TW: Sexual Assault, Racial Brutality, and Spoilers (don’t read if you haven’t seen the film and love surprises…)
Let’s just say as a Senior writing her thesis on Afrofuturism in the form of Black speculative fiction, I could not wait to see this film. It’s not everyday that a movie centered on race comes out that doesn’t take place on a plantation in the antebellum Deep South or is not in a documentary historical fiction type genre, let alone speculative and science fiction. I will not get into how horror is a subtype for Black speculative political art reorienting classic tales centering Black actors and their experiences to shed light on the gruesome realities of Black genocides. But if you want to know more about the history, representation, and affects (negative and positive) of the genre of Blaxploitation Horror, the Graveyard Shift Sisters, a blog by and for Black women that, “explores representation of Black women and women of color in horror and science fiction films, TV, books, etc,” is a good starting place.
Now if you saw or heard about Get Out, then you might know that it was depicted “from the mind of Jordan Peele”. It’s plot follows the Protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) throughout his encounter with a racist white family trying to entrap him into their business of kidnapping and auctioning off . It is from the perspective, position, and perception of a Black man. For once the intended audience isn’t ONLY for a mainstream white america or a respectable folk who left racism to die during the time of slavery and the jim crow era buried by Martin Luther King himself. Get Out uncovers the covert subtleties of racism and white privilege through its overarching critiques of “post-racialism” theories that were justified during the Obama administration, appointing a Black man as President. With political intention, Get Out attempts to shed light on current micro-aggression, neo-racist slurs and approaches commonly accepted and frequently practiced by white people, so-called LIBERALS included. As our current political era shifts to the Trump administration, its culturally targeted policies of exclusion exemplifies Get Out’s message that we do not live in a post-racial society. The intersection of horror and comedy made it easy for Peele to cleverly throw shade around here and there; so clever that I’m sure half of the audience whom the film was directed at (white liberals) most likely missed. Yet, in no way did all Black people pick up each innuendo either.
Lil Rel Howery was in my opinion one of the best casting choices made by Peele. Not only was he able to weave in laughter at the perfect moments, but he also exemplified beautifully the very relatable trope of the Black horror movie viewer.
Obsessed fans like myself surely spent the entire night after seeing the movie reading reviews and interviews about the film that explained many hidden meanings. Articles about the film mentioned some popular examples such as Childish Gambino’s song, Redbone, in the beginning of the movie encapsulating the message to “stay woke”, a popular but also debated millennial term to display one’s social consciousness and pro-black/anti-colonial politics. Or the reference to Jesse Owens in a running scene (a now famous social media video challenge) with Walter, a Black man working as groundskeeper on the Armitage (white girlfriend’s family) property played by Marcus Henderson, who is actually embodying the Armitage’s grandfather who lost to Jesse Owens in the Olympics and never got over the big L. This never-ending grudge is speculated to be the catalyst for the ‘family business’, transferring the highest bidding white soul into a kidnapped black body where the original Black person’s soul is hypnotized to be subordinate in the sunken place. While Chris is being hypnotized by Mrs. Armitage, he is strapped to a chair and forced to watch the awkward Armitage home video of the creation of their racist family enterprise and listen to the man who would soon take his body from him. As he is continuously hypnotized into the sunken place by the family’s mother, where his soul is alive but he is removed from the consciousness and control of his movements and thoughts, Chris, induced by stress and resistance, automatically responds by vigorously digging his fingernails into the chair’s leather armrest, eventually exposing the cushion inside, which he “picks like cotton” to plug his ears. The symbolism of cotton was common among critics portraying the film’s political symbolism. Chris picks cotton for his freedom, defending himself against the sound of tapping of the silver spoon that will hypnotize him back into the sunken place, which isn’t permanent until the white soul is placed over the black soul in the black body. Phew…it’s gross just saying that.
I would like to point out the not-so-obvious hidden meanings behind the recurring speculative reference to Black bodies being used as “sex slaves” as opposed to just regular slaves through the use of the comedic side within this hybrid genre film. I have yet to come across another review that mentions this film’s intentional or unintentional emphasis besides its comedic uses. From the beginning, Chris’s best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), warns Chris not to visit his white girlfriend’s parents house. As Chris updates Rod about his stay at the Armitage’s, he tells him about the first (seemingly harmless and dreamlike) experience with Mrs. Armitage’s hypnosis to rid him of his smoking habit (#smokefreevassar). Freaked out, Rod warns Chris that “white people love making people sex slaves and shit!” Rod’s character scenes resemble Peele’s comedic sketches and Lil Rel Howery’s stand up sets and he’s inspired by the level headed voice of reason often relatable to Black horror movie viewers who can always spot and avoid the first signs of danger and spookiness. Lil Rel Howery was in my opinion one of the best casting choices made by Peele. Not only was he able to weave in laughter at the perfect moments, but he also exemplified beautifully the very relatable trope of the Black horror movie viewer. For Peele, Rod is “saying the things that we’re yelling at the screen and is also reflective of the fact that African Americans tend to make up a higher percentage of the audience than of the characters on screen.” I understand from talking with friends and reading comments online that Rod’s character was a recurring favorite for many Black folk. Just as quick a side note, I laughed when I read The Miscellany News’ review of Get Out because it’s one and only critique was Rod’s character and the comedic relief it contributed to the film. Stating that “some, but not all, of this character’s jokes fell flat”, the Misc’s author was not feeling the comedic elements of the film. I said to myself, “ok yeah, he definitely missed stuff if he didn’t appreciate this laugh-till-you-cry humor.”
Returning to the underlying emphasis on the terminology of “sex slaves”, whether or not it was intentional, this term reorients the notion of slavery and the commodification of Black bodies towards an explicit, harsh to the ear, and gruissem form of dehumanization, which can no longer be (and in my opinion has never) been conveyed through the term “slave” and “slavery” alone, the classic (and sometimes only) ways of talking about the beginnings of the American Black genocide. Rather, “sex slaves” reminds Americans of the explicit sexually violent terrors, such as genital mutilation and quotidian rape of Black women and girls under the authority of the state as trafficked property (deemed non-rapable because they had either no or too much sex drive as a non-human commodity). Rape is the sister violence to lynching that often stands in its shadows as a forgotten, overlooked, and excused act within its memorialization into the dominant national narrative. “Sex slaves” reminds audiences of America’s history of slavery in the non-traditional memorialization of slavery and the post-antebellum era of jim crow, in which Black men’s vulnerability is usually centralized through lynching, in its traditional hanging form, as the symbol of the American Black genocide. Not widely used in the vernacular of the current and dominant descriptions of slavery, “sex slaves” suffers not yet from the conceptional normalization of “slaves”. White Americans, including liberals and historians, are accustomed to hearing the prosaic acoustics to how slavery is talked about. They’ve subsequently created a playbook of responses to justify how current racial inequalities and neo-colonial racist laws and statistics existing today concerning Black communities in this country are separate from the effects of “slavery” in the antebellum deep south. In Get Out, Rod makes it a point to repeat this term within a similar vein as the line quoted above, warning Chris to leave and “get out” while attempting to convince detectives of his friend’s potential danger. Distinctively, he urges them that he means “sex slaves and NOT just regular slaves”. The majority of Americans who learn about slavery in secondary school history classes have normalized, accepted, and moved on from the blazed backs of cotton pickers and mangled bodies of the lynched man. Yet unfortunately, Rod’s persistent replacement of “sex slaves” leaves viewers with no excuses. The initial response is laughter at it’s uncomfortable associated imagery but the joke’s on them. Not only does it make white people reorient the histories of their people and their (im)moral humanity in terms of their tactics of imprisonment but it has created an avenue of discussing the high rates of sexual terrorism attributed still today to Black women and girls. It was just two years ago that “prosecutors say Officer Holtzclaw deliberately preyed on vulnerable black women from low-income neighborhoods.” The Oklahoma City Police officer was found guilty for serial raping 13 Black women, ranging from ages 17 to 57.
After becoming aware of these installations I couldn’t stop asking myself, if the everlasting ancestral existence of a Black women’s rape could be housed in a jar or on a plaque in a tax-collecting monument, and would it even occur to them to try?
Black decimation as a cohesive entity has been misrepresented and poorly historicized, including the stories of traditionally lynched bodies. Aside from Black feminists’ theories and personal narratives, “when historians talked of rape in the slavery experience they often bemoaned the damage this act did to the Black male’s sense of esteem and respect, in that he was powerless to protect his woman from white rapists”. Within a liberal discourse about race relations in America, the Black cis man is almost, if not always, centralized, as if racism only happens to less than half of the Black population in the United States. Even more recently, the Memorial for Peace and Justice, launched by the Equal Justice Initiative, is expected to open in 2018. It is a national memorial in honor of the victims of lynching in Montgomery Alabama, in which columns representing each county are inscribed with the names of victims within their respective county. Each county is asked to claim their column and display it as a memorial at the sight where the lynching took place, a “dare” to the counties to recognize these memories. As a sight of memorial critical to understanding current racialized criminal law systems, the Memorial for Peace and Justice will be one of the first prominent monuments commemorating the lives of lynched African-Americans during the era of racial terrorism in the United States. This memorial follows in the footsteps of the soil project, which symbolized sights of lynching by collecting soil from areas in Alabama, from the Black belt to the Gulf Coast, and displaying it in glass jars “marked with names of the victims and the dates of their deaths, which ranged from 1877 to 1950”. After becoming aware of these installations I couldn’t stop asking myself, if the everlasting ancestral existence of a Black women’s rape could be housed in a jar or on a plaque in a tax-collecting monument, and would it even occur to them to try?
I must say within the genre of cinema, films centered around race relations are not really any better, due to the majority of their direction and production coming from Black men, such as Birth of the Nation, Moonlight, and Get Out. Moonlight does in fact push various barriers of sexuality within the Black community, which is still very radical in this time period of homophobia and taboos of sexuality amongst Black men. But that’s just the thing: where is the conversation about Black women’s sexuality? These taboos and silences of sexual fluidity within the Black community account for women and trans-women as well. Darlene Clark Hine says that, “the institutionalized rape of Black women has never been as powerful a symbol of Black oppression as the spectacle of lynching.” This can easily be said about today’s spectacle of police violence and high incarceration rates of Black men, taking the front seat ahead of the same violences against Black women. Thank you Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum for pioneering the Say Her Name campaign to memorialize all the women and girls killed and abused by police violence.
Black men need to be frequently reminded of their sister’s pains.Some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the Black community today, according to an ongoing study conducted by the Black Women’s Blueprint, report that 60% of Black women experience sexual assault at the hands of Black men specifically before they reach the age of 18, I am also then not surprised that Black women are neglected from the white liberal gaze as well. I am grateful for the solidarity this film has created among the Black community, yet I get concerned when some of the most popular and dominate reactions to the film are Black men’s concerns with the race of their sexual partners and/or their desires to recreate the running scene for gaining social capital through the “Get Out challenge”. Black speculation has the potential to shift political stagnation and repression toward radical revolutionary thought. I am very appreciative of the speculative realism embedded in film, enabling viewers to read between the lines, uncover hidden truths, and imagine new worlds. Under the politics of hope, I would like to remain optimistic that internalized racial pain disguised as insecure patriarchy from Black men and the YT tears dripping from delusional post-racial and colorblind eyes of white liberals alike can refrain from overpowering the decolonial thought, revolutionary work, and sacrifices consistently modeled by Black women, and ascend from realms of political and economic complacency.
Davis, Angela. “JoAnne Little: The Dialectics of Rape”. Forum. 74,106.
Hine, Darlene Clark. “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West”. Signs vol. 4, Common Grounds and Crossroads: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in Women’s Lives (Summer 1989), pp. 912-920. The University of Chicago Press.