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UCI Discusses The True Meaning of ‘Get Out’

In observance of Black History month, UCI African American studies professor Dr. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard held a live discussion panel regarding the anti-Black racism centered in the 2016 horror film “Get Out,” directed by Jordan Peele, on Feb. 26. Willoughby-Herard hosted a panel of professors and film critics to discuss representations of white supremacy and reflect on the pandemic through film.

“Get Out” is a film about Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a Black man who gets to know the white family of his new girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). Chris must escape the Armitage house in order to be free when it is discovered that Rose’s father wishes to use Chris’ body as his own — literally, he wants to see through his eyes and gain his “superior physical abilities.”

“We see an extravagant range of racialized class divides. Within this film, terror does much of the work of having audiences really have to struggle with the legacies of Black people being deemed available for white people’s entertainment, pleasure and extension of life,” Willoughby-Herard said.

Guest speaker Mzilikazi Kone, a political science and global studies professor at the College of the Desert, described “Get Out” as a “zombie film,” drawing connections between her own work in the zombie film genre and the idea of “hate” that is presented in them.

“In 1932, we saw the first zombie film ‘White Zombie.’ It had been understood that becoming ‘zombified’ was something that happened to Black people. This idea of being turned into a zombie, captured physically and spiritually. If we return to the old films, we see a trend in enslaved, slow-moving zombies,” Kone said.

Her explanation of Black people being compared to zombies draws on the portrayal of them being captured and enslaved with no control of their minds. Using this explanation, Kone spoke of the fear Black people have about “turned into a zombie,” or having their freedom being taken away by the white man.

“We see played out in [‘Get Out’] and pop culture about how the Black body is both invisible and hypervisible at the same time. Chris is hypervisible as they touch his body, questioning his sexuality. Is it only a slave story? When Black folks are featured in a movie, is it just another slave story? Or is it another story about resistance?” Kone said. 

Kone then discussed similarities between the film and the Black Lives Matter movement that happened in 2020. 

“I think the connection here between the movie ‘Get Out’ and the COVID-19 era is more than evident. You only need to witness the mess at the U.S. capitol. It could be used as a tool of violence. Who’s at risk here? Black and brown people. That threat of zombification continues to this day,” Kone said, referring to the insurrection that took place earlier this year. 

Once Kone concluded her statement, Willoughby-Herard shared a video of Universitat Pompeu Fabra professor Bogdan Popa, who discussed the idea of questioning the existing scholarly work surrounding the appropriation of Blackness.

“‘Get Out’ is part not only of a Black Marxist tradition that shows the exploitation of Black bodies in the U.S., but also a newer cultural critique focusing on the ongoing appropriation of Blackness. In ‘Get Out,’ the site of horror is the vampiric whiteness of the Armitage family … it refers to the actual consumption of Black bodies. What I would say today is that a contemporary scholarship that emphasizes modes of appropriating Blackness runs the risk of strengthening liberal ideology,” Popa said. 

Popa defined “vampiric whiteness” as the way the Armitage family takes the lives of Black people for their own benefit by forcing Black people to be their sex slaves or using their bodies to gain their superior physical abilities, such as Chris was almost forced to. 

“‘Get Out’ offers the pretext for us to discuss the historical global presence of a tradition of struggles against slavery profit and private property. It shows that many expressions of white liberalism cannot be deployed in public without important costs of the speaker. It sidesteps the work of a Black generation that … others have fought for in the past so that we enjoy the fruits of cinematic liberation,” Popa said. 

After Popa’s video, UCI English professor Michael Szalay discussed Eddie Murphy’s role in the film, specifically in the title. He also shared a clip of one of Murphy’s stand-up comedy shows that director Peele explained was his inspiration for the title. 

“It turns out that the phrase ‘get out’ is not spoken to the white couple that buys the house, but the pope that tries to exorcise the spirit. [In the film,] the phrase ‘get out’ is not spoken by a demonic spirit,” Szalay said.

The film mentioned in the quote refers to none other than “Poltergeist,” which is one of the main inspirations of the film. What Murphy talked about in his stand-up act is what Peele wanted to emotionally capture in “Get Out;” that feeling of wanting the characters to literally “get out” of the situation they’re in.

“Peele has admitted for [‘Get Out’] to not be watched on the small screen … he wants the audience to scream ‘get out!’ when a character needs it. I do think we can see Peele’s vision, rather than watch it on a small screen and become immobile and paralyzed by the TV, you go out and watch it together in a public space of their own, and perhaps in yelling ‘get out!’ together, begin an essential collective exorcism,” Szalay said.

UCI political science professor Kevin Olson then discussed three key themes of the film that he saw as being present throughout “Get Out.” 

Olson mentioned the theme of paranoia as the first theme he witnessed throughout the movie. 

“I think one of the things that Peele does so well is that he injects more and more paranoia … other fantasies, inexplicable desires … to show that eventually, these things become inverted, the fantasies become real, the desires become real, the real becomes not so important,” Olson said. 

Olson continued, talking about the theme of double consciousness as the second theme he saw. 

“The sunken place is not something that is split off … it is forcefully imposed, there’s something about the material about it … here is very clear, this is a foreign imposition … This is a pointed remark about the way in which double consciousness functions,” Olson said.

“Finally, I think [‘Get Out’] is about white desire … there’s different forms of desire that are forms in different ways … there’s this white fantasy about being Black, I’m not sure what to say about that … it’s something that I find interesting,” Olson said, laying out what he thought the third and final theme of the movie was.

The final speaker of the event was UCI film & media studies professor Desha Dauchan, who shared her thoughts on the film as a fellow screenwriter. 

“‘Get Out’ came about and expanded the canon of what was possible [as a filmmaker]. What I love about this film is that Peele shows that everything is in plain sight from the beginning. From the start, we are relying on an omnipresent collective memory for this film to work, Peele digs right into our most universal fears, that’s just the beauty about the genre of horror. But what’s beautiful about this is that it is Black people’s fears … we don’t talk about this in the Black community, but the fear of theft of Black lives … not just cultural appropriation, but the literal theft of our bodies,” Dauchan said.

Dauchan spoke of how her directing history — with movies such as “Xin (2017)” and “Covered (2018)” — gave her a different perspective. 

“When I was writing doppelganger stories … you enter the industry and are told ‘there are no Black folk writers,’ so with the coming of ‘Get Out’ … we got wind of this sunken place, it was exciting,” Dauchan said.

Dauchan also brought up the fact that the audience of a film is one of the most important aspects of the film’s message. She discussed how social situations are shown in “Get Out,” such as scenes where Chris is being coaxed into being a sex slave, are reminiscent of other awkward, real-life situations such as being the “only Black person in the room” — that feeling of being the odd one out.

“These people say to [Chris], ‘I want to own you, I want to be you, I want to step into your skin,’ the theft of Black people in America is made clear in this genre experience. We see evidence that Black lives are a commodity, without question it is valuable. We go home laughing about it, but we’re still the same. We’re seeing that actually, these genre films that play on our deepest fears prepare us for some ugliness that actually exists,” Dauchan said.

“This is the beauty of the genre, we can play in the beauty of this magic. We’re finally welcomed to explore genres as Black cinematic voices, so thanks for that.”

Kealani Quijano is a Campus News Intern for the winter 2021 quarter. She can be reached at kaquijan@uci.edu.