By Benjamin Sunday
For a film that features kidnapping, impalement, and nonconsensual brain surgery, it’s striking that the most uncomfortable scene in Jordan Peele’s Get Out is that of a racially awkward garden party. As a special guest of the white host Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is singled out and forced to tolerate Armitage’s peers while they openly fetishize his race. The one exception to this behavior is Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), a blind art dealer who ignores Washington’s ethnicity while praising the younger man’s pictures of urban life. Hudson’s compliments identify him as an ally who recognizes Washington for his creativity instead of his color, making it that much more surprising when Hudson pays Armitage to transplant his brain into Washington’s body and steal the artist’s “eye.” Instead of elevating him out of the second class, Washington’s gift only invites his victimization by a man who sees the black artist as a talent, but not as an equal.
This contradiction between Hudson’s high esteem and low regard for Washington is the centerpiece of Get Out’s social commentary, which interrogates how white audiences relate to black achievement. While racist antagonists in films like American History X tend to be white supremacists, Peele’s villains disavow the myth of their superiority by lauding the likes of Jesse Owens and Barack Obama, even as they plan Washington’s demise. The absence of tension between those contrasting thoughts gets at the film’s essential truth, that recognition of black accomplishments does not entail empathy towards black people. In the case of Hudson and Washington, the result is merely a fan who appreciates the quality of a black man’s work, yet still cannot appreciate his humanity.
In fact, it is the quality of Washington’s art that attracts Hudson’s purchase in the first place. Rather than proving his personhood to the garden party’s white audience, Washington’s talent makes him even more of a commodity and less of a person to them. Get Out thereby refutes the belief that success for minority talent represents social progress for the minority. When one belongs to a demographic that is and has been regularly exploited, personal achievements may merely create new avenues for one’s exploitation. Therein lies the greatest horror of all for a black creator such as Peele, the fear that black artistic success in a white world will still, first and foremost, serve the interests of a white power structure.
While Get Out was written during the Obama presidency, its anxieties about the relationship between black talent and white audiences are no less relevant in the Trump era. When black players in the NFL are fanatically cheered on and paid enormous sums for their athleticism, yet condemned for kneeling to protest police violence, the disassociation between achievement and social equality is as clear as ever. Even the release of Get Out, which itself was among the most profitable and critically celebrated films of 2017, invites the question of what it truly means when black art is successful among white audiences. Do those who recognize its achievement also recognize its soul, or is it just another commodity to be sold, purchased, and coldly consumed? If Armitage and Hudson experienced Get Out in theaters, would they too say it was the best film of the year?