Think back to the first few months of Trump’s America. Crazy shit, right? Especially if you voted for Hilary. There was so much despondency among young people and liberals who, just hours after the results, were already yearning for the Obama days.
But soon, come Sundance, they got something that resembled catharsis: Get Out, which stars the black, British actor Daniel Kaluuya in a leading role in a semi-low-budget horror film.
And while, yes, one of the huge reasons people went to the theater to see this movie was to scream and gasp and laugh in an audience full of young people who were screaming and gasping and laughing, there was a truth to the movie that resonated with people—a truth that I think Bret Easton Ellis put best on one of his podcast episodes.
Bret was talking about the ending of Get Out, which is this beautiful moment where Chris wraps his hands around Rose’s neck as she lies limp on the road. He squeezes hard and his eyes bug as Rose attempts to escape one last breath as the last bits of life leave her body. It’s a raw, visceral moment that felt powerful when I watched it at the time, but didn’t click for me until I heard Bret say:
“It also bravely suggests that nothing is going to get better. It’s a nihilistic and misanthropic movie—and that’s what makes it work. If it had started apologizing and making amends, it would have been considered a cop out. It offers no bridge, no hope, no better world. And I think this is what audience’s in Trump’s world are responding to.”
What Bret is essentially stating here is that, in today’s world where ideological politics have come to democratize films and dictate what they can and cannot say, Get Out is able to end with a truly outlandish, un-PC moment. And it only works and doesn’t receive a cultural backlash because of, remarkably, the film’s aesthetic. Director Jordan Peele is not making a grand statement about black America—he is capturing how he feels about the state of race relations America in a scene where Chris kills Rose and her entire family.
So, essentially, understanding Peele’s aesthetic is essential to understanding his message. And you know what’s funny to me? I think Bret is right about how nihilistic the film is…but I also think Get Out’s aesthetic embodies the Afrofuturistic movement, making it way more complicated than the black-and-white version Bret presents.
What is Afrofuturism?
There’s a big, long, complicated definition for Afrofuturism—sci-fi stories that star black people as the protagonists—that I could spend hours researching and typing up, but I think Neil Drumming from the This American Life podcast puts it best, and puts it simply:
“It’s a way of talking about black people that is really hopeful. It’s this idea that we would be engaged in the same kinds of things that science fiction writers have always talk about. That we would be engaged with technology. That we would have a future in space. That we would master time travel. That we would have a future in utopian or dystopian landscapes.”
There have been black people in science fiction for awhile now, but they have rarely (if ever?) been the protagonists. Hell, let’s extend it from sci-fi to…any genre film. We all can recognize that black people in genre films just isn’t really a thing, right? We are not primed for big-budget movies to even attempt something like that unless it will exist within a movie universe already embraced by white people (think Black Panther.) And only just now is the Afrofuturism movement slowly becoming more and more present (think Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time).
But for Afrofuturism to truly work its way into film culture, I think it needs to mimic what Get Out accomplished, which is defining an aesthetic that visually and sensually captures a world where black people dictate their surroundings and take control of the future.
In his This American Life episode, “We Are in the Future,” Neil was told that if he wanted to truly experience Afrofuturism, he was told to visit Detroit, which has a population that is 80 percent black people and sports a notoriously crumbling infrastructure.
Neil visited Detroit and was moved by the optimism of the Afrofuturism movement. But, while there, still expressed some confusion about what the “point” of the movement was. A woman named Ingrid Lafleur responded:
“That is the point: Imagining a healthier, present future and recontextualizing the past so it’s empowering instead of victimizing. It’s our way of not only of surviving, but also a way of healing within the moment because there’s constant traumas we’re dealing with—historical and present day. So it’s a way of allowing ourselves to shapeshift, to accommodate whatever comes our way.”
Ingrid is, it just so happens, running for mayor under an Afrofuturism platform: “Detroit + Afrofuturism = AFROTOPIA” her website proudly states.
“AFROTOPIA is the synthesis of science fiction, Black history, technology, social change, and enough imaginative power to move a world out of orbit,” Ingrid says. “The concept is based in Detroit but is international in its aesthetic and outreach.”
Let’s not bypass one key word Ingrid uses: aesthetic.
That’s so important here: Afrofuturism isn’t just about giving black people their dued moment in sci-fi—it’s about how that moment is represented aesthetically. It’s about the feel of representing black people in movies and how it speaks to a larger issue that blends together the past, present and future into one story that speaks on the state of race in a society where many people think racism no longer exists.
So, AFROTOPIA is a project that doesn’t just want to have a conversation about how to fix black America—it was a cultural production made up of art and films that aesthetically laid out Ingrid’s “Plan of Action”:
“In order to manifest true revitalization, we must consider the histories and oppressions of the majority Black American population of Detroit. The foundation of every institution—government, police, education, the museum—was built to silence, disallow, displace, and render powerless Black Americans. These institutions were never created for Black Americans to truly prosper. It’s time for a new plan.”
“That’s not something you hear from many politicians,” Neil says. “But it makes sense here because Detroit is 80% black. Fixing the city means fixing it for black people. Ingrid sees black people as the protagonist in the story of Detroit—its future and its past.”
But those words from Ingrid’s “Plan for Action” are just that—words. And nothing more. They are not AFROTOPIA. They are not an aesthetic. They are not realized in any sort of artistic form that people can take in and absorb and experience. They are a yearning for change and a better America.
But then Neil experiences exactly what Ingrid hopes to achieve with her AFROTOPIA project by actually going out into the city, hanging out with black people at a nightclub, and experiencing everybody dancing and having a good time. He saw black people who were experiencing all kinds of problems, yet coming together to dance and enjoy the music they like and celebrate life in a city that is 80 percent black, a city whose future will be determined by people like Ingrid and the very people in the club. They were “imagining a better future, and doing something about it.”
And as the music played and people danced and laughed and spirits were up, the evening was far from over as Neil began to cry. Because, in this moment, he was experiencing the aesthetic Ingrid wishes to capture in her campaign. He was bonding with the people that needed to come together and unite to fix black America.
And how they can do that? That’s what Jordan Peele is concerned with.
Get Out’s aesthetic
When it comes down to it, Get Out really is an out-there, subgenre of Afrofuturism. It’s not necessarily “sci-fi,” but it is a comment on our troubled past, how that troubled past is blending into the confusing present, and how we can learn from all of it to improve race relations in the future.
As I mentioned earlier, what truly works about Get Out’s aesthetic is the fact that it works within the mechanics of the horror genre. It’s not, say, Selma or Hidden Figures—which, while effective films that highlighted important historical moments, are really just preaching to the choir, right? We know about the people of those films, we know that this country’s past is ugly, and we know that race relations in America have caused a ton of hardships for black people. But those are dramas that work as dramas, and nothing more. They state their intentions—to tell the stories of famous black people in America—up top, and then feed information and story to us in a way that we’re used to with any other drama.
Get Out is not a drama, and it has no time for spoon-feeding solutions for how to fix race relations in America. As a horror film, its intention is to capture the horror black people face while interacting with present-day white America. And that’s a key here: Despite the progress that has been made with race relations, there’s a scary level of prejudice and bias that dominates black-white relations—you could almost say everyday life can sometimes feel like a horror movie for black people.
So while some of the film’s concepts and plot points might seem far fetched and ridiculous, all the movie is really doing is defamiliarizing the black person’s struggle in “post-racism America.” Obviously, the film is not trying to convince us that there are secret pockets of America where white people are abducting black people and turning them into mind slaves. But by employing that plot device, the movie is creating a world where that’s what it feels like for black people trying to blend into white America. So, as Rose’s family awes over Chris’s black features and invites him into their life, we’re experiencing a defamiliarized version of not just openly racist America, but a white, liberal America that wants to be accepting of black people, but also wants black people to conform to white ideals.
Building that setting and that environment is the true key to Get Out’s aesthetic—its hopeful, yet pessimistic vision of race relations in America. An aesthetic that quite literally borrows from horror films and employs a stale, dead atmosphere to a party full of white people; the idea that you must constantly be looking over your shoulder because someone might come up from behind and stab you; the constant dread; the feeling that you don’t belong; the idea that you’re not in on what everyone else is in on.
And that aesthetic is really what allows the true “horror” of the film to explode out of the screen, just like any death scene in a slasher film would. And that “horror” is not just that Rose’s family is a bunch of psychos—its that Rose’s family represents the state of race relations in America for black people. Rose and her family want to switch Chris’s brain with a dead family member’s and quite literally implant their whit ognizes that while there is a cooperative way to fix race relations in America (remember: he stops choking Rose), there is also a need to recognize that, sometimes, there is “no bridge, no hope, no better world.” You can’t fix everybody, but you can make a difference when the moment presents itself.
The film’s ending achieves something I find so intangible, yet real and important. It finds catharsis.
The ending wasn’t the announcement of a plan to fix black America—it was an aesthetic. At its heart, the film is rooted in the mechanics of the horror genre. The film is not ideological politics because it believes in the horror genre first and foremost. And because of that, it’s tropes and ideologies are allowed to play off each other in a way that allows the film to accomplish what all films should strive to accomplish: an aesthetic that visually, sensually captures a universal truth that the audience can relate to and learn and grow from.
And in that moment where Chris is savagely choking the life out of Rose? You experience that anger, that frustration, that resolution—that truth.