(This piece contains major spoilers. Beware.)
Jordan Peele’s transcendent Get Out is the latest entry in black folks’ long-standing fascination with horror; beginning with our folklore (Zora Neale Hurston’s Every Tongue Got to Confess), early literature (Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales) and film (Oscar Micheaux’s A Son of Satan) as well as contemporary literature (LA Banks’ The Vampire Huntress Legend Series), and short films (Bree Newsome’s Wake; Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes’ Danger Word).
But it was when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) removed his fingers from around the neck of Rose that I knew I had to write this piece. In a scene reminiscent of the fatal climax of Shakespeare’s Othello, we are held rapt as he is poised to finally punish the instigator of his personal hell, Rose (Allison Williams), for her intimate betrayal, yet he is unable to put an end to his white temptress. Why not? The woman has lied to him for four (or five) months, literally led him to slaughter as she introduces him to her eugenically-inclined family, orchestrated her mother’s hypnotic assault upon his psyche (possibly after psychologically grooming him for months), paraded him around his potential buyers, and ultimately chased him down the lane with a rifle shooting to kill. If we continue to see Chris as an avatar for black manhood, the film’s finale serves as one more indictment of black men’s sustained inability to punish white women for their willful complicity in white supremacy. And so I ask on behalf of (a whole lot of black women and femmes), what line does Becky have to cross to get murked?
It was actually three black men that failed to kill her…Paul Bunyan should have shot her twice and his boy should have run over her with the TSA squad car. – Tracey Salisbury
This reluctance on Chris’ part is particularly notable in the horror genre in which it is commonplace, expected even for white women to be killed in increasingly graphic ways. As pop culture scholar Janell Hobson says of this moment, “It’s almost as if brothers are still scared they’ll get lynched if they demonstrate any violence towards Becky—even cinematically.” Why does the film depict a black man so unwilling to pull this trigger? Why does this film still find it problematic for its own protagonist to enact thorough, graphic revenge, and even righteous revenge on white womanhood for its steady betrayal? I mean the chick chased his black ass with a rifle down the driveway.
Yes, yes, he kills the mother, Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener); but we can only presume how she died (letter opener through the eye) because the camera quickly cuts away before it happens. Now compare this to the (partial) death of Jeremy Armitage (Caleb Landry Jones) who is brutally beaten about the head with a croquet ball. Or even Dean Armitage’s (Bradley Whitford) graphic piercing through the throat by the horns of a mounted stag—shout out to scholar John Jennings for highlighting that he kills him with a literal buck! The camera lingers on details like blood spurting through the father’s mouth or slowly pooling around the brother’s head. Not to mention how the frame stays with the Georgina (Betty Gabriel) as we view her head crashed against the car window in a repose of death. Peele’s editorial choices reveals his hand: graphic white male death is okay, and even the fetishizing of the dead body of the one (of two total) black women characters is just fine. But the intentional framing and editing choices Peele makes to conceal and work around the explicit deaths of Missy and Rose show that white women are still valued as fragile and occupy a unique cultural privilege…even in the blackest horror film of this decade.
Kinitra D. Brooks is an Associate Professor of African American and Afro-Caribbean literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She recently edited an anthology of short horror fiction written by black women, Sycorax's Daughters and her upcoming monograph, Searching for Sycorax: Black Women Haunting Contemporary Horror will be published in 2017. She has published articles in African American Review, Obsidian, and FEMSPEC. In Fall 2016, discussion about Brooks' innovative course, Black Women, Beyonce & Popular Culture focusing on Beyonce's Lemonade went viral, drawing local, national, and international press coverage to her model of creative and rigorous cultural criticism.