The following contains spoilers for the film Get Out and has been edited for length and clarity.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out, now showing around Australia, puts a horror spin on the Look Who’s Coming to Dinner trope of a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents. There's a lot going on, so we've convened a roundtable with lawyer, writer and podcaster Kamna Muddagouni, and culture writer Shane Thomas of London-based Media Diversified, about their impressions of the film, how it dissects cultural appropriation and the violation of Black Bodies.
Scarlett Harris: So Get Out’s premise is that a white woman brings a black man home to meet her parents without first telling them that he’s not white. Do you think it’s no big deal, as girlfriend Rose Armitage (Alison Williams) tries to assure Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), or would you be/have you been mortified to be put in that situation given the way many white people tend to behave when race is involved?
Shane Thomas: I haven't been in that exact situation, but the film did bring back memories of a time when I went on a date with a white woman. Her mother dropped her off on the corner of the road where I was waiting, and her mother said, "You never told me he was black." For clarity's sake, she didn't infer that her mother said it in an explicitly accusatory or disapproving manner, but it was clearly something that she felt worth mentioning. I don't know if I'd always call it a "big deal", as that's largely down to the understandings of race that the respective people involved have, but it's definitely a "deal" of some description. And to be in a situation where your partner makes no mention of it is a massive problem and would result in something ranging from, "sit down, and it's best you find somewhere comfy, as we're talking about this, and we're going to talk about it for a while" to "this relationship is over".
Kamna Muddagouni: I'm one half of an interracial couple and was very invested in this movie because of it and many other reasons. I think Get Out shows how important it is to know how your white partner feels and talks about race, than what race they are and their reasons for feeling and talking that way. I haven't personally been in the same situation as Chris, but I think it's a bit easier or harder for me as I have a visibly PoC name that it's pretty easy for white people to assume that I am a PoC or 'other' from my name, and be right about that. I think what Get Out shows so well is the way in which Chris asked the question, and Rose answered in a manner that was to performatively show that she and her folks are so “okay” about race when really it's not about that for Chris, it's a reaction to the world he lives in—he has been othered by most aspects of interacting with white society that he knows not to enter into those situations assuming the best.
SH: The juxtaposition of the Armitages’ microaggressions to Chris, telling him they would have voted for Obama a third time, with the racialised violence later in the film shows that they’re both as eroding to people of colour’s existence and are both forms of racism. Have you experienced similar things in your day to day lives and how do you think the former informs the latter?
ST: In terms of the symbiosis between microaggressions and physical violence, the metaphor I would use is something we have in the UK called an MOT. It's a yearly test to ensure your car is road worthy. So if the car is the overt, easy-to-identify racism, the MOT is low-level microaggressions. The way the MOT helps maintain a car; microaggressions help maintain white supremacy. The two factors you've referenced can only work in concert.
KM: My initial thought after watching Get Out was that I didn't know what was more terrifying the fact—the horror filled tension and violence at the end of the film or the fact that the microaggressions Chris faced in his interactions with the white characters in the film were so plainly laid out to bare. The reason the latter was thrilling was because it showed the systematic way in which a condition can be created to allow such violent acts of white supremacy to occur. In terms of my personal experience, I don't think I know a PoC who wouldn't be able to describe the last five microaggressions they dealt with today. It's part of our daily experience of racism and of course then makes the more overt acts of racial verbal or physical violence harder to bear. Because it's the othering effect of being asked where you're from or dealing with 'minor' stereotyping jokes about your exoticness that wears you down. Also what's really important to note is that the microaggressions don't have to come from white people - as the film shows with the inclusion of a Japanese character—non-Black PoCs are 100% also guilty to subscribing to a system that oppresses Black people—that's what's so damaging of the system we operate in.
"I think the use of white womanhood as the villain in the film is also really important"
SH: When Chris displays desperate and intense violence in order to “get out” of his predicament, I worried that it was buying into the stereotype of the violent black man; that for a person of colour to be innocent of any violence or injustice against them, they have to be “an angel”, ie. 18-year-old Michael Brown, whose shooting sparked the Ferguson uprising, was “no angel”; the recent killing by police of 15-year-old unarmed Jordan Edwards in the U.S. prompted his parents to justify that he didn’t deserve to be shot because he was an honour student etc. I wonder if that’s a white perspective; a simultaneous fascination with and dismissal of black bodies, what they can do (success in sport; Rose’s brother, Jeremy [Caleb Landry Jones] inferring Chris could be a monster if provoked) and the violence they can supposedly withstand.
"I don't think I know a PoC who wouldn't be able to describe the last five microaggressions they dealt with today."
ST: It's true that it aligns with the idea of a black man needing to have extreme justification for any kind of aggression but I don't think that paradigm influenced the storytelling. I don't think Chris is a "respectable, one-of-the-good-ones" black guy in order to replicate that societal trope. I think Chris was like that in part that it made him easier prey for the Armitages. Not wanting to cause any trouble, as black people are often assumed as troublemakers. And also, carrying the unreconciled trauma of his mother's death. You're definitely right, Scarlett, about the prurient fascination from whiteness towards black bodies, whether it's to do with athleticism, sex, or physicality, and especially when put to service of whiteness or white interests. You may have already seen that great Jesse Williams tweet about people loving black people's music, dance, sporting prowess, but when we're not entertaining you, you hate us. And through that hatred, makes black people so dispensable. At best, we're a child's favourite toy, but at some point, the child will get tired of that toy, and what happens to it when it has no use anymore?
SH: As one of the party goers says, "fair skin has been in style for centuries, now being Black is in fashion". We know from history/the present what happens when it's not in style/has no use, as you say.
ST: Yes, and this is where colourism comes in. I don't think it's an accident that they cast a dark skinned black guy to play Chris. Not that a light-skinned guy would be fine in the world of Get Out, but being light-skinned myself, reactions aren't always identical. In terms of having use, it's basically the same principle of colonialism. Taking resources from other people. Treating it like a buffet table. In the case of the film, it's the literal theft of black bodies.
"When we're not entertaining you, you hate us"
KM: What I found really remarkable about the portrayal of how black bodies are treated in Get Out is that it shows that throughout time black people, black men in particular have been stripped of autonomy over their own bodies and their bodies have been used as tools against them. The fact that Jordan Peele managed to show all that and more in a horror film really revolutionises the genre.
SH: Shane, what do you make of criticism from Samuel L. Jackson and others that Get Out draws from the African American experience, therefore a non-African American person such as the British Kaluuya might not be equipped to play that role? I don't want to say "it doesn't matter that a British black man was cast because it's ~acting~" because that negates valid arguments about cisgender people in trans roles, non-disabled people in disabled roles like Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking, etc. But there are different experiences within the African diaspora and being African American ie. descendant from slaves, is a specific kind of racism or experience that Get Out explicitly deals with.
ST: In terms of convos about on-screen diversity, as bad as the US are, they're miles ahead of what's happening where I live. When I see actors like Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega, Idris Elba, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ruth Negga doing well gives me a feeling of pride. It's not to say that Sam Jackson has no validity when talking about the specificity of the African American experience, but it often—unintentionally or otherwise—erases the experience of black people elsewhere, not just in the UK. My bugbear is that there sometimes seems a feeling from some African-Americans that their black experience is the only one (or the only one that matters). When promoting 12 Years A Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor was asked by Whoopi Goldberg whether he knew much about the story of the slave trade, as if the UK had nothing to do with slavery. Or when when talking about Iggy Azalea, T.I. trying to absolve her by saying that racism didn't really exist in Australia, compared to the US. So when Sam Jackson complains about a black British guy playing this character reinforces a notion that African-Americans know racism, and no-one else does. That's what annoyed me.
KM: I remember reading something about the opportunities black writers and actors feel they get in the U.S. is much vaster than the UK cos of the UK's obsession with the monarch. Help us all. [And] Australia is even further behind you. We as a country are so unwilling to deal with our colonial history that it just leads to erasure in terms of representation for Indigenous Black people and Black communities. There's initiatives such as NITV (National Indigenous TV) and SBS, but in terms of not othering PoC representation [there are] rare and few opportunities.
SH: Rose is the ultimate white woman benefitting from black people and black culture.The actress who plays her, Alison Williams, has described her as—prior to her reveal as the villain—”half-woke” and “crusty eyed”. While the ageing white characters covet black bodies for nothing more than their youth and vitality, white liberals’ appropriation of black culture (especially by young, white liberal women like Rose) is far more complex. I see parallels between Rose in the first half of the movie and women like the Kardashians and their half-sister Kendall Jenner’s tone-deaf Pepsi commercial. These women profit off the co-opting of black culture and black features—big lips, big butts, cornrows—without a care for the actual people who inhabit and experience the world through them. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Rachel Dolezal and white women voting for Donald Trump. Obviously Rose is complicit in the damage she causes Chris and the other black people her family have used and abused, but do you think the others mentioned here realise the damage they’re doing?
KM: I think the lack of intersectionality or post-racialism that Rose portrays in the first half of the film is really powerful for a few reasons—because it shows the ambivalence or ignorance of the ways that white women benefit in a white supremacist society. The classic “I know PoC” or “my best friend/lover is a PoC” is not a defence to still contributing to racism and benefitting from it.
I think the use of white womanhood as the villain in the film is also really important because historically white women have either actively participated in the demonising of black men or been used as a justification for violence against Black men. In relation to how it portrays the spectrum of problematic behaviours of white women of course it juxtaposes Rose with her mum and then again with the older white women in the movie really interestingly.
ST: While plenty of attention has rightly focused on Rose, we should also mention her mother, as it's she who starts nudging Chris towards oblivion by placing him in the sunken place.
KM: The older white women show the really patronising and demeaning “we know better” interventionist behaviours while Rose shows that even white women who think they get it, don't.
ST: And while Rose isn't absolved from anything, we should factor in that her behaviour was probably heavily influenced by her mother from a young age. And because of the way white women are assumed innocent, pure, and, for want of a better word, clean, they have the capability to cause harm in an insidious way. Also, to be fair, sexism is part of why white women are given these descriptors, which—I imagine—is also restrictive. But as we saw with the amount of white women who voted Trump, often white women have no problem going against their interests if it preserves whiteness; one of its features being entitlement.
KM: In terms of the Kardashians, I feel it's interesting because they are regularly accused—and rightly so—of anti-blackness and fetishising black culture and bodies. But they also have really strong presence of black people in their lives, not just Kanye, and they are readily attacked because of so many other aspects of patriarchal culture that is insipid in our lives.
"It's important to acknowledge that Get Out can't cover every single nuance and wrinkle of how white supremacy functions"
SH: I do see Kim Kardashian, in particular, speaking out about the Armenian genocide and having bi-racial children, but I feel like sometimes they use that "my husband's black, therefore I can't be racist" excuse to shut conversations down rather than spur them on. Or at least, if they don't, others do.
KM: I don't think the ground that the Kardashians occupy and the problems they represent is really covered in Get Out. And I'm glad it isn't because it is good as it is.
ST: It's important to acknowledge that Get Out can't cover every single nuance and wrinkle of how white supremacy functions. And I confess because we don't get stories like this often, it can be easy to want it to be all things.
SH: We want these few stories depicting non-white life to be everything. Same with woman-made shows.
ST: I've seen the same thing when it comes to appraising other works, like Dear white People.
KM: I don't think the film tries to deal with appropriation which is good and fine because it didn't have to.
SH: There’s been a bit of controversy over the treatment of Black women in Get Out;the only prominent Black woman is Betty Gabriel as Georgina of the infamous “no, no, no” meme, who we later find out is the host body for the Armitage’s grandmother. Do you think that’s a fair criticism, and how could Peele have rectified this?
ST: One imagines there's a hell of a film in the story of how they ensnared Betty Gabriel's character. She wasn't the star of the film, but she was the biggest "discovery". The scene when Chris questions her about the phone was heartbreaking. When she says "no, no, no" and tears are streaming down her face, all the while, that rictus, fixed smile was arresting to look at. It felt like the way any oppressed group has to pretend to be fine when they are churning with anguish internally. I do wish we had one (or more) black women in this conversation, but the general consensus online was that they could see who Rose was from early on. Personally, I can't say the same. Although when her machinations are revealed, I wasn't shocked. I was more thinking, "Nicely done, Peele. I wasn't sure you had the creative courage to take the story there". When you look at the state of the world in the past few years, you can track back to black people, and especially black women, warning us ahead of time. One of the best signs at the women's march was "Black Women Tried To Save Y'All."
KM: You know in part what's coming but you still want to hope or believe in the best. That's why the portrayal of the licence scene with the cop is pure genius!
ST: Yes. Because as first you think she's trying to come to her man's defence but then you realise she couldn't have the police identifying him. And it may just be headcanon, but I did wonder whether he was willing to put up with that, partly because Rose is a white woman. We shouldn't omit that Peele has both a white wife, and a white mother, so you wonder if that had any influence on the story. This is pure speculation on my part, but I did wonder if the reason why Chris swallowed all the microaggressions is because he didn't want to put his relationship with Rose at risk. In the UK, and I'm sure everywhere else, I've seen examples of black men who think they've traded up by being with a white woman. Well, any non-black woman, but especially a white woman. And I can't absolve myself, as I've been told many years ago by white women I've been with that "I've never had sex with a black guy before" and liking it, when my response should have been "Well, I won't be your first."
SH: Chris alludes to this attitude when he says Georgina's probably jealous of Rose being with him.
KM: Chris himself is not perfect regarding his views on race and misogyny.
ST: I read somewhere that it's no accident that Rose managed to entice a litany of black men, but only one black woman, because the ideal of white women doesn't function in the same way, so more black women are likely to be wise to Rose.
SH: The sunken place, legitimately one of the scariest things I’ve seen in a horror movie in a long time, to me was a metaphor for the hyper vigilance people of colour have to inhabit to get by in a white world,curbing their words and actions lest someone mistake them for hostility or violence and thereby not being allowed to live their fullest and truest lives. It’s Chris excusing Rose’s parents’ behaviour, it’s his declining to call the white party-goers out on their appropriation and offensiveness. Would you agree?
KM: I think the sunken place was actually a physical representation of that paralysation you can feel as a PoC in a situation where you are largely surrounded by white people and someone does or says something that is racist, whether it’s a microaggression or overt and how dehumanising and all encompassing it can feel. Both because you're the target, but also because so few white people actually step up in a helpful way. The sunken place is a reminder that if you're a PoC or marginalised you're in the sunken place because no matter how hard you try, the oppression and system silences and paralyses us. I think Peele tweeted something similar. But I think it's such an apt metaphor for how defeated but also helpless living as a PoC in a white supremacist society can make you feel.
ST: That's how I viewed it, too. The sunken place wasn't so much about hyper-vigilance, but helplessness. The helplessness being the lone PoC trying to explain your perspective and having white people ignore you, or try to convince you that you're wrong. What brought it home that when Chris is in the sunken place, he's frantically thrashing around and screaming. But his movements can't be seen, and his screams can't be heard. If anything, the sunken place is a cautionary tale and salutary lesson to PoC to remain hyper-vigilant, so you don't end up there
SH: Get Out has resonated with white audiences as much as PoC audiences. My (white) friend and I jokingly congratulated ourselves on being mythical “good white people” and not being like those other whites in the cinema who shushed a black woman for laughing too loudly at a scene. That myth is amplified by Rose, who many audience members still want to believe is good, or brainwashed, or not 100% complicit in her white supremacy right up until the final scenes of the movie because she’s a pretty, seemingly non-threatening white woman, like Kendall Jenner, Ivanka Trump and others. And that, to me, is the true horror story: that whiteness is always given the benefit of the doubt while blackness or non-whiteness is always somehow to blame. Would you agree?
ST: I agree about whiteness getting the benefit of the doubt. The notion of exploring horror using the frame of blackness made total sense, but although we've found ways to persevere and turn proverbial lemons into lemonade, so much of our history from colonialism onwards is horrific.
SH: A nod to our lord and saviour, Beyoncé.
ST: Forever and ever, Amen. I felt similarly about Attack the Block, another film close to my heart. Of course aliens would invade an area where working class people, many being PoC, live, because no one cares about that place. And if someone dies, it's hardly going to make the news.
SH: It's the same with Chris and the other people the Armitages took to the sunken place: it's assumed no one will miss them because they're black and therefore probably come from broken homes, addiction, poverty etc.
KM: I think Get Out is about the horror of life right now for people with black bodies. About how so many discussions are being had about being “woke” or a good ally, but the reality is that the anti-blackness in our society is so deeply embedded it has created a reality of terror for Black people.
ST: It felt less than a message to "woke" white people, and more Peele giving black people something that said, "All those times you've felt a certain way, or been made to feel a certain way about your race, about yourself, is real. I get it. I feel it too".
KM: It's not really a lesson for white people to “get”; more like a nod of solidarity to black people and to non-black PoC to an extent that it's so hard to “get out” from what we are in. I think what's more important for a non-black and white audiences is the fact that while there is so much for us to learn from from Get Out—watching it and “getting it” shouldn't be yet another act of performative and harmful allyship.