Monday, May 15, 2017

Get Out & The Legacy of Ellison & Baraka

The new movie Get Out, by director Jordan Peele, is a horror film version of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, with Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracey, but it's a lot more than that.  Like Stanley Kubrick's The Shinning, there is a treasure trove of complexity and meaning to the film that lay behind what is shown on the screen.  But to see it, one must watch the movie on multiple levels at the same time, and understand not only how it conveys ideas about race and society in multiple ways in a literal sense, but how it also does so in a metaphorical sense as well.

In the opening scene, for example, we see a black man who, appearing to be lost, is trying to navigate his way through "a creepy, confusing-ass 'suburb.'"  In a literal sense, the idea of an urban black man walking through a presumably 'white' suburb not only illustrates how scary the latter can be to the former, but also how the neighborhood itself represents the social construct that can be confusing to those who are outsiders, or one sort or another.

It reminds us of that comment by James Baldwin, in other words, about how it can come "as a great shock to discover that the country that is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity,  has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you." 

We could go even further, in fact, and think of the neighborhood as representing America's capital, Washington D.C., with its labyrinthine design created specifically to impede the advances of any potential adversary, and the black man navigating around the neighborhood as being the "potential adversaries" that "white America" saw Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King to be, during the 1960s.

 As so many other films have capitalized on, and not all of them horror films, suburbia is almost never what it appears to be. Instead, the apprehension of a black man walking nervously through the well lit presumably white, middle class neighborhood, illustrates the contrast between a perfectly peaceful, manicured neighborhood on the one hand, and the blood drenched soil it is built on, soaked not only in the blood of soldiers from the Civil and Revolutionary war, but even more so of slaves and Native Americans before them.

But among countless other things, this movie may stand as a legacy to Ralph Ellision's, Invisible Man, and Amiri Baraka's Dutchman. At the end of chapter 11 in Invisible Man, for example, we find this passage:

"Things whirled too fast around me.My mind went alternately bright and blank in slow rolling waves. We, he, him - my mind and I - were no longer getting around in the same circles. Nor my body either. Across the aisle a young platinum blonde nibbled at her red Delicious apple as station lights rippled past behind her. The train plunged. I dropped through the roar, giddy and vacuum-minded, sucked under and out into late afternoon Harlem."

Baraka, who was known to have disagreed with Ellison's approach to issues of race in America in the same way Malcolm X disagreed with Martin Luther King's approach, responded to Ellison's book with his play Dutchman. As if picking up right where chapter 11 drops off, Dutchman starts this way:

Train roars. Lights flash outside the windows.
LULA enters from the rear of the car in bright, skimpy summer clothes and sandals. She carries a net bag full of paper books, fruit, and other anonymous articles. She is wearing sunglasses, which she pushes up on her forehead from time to time. LULA is a tall, slender, beautiful woman with long red hair hanging straight down her back, wearing only loud lipstick in some body's good taste. She is eating an apple, very daintily. Coming down the car toward CLAY, She stops beside CLAY'S seat and hangs languidly from the strap, still managing to eat the apple. It is apparent that she is going to sit in the seat next to CLAY, and that she is only waiting for him to notice her before she sits

Anyone who as seen Get Out will understand the idea of the train being sucked underground, of the protagonist in Invisible Man being an unnamed character who is writing from an underground abode, and with the nature of seduction that the white women in these stories all represent. 

And this is why the movie Get Out is so much like Kubrick's version of the Shinning, and perhaps even why the black man navigating his way through the a neighborhood at night (that is eerily reminiscent of the 1978 horror movie, Halloween) comments,  "it's like a fucking hedge-maze out here."  

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