Any attempts on my part to ‘review’ Jordan Peele’s Get Out will be pedantic at best. For example, it might be prudent to call Get Out damnably mimetic for over-relying on the ubiquitous social stigmas (“Don’t go to no white girl’s parents’ house!”) that enable the plot. Also, it’s important to note that Get Out could not exist if not for The Wicker Man (1973), Rebecca (1940 but mostly the 1938 novel), Deliverance (1972), and countless other stories I’m sure most audiences can recognize. And yet despite these derivatives, it makes more sense to praise Get Out for being so trope-ridden, if only in the name of postmodernism. However, it is necessary to point out the film’s inexcusable portrayal of black women – using them as equal parts crutch and token – for being a baffling flaw in an otherwise hyper-aware narrative. This dismissal cannot be ignored, even in the face of all the film’s other successes. One can also make the argument that Get Out loses itself halfway through – loses its premise, its conceit, even its own gumption – in a climactic cop-out that reduces the confident, racially charged thesis to mere allegory for a woefully run-of-the-mill thriller twist. Yet to expand on this criticism further would spoil the (admittedly well-executed if poorly conceptualized) trick, and for most of the putative flaws in Get Out, it makes more sense to let viewers decide for themselves.
You see how complicated this is all getting.
If I’m being vague or pretentious, I apologize. But in point of fact any more detailed description of what I saw in Get Out – what I loved in Get Out – would be far worse than the periphrastic paragraph above. The cinematic language of Get Out is so deliberate and acute that any textual description of such from me would be self-aggrandizing. If I were to qualify it, it would only be to say “look, I too am educated and progressive and observant.” You will get it. You don’t need me to prove to you that I get it too.
There’s a book I love called The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. Books whose titles include mentions of other books are usually placed pretty high on my shelf, for the same reason Synecdoche (2008) is my favorite film of all time and I call Wallace my favorite author despite never having read Infinite Jest. Within The Poisonwood Bible, other than a Bible, is a story. And within that story is another story, told very briefly toward the latter half of the novel. To paraphrase, the story goes like this:
Once upon a time in the 17th century, the Portuguese made it far enough up the Congo River to discover the Kingdom of Kongo, led by King Manikongo. To their utter surprise, the Kongo Kingdom rivaled the greatest European fiefdoms in wealth and influence, centralized in Central Africa and acting as a trade-hub for iron ore, ivory, vegetables and fruits, and eventually, slaves. But when the Portuguese arrived there was little trace of industrialized bondage, and the Kongo Kingdom was designed with a strangely organic infrastructure. Their King was elected, and their society was built around a Classicalist democracy – more akin to Ancient Rome than to the United States. Although they possessed the talents of metallurgy and stone-making, the Kongo people preferred to meld their city with the environment. The canopies of trees were festooned with thick-woven suspension bridges, built using technologies that were not to be seen again for centuries. The Congo River had been tamed by great oar-ships and rafts, and the routes that had been cut through the undergrowth proved impenetrable to the maladjusted Europeans. The Portuguese were astonished by the civilization they encountered. Their astonishment would soon turn to frustration as they, along with all other European invaders, realized they would be unable to ‘conquer’ the Congo for another two centuries.
But, according to this story-within-a-story-within-a-story, a curious exchange occurred when the Portuguese explorers finally managed to communicate with the Kongolese. The Portuguese, you see, had been marvelling at the breadth of the Kongo capital for some time. And after a thorough examination of this kingdom at the edge of their known world, they realized that although the Kongolese had the means to do so, many rivers remained uncrossed. The mighty Congo was well travelled at this point, with boats from kingdoms far to the South arriving to the Kongolese ports every day. But the Congo’s great tributaries, those that cut East into the interior of Africa, into the land Conrad would term a ‘Dark Heart,” were left untouched. The Portuguese saw that the Kongo people could easily turn their ships into the rising sun and construct their great bridges across these watery veins, spreading their already considerable influence even further into the continent where surely there must dwell other tribes to subsume, other civilizations to conquer. The Portuguese had achieved the Kongo’s level of industry and trade not so long before, and had been exploring for more than two centuries. They wondered why a people so advanced and profitable wouldn’t take advantage of all the land.
When posed this simple question, the Kongo had an equally simple answer.
“If it were meant to be crossed, there wouldn’t be a river.”
The term “cultural theft” has come to replace “cultural appropriation,” and for good reason. But ‘theft,’ at least according to the legal definition, does not involve violence. Theft is done without confrontation, without contact. Robbery, on the other hand, is physical. It involves coercion, intimidation, or violent malintent. It is a palpable, visceral disruption of life. There is no robbery without battery. Cultural ‘theft’ implies that the calculated destruction and sublimation of black culture, indeed all non-white culture, by whites, is secretive. Cultural ‘theft’ is done in the dead of night, with creeping gloved hands and sweaty balaclavas. This is a lie. Cultural robbery is done in the light of day, by shamelessly bare skin and greedy eyes, by well-funded reality TV shows and prominent millennial journalists. How guilty are we of bastardizing the verbiage of inner-city cultures for the purposes of irony? How shall we be penalized for waiting patiently for the next bit of black-teen slang with which to infuse our tweets, our listicles, our television? How little have we progressed from the time of the ‘noble savage’, when black and brown and red bodies spurred us to flights of romanticism, to envy and pedagogy? How guilty have I been of saying ‘fam’ to my friends? We no longer study black bodies on auction stages and operating tables, but we hijack black speech in our media, we fetishize black movement in our art, we romanticize black power in our revolutions. We demand the existence of a ‘Black America’ because without it, there would be nothing to conquer. The price of white insecurity is brown annihilation. The land across the river must remain ripe for the pillaging.
And then what of those with a foot on each side of the river? What of those with a Mother who didn’t see snow until she was twelve years old and a Father who was born in the shadow of the J train?
Pick a side, I guess.
There’s a walk-thru McDonald’s where my Mom’s favorite bodega used to be in Washington Heights. White college grads are moving to Harlem in droves. Insider recently posted a video “discovering” chopped cheese. Elvis is Still King and Michael Jackson is Just Dead. And despite what They tell you, yes, racism elected our President.
Go see Get Out in theaters.