Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), the Black protagonist of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, is introduced to us through his photography: a pregnant Black woman’s belly, close up and in focus, with project housing in the background; next to this image, a dog on a leash treading unpaved ground outside a similar building; urban Black experiences, situated within a broken infrastructure. Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), a blind, white art dealer, is familiar with Chris’ work, and sympathizes with his isolation as seemingly the only Black man at a party thrown by his white girlfriend’s parents, Dean and Rose Armitage.
Jim claims to have taken up art dealing after his own photography was rejected by National Geographic. His easygoing, conversational quality — compared to the other white guests’ strained attempts to chat up Chris — make him seem like he understands, as he puts it, “what real people go through.” However, once the film reveals the ruse of this white suburban cornucopia, Chris is put up for auction, and Jim places the winning bid.
Like Order of the Coagula founder Roman Armitage, who once lost to Jesse Owens in his Olympic qualifier and now runs in the body of a Black man, Jim hopes to capitalize on Chris’ success where he himself has failed. Soon, Jim’s brain will be transplanted into Chris’ body, leaving Chris with bare-minimum consciousness within his own physical being.
While being prepped for the transfer, Chris asks why the subjects for this procedure are all Black. “Please don’t lump me in with that,” Jim says, responding to the implication of racism. “I could give a shit what color you are. What I want is deeper. I want your eye, man.”
Despite this colorblind assertion, Jim Hudson, I would posit, is the single most racist character in Get Out, embodying some of the most insidious historical aspects of white supremacy. While Jim has the desire to see, his phrasing betrays his true intentions: He doesn’t just want Chris’ eyes, but his “eye” — his perspective as an artist — which he believes is deeper, more important than, and even unconnected to Chris’ Blackness.
Jim does not perceive (or perhaps, he ignores) the perspective and lived experience informing Chris’ worldview. Chris captures this outlook through his camera, a device that helps him to both tell Black stories and navigate white spaces. Jim presumes Chris’ “eye” is innate, with no learned element, and he hopes to co-opt Chris’ abilities as a storyteller, thus stealing permission to determine the Black narrative. This desire does not exist in isolation. Rather, it’s part of a larger historical trend.
For centuries, one of white supremacy’s most useful tools in demonizing Blackness was to control images. Take, for instance, the watermelon, so widely understood as having racist implications that its original symbolism has been forgotten: that of post-slavery self-sufficiency. Over the last century and a half — it’s been exactly 150 years since what may be the first racist watermelon cartoon was published — the fruit has become tied up in stereotypical images of Blackness.
The stereotype is rooted in the implication that eating watermelon is an unclean, messy act, partaken in by a lazy people. Pickaninny caricatures and other 19th- and 20th-century racist propaganda used the fruit to stereotype African Americans, a trend that began with the intention of contorting what the watermelon had come to represent for Black freedom. In the 1860s, freed slaves with little economic capital built new livelihoods on selling watermelon, given the ease with which it could be grown. Considering the fruit’s African origins, its twisting by white supremacy to demonize Blackness cuts even deeper.
White media determining images of Blackness is pervasive in cinema, too. The recently released documentary Horror Noire chronicles the history and evolution of Black imagery in Hollywood, beginning with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and culminating, fittingly, in Get Out. Through numerous interviews with Black actors, directors, and critics, Horror Noire speaks of both literal blackface — like exaggerated minstrel impersonations of Blackness — and of a more symbolic blackface, wherein for many years, Black characters in cinema existed exclusively on the terms of whiteness, if they existed at all. The result was similar: African Americans’ larger narrative being driven solely by white perspectives.
By attempting to co-opt the body of a Black photographer, Jim Hudson joins this sinister lineage. While it’s not literal blackface, the Coagula procedure falls in line with the symbolic erasure of authentic Black voices — like those that would need to give way for the likes of Jim, a gallery owner of considerable wealth and influence. The end result is unsettling all the same: Chris recognizes something “off” about Georgina (Betty Gabriel), Walter (Marcus Henderson), and Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), and while he can’t quite put his finger on it, their behavior stems from white impersonations of Blackness, with authenticity imposed and replaced.
The body snatching in Get Out calls to mind the long history of impersonations of Blackness in American cinema. The Birth of a Nation was part of a long line of films employing literal blackface — white actors playing Black caricatures in exaggerated makeup — a topic that has re-entered the media spotlight thanks to recent political scandals in Virginia. A story of heroic Civil War-era Klansmen protecting white women from animalistic Black men, The Birth of a Nation also became the first motion picture screened at the White House. In the 104 years since its release, it has cemented a place in the canon of greatest American films.
I studied The Birth of a Nation at an American college myself, wherein the film’s racism was treated as a mere caveat in the vein of a “problematic fave,” an obligatory mention swiftly brushed aside by white professors so we could study the film’s influential cinematic techniques. The part of its influence that was not contextualized, however, was how its victorious scenes of “monstrous” Black men being lynched would help revive the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century.
Meanwhile, the history of Black cinema isn’t treated with nearly the same critical or academic reverence. Oscar Micheaux, widely regarded as the first major Black director, released his first film, The Homesteader, exactly 100 years ago this month. Based on Micheaux’s novel of the same name, The Homesteader is believed to be the first film with an all-Black cast and crew, and thus one of the earliest examples of visual media being used to reclaim Black identity. Yet Micheaux’s name doesn’t come up nearly as much as Griffith’s. The Birth of a Nation has been painstakingly preserved over the years; it’s available in its entirety on YouTube. The Homesteader, however, is lost. (Luckily, Within Our Gates, Micheaux’s 1920 response film to The Birth of a Nation, can be seen on YouTube as well.)
The struggle to realign Black imagery in the mainstream with authentic Black experiences continues today. The recent Academy Awards bestowed its Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay accolades on Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly and written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Farrelly. Green Book is an occasionally entertaining film, though one with a polarizing understanding of Blackness and Black experiences. The film, which tells the story of Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) overcoming his racism in the civil rights era, is born from the perspectives of a white director and white writers, one of whom is Vallelonga’s son. In contrast, the family of prominent Black character Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) — which was never consulted for the film — took issue with the way Shirley is portrayed, calling the film “a symphony of lies.”
Of the eight Best Picture Oscar nominees this year, two deal with issues pertaining to Blackness from the perspective of Black writers and directors. One, BlacKkKlansman, incisively critiques The Birth of a Nation, and garnered Spike Lee the first Best Director nod of his illustrious career. (Lee won Best Adapted Screenplay with co-writers David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, and Kevin Willmott.) The other, Afrofuturist superhero movie Black Panther, was rightly lauded for being a rare American studio film with majority Black cast members and creatives. Micheaux’s The Homesteader was heralded much the same way; newspaper ads in 1919 drew particular attention to the novelty of its all-Black cast. That Black Panther feels new for similar reasons, a full century later, is indicative of the uphill struggle to reclaim Black perspective in the American mainstream.
In Get Out, Chris, in his own act of reclamation, uses cotton and the head of a buck (another racist stereotype) to escape his demise, one that would have seen his consciousness relegated to the sunken place. He would have watched his life unfold on a screen, without the ability to influence his own narrative.
Chris escapes the fate of Jim Hudson, a white man, being able to walk around in the visage of a Black storyteller. The worst never comes to pass, though the potential outcome is worth considering in order to understand what’s at stake in the larger world of the film.
Imagine, if you will, Jim returning to Chris’ apartment and seeing the photos on his wall. Would he look at the image of the pregnant Black mother and feel the implication of Black joy just outside the frame, and Black possibility within it? Or would he focus only on the housing project in the background — conditioned, perhaps, to see the mother as a welfare queen (another insidious racial stereotype) and the ill fate of a Black baby yet to be born?
While speaking to Chris, Jim calls his work “brutal” and “melancholy,” which feels disconnected from many of Chris’ photos, like his optimistic low-angle shot of a dove soaring between, and despite, confining buildings. Were Jim to create an image similar to Chris’ photo of the pregnant mother, would he spotlight Black life the way Chris does, contextualizing hope and authentic human experience within a difficult framework? Or would he simply become a race tourist, and put real hardship in the background while patting himself on the back? In Hollywood terms, would he make If Beale Street Could Talk or Green Book?
There is, of course, an element of tourism to any artist portraying someone else’s experiences (or any writer trying to unpack them, like myself), and there will continue to be, so long as we demand more diverse cinema. What stories are told and who gets to tell them may not always progress on an even footing. For every BlacKkKlansman, there’s a Green Book; for every Do the Right Thing, a Driving Miss Daisy. But with each step, and each award, it’s imperative to keep in mind whose voices ought to matter in shaping cultural imagery — and more importantly, why.
Chris’ Blackness isn’t incidental to his art, the way Jim makes it seem. It’s vital to it, the way Blackness is vital to Get Out, and to 2018 films like BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, and Black Panther. Certain images in Get Out — like Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) prepping his operating table, scored by ominous opera — would feel downright goofy out of context. But they become terrifying when framed within a Black story told from a Black perspective, wherein the horror is rooted in real Black fears of whiteness determining one’s destiny.
Siddhant Adlakha is an actor, independent filmmaker, television writer, and freelance film critic. He lives in Mumbai, New York, and online.