I am an impossible person to watch movies with. Years of studying film have made me this way. I bristle at the sounds others make, I seethe when a fellow moviegoer pulls out a cell phone, and am generally happier when left to watch a film alone, occasionally in the luxury of an empty theater during a midday showing. But I made the choice to see Jordan Peele’s juggernaut entry to the horror genre, Get Out, on the Sunday morning of its opening weekend. And, for once, I am so glad that I did. Because the audience watching on this particular day was fascinating. It is one of very few movies I’ve seen where, based on the reactions of the various faces in the theater, I knew that the black members of the audience—and the white members of the audience—were essentially seeing two different movies.
This realization surfaced a few times over the course of the film, but cemented itself about three-quarters of the way through, as Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) begins his escape from the Armitage basement and out into the perilous expanse of the house’s surroundings. There were the jump cuts and suspenseful music that one would expect from a character’s escape, but something different was at play. As Chris mercilessly subdued each member of the family who sought to get in his way, clawing himself out of a “sunken place,” I looked around at the rest of the theater—a largely white audience. And they were with him. Bloody violence was taking place left and right, perpetrated by a black man, and they weren’t put off.
This is a significant step for a society that has been losing black men in high-profile cases merely for presenting the idea of danger. Trayvon Martin, clad in a hoodie with candy, was perceived as a threat. Young Tamir Rice, playing in a park as so many children do, was deemed dangerous. Eric Garner and Philando Castile and Amadou Diallo and Oscar Grant all lost their lives because someone perceived them to be a menace. And yet, Kaluuya’s measured but gently emotional Chris had earned the right from the audience to commit these acts.
But there’s a limit, one posed by Kinitra Brooks, a professor of Afro-American literature at the University of Texas–San Antonio: who we see killed. For all the talk of the progressive manner in which Get Out was able to portray both race relations and violence in a horror film, there is a highly specific line that Peele opted not to cross:
Peele’s editorial choices reveals his hand: graphic white male death is okay, and even the fetishizing of the dead body of the one (of two total) black women characters is just fine. But the intentional framing and editing choices Peele makes to conceal and work around the explicit deaths of Missy and Rose show that white women are still valued as fragile and occupy a unique cultural privilege … even in the blackest horror film of this decade.
We don’t see Missy, a white female character, die. While Chris does kill her, the audience doesn’t see it. And while Rose is eventually killed, the act is completed by her “grandfather” Walter—a character who presents as black, but can appear white. Simply put: Black men don’t kill white women. Despite the progressive racial politics of Get Out, the line of graphic black male violence toward white women still isn’t crossed. And despite efforts to attribute it to Peele’s parentage (his mother is white) or marital status (he is married to white comedian and actor Chelsea Peretti), this reticence to cross that line feels grounded in something far deeper than his personal experiences.
Rayshauna Gray, a fellow with the Cambridge Historical Society and historical researcher at Tufts University put it as such: Our society has a history of prioritizing white comfort over the ability of black and brown individuals to live their lives. While this simple tenet has revealed itself in a thousand ways small and large since this country was founded, Gray believes that it comes into play most notably in intimate scenarios, both consensual, like Chris and Rose’s, as well as non-consensual. Gray highlights the recently revisited case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teen who was murdered after allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. It was learned later that Till’s whistling was a solution to a tic, a means to overcome a stutter that was read wrong and saw him killed before there was ever an opportunity to explain. Among the messages that can be taken from Till’s case: If a white woman feels unsafe, and the perpetrator of that feeling can be removed, then he is. And it is this history of expected black violence toward white women that Get Out still has to contend with.
This dynamic has come up in art before. It plays a key role in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and in its 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck, through Tom Robinson’s wrongful “guilty” verdict for the rape of Mayella Ewell. More recently, the Broadway show The Scottsboro Boysdramatized the wrongful imprisonment of nine black teenagers accused in 1931 of raping two white women on a train. Despite evidence that indicated they could not have been guilty, many were sentenced to death anyway. Fictionalized versions of these events may lead to the notion that this form of thinking is antiquated, and that this power white women hold in society is overblown or no longer applicable. But in small but significant ways, this sort of thinking remains pervasive — for example, the difference in news coverage when white women go missing versus their black counterparts.
The acceptance of killing other white people in Get Out is dependent on the audience seeing the abuse that Chris’ character is subject to over the course of the film. The extreme cases we see during its runtime, introduced first through micro-aggressions and deepened through the auction and surgery, are seen as justification for any means Chris uses to escape. Peele managed to find a line in his writing and filmmaking that the audience generally found acceptable — an acceptance largely hinged upon the initial actualization of Chris’ various abuses.
What has stuck with me about Get Out, even weeks after seeing it and talking about it with friends black and white alike, was how fundamentally different our film-going experiences were. This was by design, according to Peele:
Often when I thought about a specific scene or a specific moment I’d think, I hope the black audience here is [saying] “You know what? This is my experience. I’ve never seen it done in film like this, that’s awesome.” And at the same moment I might recognize that there would be a lot of white people who would watch the scene and either recognize these moments as something that maybe they’ve done, or that they’ve seen someone do.
Get Out is undoubtedly a revolutionary work, playing with assumptions we make about one another and how they could manifest in an extreme scenario. And yet, despite the ostensible promise of racial progress and the permissiveness of his chosen genre, there are lines that Peele knows he can’t cross—that he knows segments of his audience aren’t yet ready to cross.