Sunday 23 July 2017

Dark Mirrors: Get Out and Race in America

This essay originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because the racial transgressions that occur in both the film under review and in American society are consistent with the Gothic's examination of the darker side in both the past and the present.

Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017).

“The truth is, they don’t surround us. We surround them. This is our country."
– Glenn Beck, Fox News Channel, March 13, 2009.
Jordan Peele’s gripping film, Get Out, which explores on a micro-level contemporary race relations through the prism of comedy horror, has received considerable attention from critics, including this site’s Justin Cummings and Kevin Courrier. Among other films, they have rightly pointed out its cultural markers from The Invasion of the Body SnatchersGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner to The Stepford Wives. In both versions of the latter, wives are reprogrammed into robotic doppelgangers while Get Out can be viewed as a sinister version of Dinner. But Sydney Poitier’s other 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night, also comes to mind. His role as the urbane cop who encounters southern redneck racists finds its mirror image fifty years later in Get Out, in the photographer Chris’ unease with the seemingly polite, cringe-inducing patronization of white liberals, a veneer that covers their malevolent and dangerous presence. I would add two fictional progenitors to Get Out: H. G. Wells’ early science fiction novella, The Island of Doctor Moreau, about a physician who experiments on animals to turn them into human-like hybrids, and Stephen King’s End of Watch that posits the idea that the consciousness of a comatose psychopath can be transferred to the minds of others who become the agents of his nefarious plans.

Whereas film critics have largely assessed its aesthetic qualities, I would like to acknowledge first the contemporary and historical references within Get Out before situating it in a wider context. In the opening scene, an African-American is stalked by a predator in a white car as he walks through a white neighbourhood prompting an association with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin five years ago. In Peele's film, however, the individual is kidnapped, a harbinger of what is to come and a reminder of the kidnapping of Africans that fuelled the slave trade. Again on a micro-level, slavery itself is referenced by the family’s treatment of the black “servants” who behave like zombies, while other blacks accompanying a white guest at a gathering resemble family pets or sex slaves. Unlike the searing indictment of slavery portrayed in Twelve Years a Slave or Django Unchained that at least allows for the comfort of historical distance, Get Out offers only comedic moments to shield whites from the queasiness they that will likely experience viewing this film.

An intriguing feature of Get Out is that it provides the viewer with the precise time of its setting – the end of the Obama era. Prior to visiting Rose’s family estate, Chris asks her whether her family knows that he is black. She replies that her father would have voted for Obama for a third time had it been constitutionally possible. As if to underscore that moment, the line is repeated by her neurosurgeon father when he is alone with Chris outside the family mansion. There he proudly adds that Obama was the “best president of my lifetime by a mile.”

Given how the drama unfolds, this comment is at best disingenuous reminding me of Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s 2017 book Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. The author argues that we should rely less on pollsters who do not receive honest answers from their respondents, but follow his example of conducting Google searches. In particular, he counted the frequency of queries for the odious epithet “nigger.” The numbers showed how widespread the word was across the Midwest and the rustbelt relative to the rest of the country, the region that voted heavily for Trump. The film reinforces the intensity of that hatred but suggests that antipathy reaches into the liberal Northeast and starkly belies the foolish notion that Obama’s 2008 Presidential victory heralded an era of post-racial politics.

Indeed, the overt hatred of Obama was not long in coming. Two incidents come to mind. Does anyone remember that moment in June 2009 when a Republican Congressman, Mike Castle, faced a barrage of bile from a woman in a red dress who screeched that the President was a citizen of Kenya? Before sitting down, she shrilled, “I want my country back.”  The occasion went viral. Her histrionics heralded the rallying cry of the Tea Party and her challenge of Obama’s legitimacy fed the odious birther conspiracy theory that in turn launched the election campaign of Donald Trump.

The second moment occurred a month later when a respected black academic, Henry Lewis Gates, was arrested for attempting to break into his own home, sparking a national debate on racial profiling. Obama weighed in suggesting that the police acted “stupidly” and that the “incident was part of a long history of blacks and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionally.” (Get Out includes a scene where a police officer asks Chris for his identity papers even though Rose was driving the car.) Obama’s comments prompted popular Fox host, Glenn Beck, to malign Obama for harbouring “a deep-seated hatred of white people.” (To be fair Beck has recently mellowed toward the Obamas after he heard Michelle’s spirited speech challenging the molestation of women at the 2016 Democratic Convention.) Wanting their country back from a Manchurian Candidate-type illegitimate President and peddling the canard that Obama hated whites contributed to the maelstrom of racial venom not only against the President but by extension all blacks supposedly because they were inclined to criminality, the undeserving beneficiaries of affirmative action and that whites have been unfairly abused and exploited.

This eyewash ignores historical and contemporary realities. Sample Carol Anderson’s White Rage or Bryan Stevens’ article in The New York Review of Books “A Presumption of Guilt” to disabuse yourself of the illusion that blacks have fared well since the end of slavery. Stevens, currently a law professor, begins his piece by recounting a personal anecdote that happened years previously. As a young attorney, he was almost shot by a white police officer because he was sitting in his car for a few minutes. Then he provides an historical overview of the ways that the justice system has unfairly targeted blacks. Black Codes criminalized blacks for “vagrancy” and “truancy” during the late nineteenth century which allowed their labour to be leased for private and state contracts, a form of quasi slavery. The widespread use of extrajudicial killing through lynchings, the courts’ disproportional use of capital punishment against black offenders and the contemporary mass incarcerations have been some of the mechanisms deployed to intimidate and control the wider black population.

Doctor injecting a patient as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

A similar case is made in Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary 13th (on Netflix). She offers a compelling thesis that the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery is given a loophole because involuntary servitude can be “a punishment for a crime whereof the party of the crime shall have been duly convicted.” One scene captures Trump whetting the nostalgia for "the good old days" when black protestors at rallies would get a solid police bashing and be "carried out on a stretcher." The juxtaposition of that image with Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery’s assertion in They Can’t Kill Us All that “police violence is a pervasive fixture of daily life,” is convincing evidence for the validity of my epigraph  from Beck that “we,” read whites, control the country. Given the realities of police violence and mass incarceration of blacks, one wonders whether the medical experiments conducted in Get Out are as farfetched as they appear to be.

Although it does not involve the transplant of body parts executed in Get Out, there is an American (not Nazi) historical precedent for the abuse of African Americans in the medical domain, given what happened at the Tuskegee Institute for forty years starting in 1932. In order to chart the degenerative progress of venereal disease in the human body, the United States Public Health Service withheld treatment from almost four hundred poor, black men in rural Alabama who participated in this study. The purpose of the study was to determine whether the course of the disease would affect the bodies of blacks and whites differently even though no whites were included in the study. In exchange for being used as human guinea pigs and for giving their permission to be given an autopsy upon death, the men were given food and burial insurance. Aspirins and painful spinal-tap procedures convinced the men that they were being treated but they were essentially placebos. Even when penicillin became available after the war, and it was widely acknowledged to be an effective treatment, the infected subjects were not given penicillin supposedly because their disease was so advanced that it would have no beneficial value. Had there been white research subjects, it is doubtful that that the drug would have been withheld from them. Only after the study was discontinued in 1972 were the few survivors treated with penicillin. Following the news release about this experiment, investigation bodies were established to find out how this happened and to ensure that such an abuse would never be repeated.

A Senate hearing frames the 1992 stage play, Miss Evers's Boys, and the subsequent 1997 HBO television production of the same name (and available in DVD). Fictionalized narratives of the Tuskegee experiment are invested with a modern sensibility. Although the film’s production values are strong and its overall effect is moving, it does depart from the historical record. Fair enough as we are watching drama and not a documentary, but certain distortions did bother me as they soften or cushion the impact of what was an egregious racist medical experiment, unethical even by the standards of the time.

Initially I had no difficulty with the Nurse Evers convincingly portrayed by Alfre Woodard as the film's central focus. (In reality the African American registered nurse was Eunice Rivers.) As Rivers did in real life, Evers performs a crucial role in providing a bridge of trust between the research subjects and the medical staff. The frame of the film is her testimony at the Senate hearing, which is interspersed with flashbacks.

Survivors of the experiment were invited to view the film and they were unhappy with it. Since we hear only from Nurse Evers during the Senate hearing and the only other participant the camera focuses on is the black physician, they believed that the filmmakers were casting the blame on them and not on the white officials who exercised all the authority. In the flashback scenes, the one white physician is portrayed as essentially decent, but the historical evidence suggests the physicians were condescending to and even contemptuous of the subjects, and glad that they were illiterate so they could not read newspapers. The survivors were also emphatic about the fact that no African American doctors participated in this experiment. Their response is understandable, yet they overlooked the personal agency conferred upon Nurse Evers, which would never have been granted to an African American woman at that time. In the television production, when she finds out there is money only for study and not for treatment, she is portrayed as divided; later, in 1946, she begs for penicillin, and even temporarily leaves the project before returning and resigning herself to at least showing kindness to the men. In reality, a black nurse would never question procedures but would quietly carry out her duties. The film is generally sympathetic to Nurse Evers and the survivors but downplays the racism of that era and therefore should be viewed with a dose of skepticism.

 The Tuskegee experiment contributed to black people's mistrust of medicine and the health care system. Studies have demonstrated a “dampened health-seeking behavior and health-care utilization for black men,” causing by 1980 the life expectancy of male blacks to drop by a year and explaining why they suffer disproportionately from many diseases for which there are cures. The Tuskegee legacy might also contribute to the reason modern-day blacks might be doubly fearful or wary of white authority figures who conduct hypnosis and, although the lobotomy dramatized in Get Out is rarely practiced in America, it is not illegal.

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