(2017, Jordan Peele)
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
Race defines, therefore race confines. The colour of our skin, unfortunately, is the assigned map one uses to navigate, or is navigated, or how others navigate themselves around you. In addition, it does this in a physically obvious way that it is impossible to divorce oneself from it. The indivisible relation between race and body and how that is navigated in social spaces is the central thesis to Jordan Peel's entertaining and terrifying film about a black man being taken by his white girlfriend to meet her white parents.
It is an accurate examination of race relations as well as a pithy look at what it feels like to be on the outside both as a fetishised race and a suppressed one. But even though it is beautifully specific - I can't say much about what it's like to be black in America as I'm neither black or live in America - when you probe deeper into the film, its universality is what makes it so affective.
The best horror movies aren't scary because of what they are about but how they articulate a universal fear. For example, The Exorcist isn't only terrifying because it shows a young girl being possessed by a demon, it gets under our skin because it communicates the terror of helplessly watching a loved one suffer from something we have no control over, whether that's with illness, addiction or a demonic possession. In Get Out what the film articulates isn't just about race but being a person of difference surrounded by persons of default. In other words, being the only person in a space full of people who aren't like you. It's a situation where your difference is magnified and you are relegated at the outside. This is not a fear based on a specific race but a fear we all share because everybody is afraid of being the other, or a sudden reminder that you are not the default. Whether that's with a woman being dismissed in a boardroom full of men, or a white tourist in a foreign country. But when you feel ostracised on an almost daily basis it sinks and stays under your skin like a dormant virus, waiting to infect. And of course, some people feel this othering more than others.
There's this microscopic feeling of dread that reverberates under your skin when you suddenly feel like a person of difference. Sometimes this difference can be a feeling of empowerment but most of the time it feels like exile. It's a lonely feeling. Peele designs a space that communicates what this feels like, the appropriately titled the 'sunken place'. It's shown in the film as a dark, weightless place. The outside world is only accessible via a tiny frame. It's a space of banishment, suppression and emptiness. The sound design indicate a feeling of remove - voices are muffled and time itself slows down. The way the protagonist enters this space is with the clink of a teacup. The sunken place is a perfect visual representation of the feeling of othering. You fall into it when you suddenly realise you're the only one in the room. The only one who some would describe as a person of colour. The ethnic one. The other one. The sunken place is both a place to retreat or the place one is retreated. While this feeling arises because of one's race, it can also arise with any sort of deviation from any cultural defaults: white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class and/or male.
Ironically, the more people are aware of each other's sensitivities the more it magnifies this feeling of difference. I was having dinner with a group of white companions recently and (I've forgotten the specifics of the conversation) a girl described a place as being very "Asian" and she glanced quickly in my direction before she said the word. Something so microscopic and subtle sent me into a sudden sinking, slowing feeling of otherness. Of course, this gesture wasn't meant to be malicious, actually, it was so subtle that I didn't think she even realised that I noticed. But I did. We always notice.
I understand that she behaved that way because she cared about what she was saying around me and she did not want to offend but it still puts me in the outside. Sure, this is much better than having someone explicitly making you feel uncomfortable about your difference but we still need to acknowledge that it is there, that it happens and it is still an uncomfortable, sometimes shitty, sometimes destructive feeling.
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures.