“In this country ‘American’ means ‘white’. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
– Toni Morrison, interview with The Guardian (29 January 1992)
Amiri Baraka was a great poet. If you ever come across a collection of his poems in a bookstore, I’d advise you to read it right there, if not outright purchase it. His lyrical musings on the Black experience are, at times, right up there with the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. When going through his poems, it’s easy to see why so many Black authors who came after cite him as an influence.
I bring this up because for all his gifts as a poet, the man was a terrible playwright. His defining work, Dutchman (written in the aftermath of – and in response to – his divorce from a White woman), is a failure in terms of dialogue, character development, and dramatic structure. How and why this pulpy, B-movie-plotted trainwreck has influenced so many Black writers – including, but not limited to, superior playwright August Wilson – I’ll never know, but as a Black playwright myself, I say it’s high time we stopped praising it.
I’m willing to bet Jordan Peele has read Dutchman once or twice. Its influence is all over Peele’s debut film, Get Out. But whereas Baraka’s poor playwriting resulted in a trashy, sensationalist piece, Peele intentionally seeks to replicate the “trashy” tropes of classic horror films, like Italian giallo films and American “grindhouse” flicks of the 1970s. By doing so he’s made a statement about being Black in the United States that is both timely and timeless.
It had to happen some time: Chris, a Black photographer in his 20s, is finally going to parents of his White girlfriend, Rosie. Although the sprawling Southern home appears to be something out of Gone with the Wind – complete with Black servants – the parents themselves appear to be happy, if over-enthusiastic, with their daughter’s new beau. Still, Chris is suspicious. He tries to brush it off as the paranoia of being one of the few Black faces in the Deep South, but he can’t shake it. Whenever he does see another Black face, what looks back at him gives him ample reason to be afraid.
The opening scene of Get Out is so true-to-life for me, it could have been drawn from my own memories. It features a Black man walking through an upper-middle class White neighborhood at night. He’s on his phone talking to a friend, trying to find out how he got lost. He can feel the eyes of residents leering at him from behind windows. A car passes him on the street, then slows to a cruise. He verbally tries to reassure himself that he’ll be okay; that it’s all in his head; that he couldn’t actually be in any danger, could he? Could he?
In any other horror or action flick, this would be the innocent White couple who are stalked through the back alley. Get Out subverts this trope by showing it through the eyes of a Black man; by making the victim the very one movies and popular media would have you believe are the real danger.
Get Out was written and filmed when it was still ridiculous to think that an openly racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic failed “businessman” could stumble his way to the highest office in the land. But given that the mere election of a Black president was enough to work up racist White folks, we shouldn’t have been surprised. This film is about what it’s like to have dark skin in the era of Trump. It’s a film born out of police killings and Confederate flag defenses that just happened to be released as all of those things reached a fever pitch.
And it is damn good at its job. By taking influence from the Italian horror films of Argento and Bava, and the ‘70s American works of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, Peele has created a Southern Gothic piece that, on its surface, one would expect out of the Blaxploitation era. But the genuine terror is head-and-shoulders above anything as cheap as I Dismember Mama. When I saw Fences last year, the trailer for Get Out preceded it. The mostly-Black audience was into it, until the words “Written and Directed by Jordan Peele” appeared on the screen.
“That nigga from Key & Peele? Da fuck?”
Sure it looked good, but could a straight-forward horror flick from a professional comedian be taken seriously. Yes. Yes, it could. From the spot-on performances from the entire cast to the cinematography and editing (both of which have style, but still allow you to see what’s going on) to the genuine moments of comedy that give brief reprieve from the tension. All of it is top-notch.
Though Get Out may have been produced before the Trump era, it’s an incredibly vital component of it. An administration of rich White men and women who feel they don’t need to answer to the public resonates through a film about how Black people are easily exploited and forgotten. This is the sort of film made from the victims of disenfranchisement and brutality when they’re told to “just get over it”.
Anyone who says we should “just get over it” should thank their lucky stars that Peele restricted his rage to a work of art. God only knows how it would manifest itself in the real world.