Contains spoilers of “Get Out” and this piece specifically is written for individuals who have some working understanding of social identity and white supremacy, as well as folks who have seen the movie more than once.
In less than one year, Jordan Peele will be releasing his much anticipated film “Us” a follow-up to his successful directorial debut to the film “Get Out.” As far as we can tell “Us” will likely be another “social thriller” that seeks to make some commentary on the way we interact with each other, with race as a central thread. Peele claimed that his intent with “Get Out” was to leave people with with a conversation, to affect people; and in that way he succeeded.
Beyond this, I’m unsure if people had the right conversation and it is in this way, I think the film was just, ok. Perhaps my assessment of the film had it at a disadvantage because so much of me wanted to be wowed at the stories and themes that it would present. When the film released, I could not scroll my timeline on Twitter without someone sharing an account about how they were blown away by Peele’s debut. My expectations were extremely high, which was surprising to me because initially I was wary of the film. when the trailer dropped, I remember being in a group chat talking with friends where I shared my general concern of how racial terror is presented because art, as we know, has such great power to amplify or erase a narrative. As someone who is generally not a fan of Peele’s previous comedic work, I was hesitant about this project. However, once the rave reviews began to roll in, by several people I actually trust, I was all set to engage his work fully, with an open mind.
The film itself is fine, it was a solid film, certainly worth the price of the ticket if you are someone who likes horror or thrillers. I certainly do, and I have seen worse films by far. However, I would caution reading into the film certain tones and themes that do not exist. I have read commentary and reviews that hail this film as an amazing piece of art that engages in the best possible way conversations around race, violence, and racial terror, and in a way turns on its head the narrative of who the actual perpetrators of violence look like. My honest opinion? You could read any number of themes on a film that racialized the plot in so heavy-handed a way. Which is fine, but I would caution against doing heavy lifting about what story the film is actually telling as opposed to how we make meaning about what the story presents.
There are several things that in my opinion the film does well and they should be noted, and others have done that, while I do not agree with all of the praise I think the piece What Get Out Gets Right About American Culture and Black Bodies is good, I also think some of the author’s brilliance is projected onto the film. I will not go into those things because others have done that. I am here to offer critique and hope that in the next film we can go deeper.
The glaring mistake, to me, was in the scene where Chris asked Jim (the art dealer) a simple question: why Black people? It was in this moment I was shook, I was so ready for the next several lines of dialogue to really take to task all of the ways white supremacy (and by extension white people) have sometimes (often) engaged in the most egregious behaviors when it comes to Black people, our bodies, and our experiences. I was on the edge of my seat, dripping my sprite in my lap in the theatre, do you hear me?
Jim finally replied to Chris, that essentially he personally did not care about Chris’s race (for reasons obvious in the film), but he went on to justify ‘why Black people’ by saying that “some” people (lets just name it, white people BUT NOT ONLY WHITE PEOPLE) what to be faster, or cooler: basically, Black people are in style!
I could have thrown my damn drink at the screen…
For me, this particular line was excruciating. I felt that moment was an opportunity to nail white folx and white supremacy to the wall. I, like so many other people have witnessed and experienced the violence of whiteness. For many of us, it’s in our bones, in our blood, the trauma is still with us. We witness it through appropriation with that same logic, erasure with that same logic. I believe it was an opportunity to further reveal whiteness as pathology. Jim could have named his reason in a way that didn’t reduce the reality to… ‘well… y’all are cool and envied.’
I left the theatre so annoyed and then it got me thinking “what gaze.” By that I mean, what gaze is Peel centering? What gaze is he writing to, talking to? Then as I reflected more, I realized it didn't matter. The work did not go far enough or deep enough to me. White folks needed more dialogue to situate the problematic nature of white entitlement to Black people, identities, labor and spaces. More was needed to call out the violence. Black people on the other hand deserved to see Chris reject Jim’s answer in that moment, to be angry, to call it out, to problematize the bullshit Jim spoke. Unless the point was that was beyond Chris’ depth?
The gaze is important because how we consume art or media is informed by it. I do not think that art has to be 100% perfect or speak to all things at all times, but for this film I think there has been more praise than critique. For me, you cannot have a goal to have conversation, more specifically, a raced conversation, and not engage that work in ways that reaches the depths to implicate how race differently shows up and exacts violence. I do not think this film goes there.
In the days following my viewing of the film, I started to research more about Peele, the film, and his intentions because I really wanted to understand. I wanted to know if somehow, I was trippin’. Then I stumbled on an interview with NBC BLK that Peel gave during which time a reporter asked: “Who are you trying to make uncomfortable? Are you trying to make any group of people uncomfortable?”
Below I have transcribed his reply unedited:
“You know, I mean, I’m not afraid of making people uncomfortable. The point of, for me as an entertainer is to deliver the fun to people. So, if I make them..If there are tense moments and moments that make you squirm in your seat, um, rest assured I am going to deliver you a release from that. I’m gonna give you something where you can laugh, we can all get back on the same page. But, you know, the uncomfortable part, is part of what horror is. If something unsettles you, you’re left to deal with why it unsettled you. It’s the way we face the things that make us uncomfortable, the things that make us afraid, and it gives us tools to go on and deal with these fears in the future.
While I can appreciate his commitment to some of the fundamentals of the horror film canon and what it is supposed to do. I do not think some of it applies to a “social thriller.” I think this answer legitimizes my critique. I think Jim’s answer as well as some other creative choices actually allowed some white people to distance themselves from the reality of racial violence, othering themselves from “those” white people over there (the bad ones). Because by his own admission no matter how uncomfortable you were made to feel, he tried to redeem that discomfort and bring you back in. So then the question becomes, who is uncomfortable and why? I do not think it was Black people “squirming” in their seats, I think for many of us it was actually affirming to see a reality we know and experience represented that way, however if that is true, and we weren’t squirming in our seats, then it would be white folks needing delivered in that moment.
More importantly why as an artist would you want to alleviate that discomfort in your “social thriller”? It would seem that this deliverance from discomfort, was about making the reality of racial violence and trauma palatable to whiteness, either through the “flattery” narrative or through their being able distance themselves from “bad” white people altogether. There was no real indictment of whiteness, which sucks. And finally I think the premise of Jim’s answer was intellectually dishonest. In the era of #BlackLivesMatter, housing crises, financial crises, #SayHerName, and a plethora of other contemporary examples of violence against Black people that optic is problematic and reductionist: “Life can’t be that bad, white people would gladly be us.” No. We needed more.
I write all of this to say, Jordan, I am rooting for you and this next project, and yes, I will go and see it. Reports have indicated Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong’o, and Elisabeth Moss are all in talks to sign-on to the project. Don’t let us down! If a raced conversation is what you hope for us to have. Let it be honest, let it be real, let it be deep. Give us art that indict systems and structures, and the people that build and maintain them. Finally, don’t ever deliver them from your indictments or from their discomfort. No one deserves deliverance, until we get ours and we can “Get Out”.
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