by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
Jordan Peele, well known for acting in comedy skits for fifteen years, has earned his chops as director in his first film, Get Out.
The film is a tasty dish, an innovative combination of horror, comedy and social commentary. The film opens with an amuse bouche, the relationship of which to the main story line is not clarified until later in the film. A young black man is walking alone down an affluent suburban street late at night. He becomes frightened by a car tailing him and is ultimately attacked and manhandled into the trunk of the car which, to end the episode, speeds off. A mood of danger and racial tension is set.
One of the strengths of the film is Peele’s artful invocation of mood changes. The first switch is the opening of the main story. An attractive young interracial couple, Rose and Chris, undertake a visit to introduce her black boyfriend, a talented photographer, to her upper class white parents. When he expresses mild concerns about their reaction to his race, she reassures him about their liberal views—they would have voted for a third term of Obama’s presidency.
Fright interrupts their drive when their car hits a deer; a hostile policeman called to the scene finally sends the couple on their way. At the parents’ palatial home, as the visit unfolds, manifest expressions of welcome are punctuated by an increasing tempo of eerily peculiar events. Odd behavior by black servants, a maid and a yard man; the girlfriend’s brother; and a bevy of white, upper class friends, which includes one black man married to an older white woman, all combine to introduce a thickening sense of dangerous tension.
The weirdness ratchets up when Rose’s mother, a psychiatrist, asks Chris about his past and learns about his mother’s death, run over in a car accident when he was young. Rose’s mother goes on to hypnotize an unwilling Chris to eliminate his cigarette addiction. She uses the sound of stirring her cup of tea to induce a deep trance that sends Chris spinning into a deep, dimensionless space. In the trance Chris recovers a memory of sitting at home watching television, unaware, while his mother is dying.
Uneasy, Chris makes a phone call to his roommate, a black TSA officer who is dog-sitting Chris’ pet. The officer introduces comic relief warning Chris about the dangers of relating to white women based on slapstick fears of being made a sex slave.
Finally, unsettled to the point that he decides to follow his roommate’s advice to get out, Chris tries to leave, to learn that Rose and her family are involved in a bizarre scheme of using the bodies of black people as vessels for the brains of white people whose bodies are compromised in some way. Chris is wanted to provide a body to replace that of a white photographer who has become blind and needs Chris’ photographer’s eyes and talent. It would be a spoiler to reveal the outcome of Chris’s struggle to escape this fate.
A psychoanalyst, Charles Brenner, has argued that there are three central fears of childhood: abandonment, loss of love, and physical injury/castration, at the hands of parents. Much of the horrific impact of Peele’s film inheres in the impact of all three on Chris: his mother’s abandonment of him is echoed by his girlfriend’s transformation from a lover to something worse. That concatenation is heightened by another archaic dread, the fear of losing control of one’s self.
Early in the film, Chris’ TSA roommate comically talks about hypnosis in those terms: a hypnotist can make you bark like a dog. Behind that comic distortion is the fear of an alien possession of one’s body, represented in religious terms by demonic possession and in psychiatric terms by identity disorders.
Peele serves us a dish in which that fear is pictured in racial terms—black bodies utilized by white minds. He suggests, I think, a metaphor for slavery and perhaps, some aspects of professional athletics.