So I recently went with my fiancée on a movie date to see Get Out, Jordan Peele’s first major cinematic offering to the world of horror and suspense. While it was billed as a film that takes a somewhat tongue and cheek approach to the state of race relations in contemporary North America, actually watching the film left me with a far different impression. To me, the film was more an allegory for the duplicitous nature of modern liberalism and its hidden dangers. While I will not deny that it managed to simultaneously ruin suburban living, orange pekoe tea, spoons, bingo, and Victorian china cups for me, I am going to say that I really loved this film.
In the case that you have been roaming the wilderness for the last few months, Get Out is a film that follows Chris Washington, an African-American photographer and Rose, his white girlfriend (whose occupation is made clear later in the film) on a trip to meet her parents. While out in the countryside with her family, Chris bears witness to some of the strangest spectacles he has ever seen in his life. While his encounters with Rose’s parents and their friends are largely cordial in nature, he continues to experience the casual racism that plagues “nice” liberals that lack either self-awareness or shame. He also notices something strange about the African Americans that he meets. They all seem to be far too enthusiastic about their servile and somewhat pet-like status in the town. Without revealing too much about the plot, like the layers of an onion, Chris begins to peel away at the façade of wealth, calm, and “openness” of his hosts, eventually discovering the terrifying truth and fighting not only for his freedom, but for his very life. See the trailer here.
In order to understand the film and its message, it is essential to understand the target of the film’s critique: the covert racism of liberals. While the contemporary concept of liberalism can be rather nebulous at times, it is generally accepted as a term used to define the left of the political spectrum in which values of tolerance, diversity, nonviolence, and general progressiveness are central. There are also several economic theories that stem from liberalism, but that is a different article for a different time. Suffice it to say that liberalism is billed as the kinder, gentler opposite of aggressive conservatism, which generally stresses upholding the status quo for the groups with the most social and economic advantage at the expense of marginalized groups. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, it seemed that liberalism had won. The dream of ultimate inclusivity had reached its zenith, and the liberal utopia had been achieved, despite the fact that very little actually changed for people at the bottom of the social, political, and economic spectrum. Liberals could feel confident that voting for America’s first African-American president proved their openness to change and desire to see a better world. The truth is everyone with two eyes and a basic sense of direction could already tell that this was a heaping pile of the most noxious wildebeest excrement.
My biggest critique of liberalism is its over reliance on symbolism in lieu of actual change. It is a lazy way of masquerading as a good person and claiming moral superiority. Consider that during Barack Obama’s presidency, which was supposed to be a watershed moment in the progression of the African American community, unarmed African-Americans were at least three times more likely to be killed by police officers than almost any other group. Arguing over pronouns, bathrooms, and safe spaces still does not change the fact that transwomen are one of the most targeted groups for murder. Over 70% of murder victims due to hate crimes in the US were transwomen. While it is important to see people of colour get the jobs they are qualified for, and for transgender people to be referred to respectfully and have safe places to relieve themselves, liberalism would look at a Black President, or an inclusive washroom policy, dust off its hands and call it a job well done. Liberalism may create the conditions for bigotry to be unfavourable and force some people to be nicer to each other, but only insofar as people are willing to say the right things in public so as to not seem like a morally reprehensible troglodyte. That is where liberalism’s overreliance on performing progressiveness in the public theatre becomes dangerous. Enter Get Out.
Jordan Peele’s film provides a buffet of intellectual fare to chew on. I will focus on four major lessons that stuck out for me. The first of these lessons is that liberals see marginalized people as means to and end and not an end within themselves. Throughout the film, whether it was Rose’s parents, the guests at the dinner party, or even the black servants at the house, Black people were a means to the ends of the White characters. One character said (rather awkwardly) that “Black is in fashion” to obfuscate his objectification of African-Americans as admiration. This appears again in the encounter with Rose’s brother Jeremy, who compliments Chris on his genetics, telling him that with the right training that he can become a “real beast”. This point stated explicitly later in the film when Chris is tied to a chair and forced to watch a video of a Rose’s grandfather touting the importance of the symbiotic (read parasitic) relationship between Whites and Blacks he wants to establish, saying “our determination and your natural gifts” will make the country great. There are many more instances, and a few sex slave jokes slipped in for good measure that nearly made me squirt mountain dew out of my nose, but I think the picture is clear.
The second major lesson that this film seeks to teach us about the duplicity of modern liberalism is that people of colour can be seduced by the idyllic symbolism of it all and become tools to hide the racist views held by many liberals. This is expressed through the metaphor of hypnosis, which can only be broken by literally showing them the light. Once the light is seen and the true horror of their experience as tools for the obfuscation of liberal racism is properly understood, the awakened parties sense an extreme form of cognitive dissonance and seek to escape or ultimately self-destruct. The fortunate are able to pull themselves out of the environment that turned them into means, but others have fallen far too deep into the “sunken place”, and are unable to pull themselves out. They may be kept there through the aggressive policing by liberal society, or they may simply have lost themselves and cannot be recovered, despite knowing how far they have fallen.
The third lesson that this film teaches us is that this bigotry can only be exposed by aggressively demanding it to show itself. This is exemplified in Rose’s character, which appears to be loving, supportive, and sensitive to the issues that affect Chris. When Chris finds himself surrounded by her family and unable to leave the house, he asks her nicely to give him the car keys. She cannot find them. He asks her more urgently, and she still cannot find them. It is only when he becomes aggressive and demands that she give him the keys to his freedom that she finally admits that she was an integral part of the conspiracy to capture him. In much the same way, racists that mask themselves as progressives will feign incompetence, ignorance, or hypersensitivity. When confronted politely, they will protest their innocence, and demand apology for the insult. They may even become aggressive or emotional in the defense of their progressive persona. It is only when they are wholly bereft of excuses, explanations, and emotional outbursts as their tools of masquerade that they are forced to expose the ugliness hiding beneath their smiling exterior.
The fourth lesson is probably the most important. The film leaves us with a grab-bag of warning signs that might come from that seemingly nice liberal who might be trying to hide their racism. Here is a short list of items that stuck out for me:
- Saying that you voted for Obama doesn’t mean shit. Many of the same people that voted for Obama voted for Trump while pretending that they didn’t support his platform of racism and xenophobia. There is no way for me to know which one side of ballot you checked off, so stop insulting my intelligence.
- Complimenting me on things that should otherwise be normal in this society, like speaking the Queen’s English or wearing business attire to work is patronizing. These compliments assume a baseline of inferiority or otherness, like I am some kind of slack-jawed extra-terrestrial that communicates in a series of clicks and guttural noises through my sphincter.
- Expecting the average Black person to be a doctorate-level expert on the social, political, and economic experience of Black people simply because they are one of the five black people that you know is patently stupid and lazy. This tactic serves as absolution from the responsibility of actively learning about the issues, muddies the waters and distracts from the real experts that have invested time, money, and education on these issues.
- Overreacting to racist micro-aggressions, but at the same time demanding that the oppressed party remain calm when the racism is explicit and violent. The overreaction is a dog and pony show saying “look at me, I’m not racist!” and the demands for calm scream “stay in your place boy!”
Finally the film leaves us with one sobering truth. We have to accept that nice liberals may be monsters in disguise. Everyone that shook hands, smiled, and shared drinks with Chris’ character in the film had a secret agenda. They praised his talents, asked about his experiences, and even exalted his heroes. They wanted him to be lulled into a sense of false confidence so that they could control him and twist him to their will. They wanted pieces of him, like admiring a mighty oak not for its own sake, but for the building materials they could extract from it once it had been felled. Not every smiling face touting inclusion and spewing compliments is friendly; sometimes they are more dangerous than goose-stepping neo-Nazi because they make you think that you are safe. Stay woke my friends. Until next time, be good to yourselves, and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie