I saw Get Out twice within 24 hours of its release. The first time was at a theater in Jamaica, Queens, 20 minutes from my house; the second was 90 minutes away in Union Square, a completely different neighborhood, tax bracket, and demographic. Why spend another $15 to see the same two-hour film?
Because it ultimately amounts to two different movies.
Get Out, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, follows a young black man named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) as he spends a weekend meeting the family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). It’s set at the Armitages’ suburban home, where Chris encounters a disturbingly gruesome truth that’s an allegory for the insidious and innumerable ways in which racism manifests. The psychological core of Get Out is the black interior, the common psychosocial landscape shared by black people when they are a minority population. So much so that I knew watching it in a predominantly white theater would be a drastically different experience. Peele accurately represents that interiority through the use of staple horror genre devices: haunting paranoia; surreal, out-of-body episodes; and viscerally terrifying symbolism.
From the beginning, Chris fluctuates between self-protective suspicion and the will to believe in a well-meaning world. When he questions Rose’s failure to tell her parents that he’s black, a slight stutter reveals both his anxiety about how he will be received and his insecurity about even bringing it up.
The psychological core of ‘Get Out’ is the black interior
Later on, at the Armitages’, we watch Chris navigate the presence of black servants in this white family’s house; at the first confrontation with his own status in relation to that of black housekeeper Georgina, he tries to compensate with eye contact and a deliberate “Thank you” as she refills his glass. At the movie theater I went to in Jamaica, the audience was almost entirely black, fostering an experience in which many of us reacted instinctively to the film’s wink-to-camera moments. I imagine that, like me, the other viewers in that theater recognized the look in his eye while he did this, understanding his guilt, and resulting discomfort, about being circumstantially more aligned with white people in a situation where the legacy of black servitude is thrown into such high relief.
This claim of unified interpretation among black viewers is not to essentialize us into a monolith of singular thought, but to acknowledge the patterns known all too well by people in our specific social context: being black in a white world. Many of us share the experience of having to interpret the meaning behind the comments and actions of others. The common conundrum of having to choose whether to point out microaggressions, or just force a smile and say “Cool” — as Chris does when Rose’s brother openly lusts after his “genetic makeup” — drives Get Out. Interactions like this are so breathtakingly familiar that the crux of the film for the black viewer isn’t so much the diegetic depiction of horror, but the existential horror it calls forth.
Other moments use cultural norms familiar to black viewers to communicate indirectly: For example, a fist bump initiated by Chris is met with an open grasp by the only other black man at the party. Any audience member can find humor in the faux-pas, but for some, it’s a depiction of the disconnect that can be acutely unsettling for a person of color who has discovered themselves alone in a mass of unfamiliar people. This and other disjointed interactions break a code of black communal conduct, and in doing so, render Chris utterly alone. The only person who can validate his discomfort is Rose, who seems only half convinced of her family’s racism. This adds to the horror of Get Out: Before it gets bloody and “real,” the movie portrays a twisted game of isolation that’s just as gruesome as gore, if not moreso.
Watching Get Out in a black theater allowed me to experience it in a space free from paranoia. I didn’t have to wonder if I was — if we are — imagining racism, as we’re often accused of doing. W.E.B. DuBois termed this compulsive self-reflexiveness “double-consciousness,” describing it as a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Looking at oneself through another’s eyes is not for vanity, but for survival.
And so Peele’s depiction of Chris’s internal monologue for much of the film can be understood as a reflection of the self-questioning and internal struggle that is par for the course for many of us, in situations both minor and major. Do white people really love Beyoncé like that, or is some fandom performed for self-serving reasons? Is this lady on the subway staring at me for my fly kicks or because she assumes I pose a threat to her?
I can never tell if white people actually love Beyoncé this much or if it's something they feel like they need to— Yassir Lester (@Yassir_Lester) February 13, 2017
The pervasiveness of that double-consciousness was confirmed to me by the biggest difference I felt between the two screenings: from being totally wrapped up in the diegesis and contorting to match my fear for Chris’s safety, to being keenly aware of everyone around me, waiting for their reactions. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that, the second time around at Union Square, I already knew how the film would end. But there was also an anticipatory angst as I prepared myself for white people to laugh a little too hard at unfunny scenes, and to somehow feel less than I did. By the film’s end, when it’s clear that Chris’s gut suspicions about the white family are valid, I wondered whether moviegoers saw Get Out as a surrealist hyperbole with no real-life basis or as a peek into the panicked interior of a black person in 2017.
If you take a step back from the affecting visuals of the movie, it’s not simply about a family of crazy white racists. It’s about the danger of those who claim to love us the most — white liberals. Who, for all their #wokeness and critiques of alt-right racism, are ever convinced that their own opinions and experiences are the only reasonable ones. Who think that to account for race, and to recognize it as having real, dire effects on people’s lives, is a courtesy.
Sitting in Union Square, it was eerie to know that many of the white people in the theater might not have understood that they were implicated by Peele’s evisceration of white liberalism. After all, one of the dangers of modern America is the fallacy that racism has to be overt and outrageous to be real and consequential. So when black people are surrounded by white people who call themselves allies, and yet do not question how their lifestyles, neighborhood takeovers, and selective cultural valuations contradict their words, we end up in a disenfranchised, sunken place. We scream and shout, yet are unable to affect the world around us. We are paralyzed, eyes wide open and watering.