. and Oliver, M. N. (2016) ‘Racial Bias in Pain Assessment’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113 (16), pp. 4296 – 4301. Furthermore, there are ongoing campaigns around the world for the repatriation of the human remains that were taken from Africa for early European studies designed to support racial hierarchies. 

[8] Since emancipation, voter suppression has restricted black civic power. For example, after the 2018 mid-terms Florida reinstated the rights of over a million citizens – mostly black men – who had not been allowed to vote due to having a conviction.

[9] In 1918 a Tennessee newspaper reported on a lynching by advertising the burning of a ‘live negro’.  The event drew three thousand spectators (cited in Zack, 1993: 99).

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