Feministing Films: “Get Out” Captures Double Consciousness Perfectly

In Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, “Get Out”—a film that blends horror, comedy, and psychological thriller genres—a talented young photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) gets ready for a weekend away with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and her parents at their idyllic, remote mansion. He asks her if they know he’s black. She answers, simply, smilingly, “no.”

In his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, civil rights activist and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois develops the concept of double-consciousness, coining the now popular term to describe the psyches of those who become Other. He explains,

[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

From that early moment between Chris and Rose, we feel Chris’s double-consciousness enacted, and it is this two-ness—a permanent mode of internal conflict that does not only have to do with the self, but with a view of the self as Other—that is at the core of the film. Chris is sweet and generally unsuspicious—the reserved, calm, and agreeable everyman. He wants to be a part of Rose’s world, and cement their bond by integrating into her life outside of their relationship. But he has to contend with her competing (and dominant) view of that world. “No,” they don’t know; she doesn’t know. The knowing is left up to Chris, and so he must inhabit two minds—”two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings”—as he both tries to understand the world as himself and as Rose.

When he arrives at the Armitage family home, he continues with this work, but tenfold. From the very start, he is made out to be someone he doesn’t recognize. Rose’s father calls him “my man” and their relationship “this thang.” Her brother speaks with a blaccent and subscribes to a kind of eugenics in which black bodies have been perfectly bred to fight. Rose sympathizes, and appears confused and upset by her family’s actions, but also makes excuses. Chris is the guest, the lone black soul in a sea of kind-eyed whiteness. He observes the Armitages with both curiosity and, increasingly, with skepticism, trying at every turn to understand. Kaluuya plays the role with searching eyes and hesitant half-smiles; we can see Chris continually putting his fears to rest only to have them jolt up in the dead of night. But the Armitages are only of one mind: they displace Chris the person with their own imaginings. He, in turn, struggles with “two warring ideals”: adapt or fight.

Throughout the film, we’re made aware of Chris’s impeccable photographer’s eye. He carries his camera around the house, aiming the lens at the Armitages’ groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), and maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who are both black but oddly removed, formal, and unfeeling. It’s as if any experience of blackness has been zapped out of them, and they seem to haunt the grounds as ghosts. Chris can’t seem to keep his eye off of them, and becomes fixated with their presence, or lack thereof. Later, during a party, when he tells Georgina that all the white people around are making him uncomfortable, a tear falls down her face. “No no no no no no no” she says, shaking her head, smiling so hard she starts to grimace.

The first night of his stay, Rose’s hippy-adjacent mother Missy (Catherine Keener) hypnotizes Chris without his consent, using his own mother’s accidental death to emotionally disarm him and her spoon and teacup as a physical trigger. Here, Chris’s perceptiveness is leveraged against him in the same way that a black person’s hypersensitivity might be used to make her doubt her sanity. Missy makes Chris question his own history, sending him into a hypnotic void called “the sunken place.” The film represents the sunken place literally: it materializes a black cosmic hole that Chris’s body falls through as he witnesses reality at a remove; he sees what’s happening, but can’t do anything about it. It’s a kind of redoubling of the double-consciousness, where the two souls are entirely separated, and the one rooted in blackness or black experience is left in oblivion. When he’s in the sunken place, Chris’s body goes rigid and his eyes widen; like Walter and Georgina, he’s not quite there.

After the hypnotism, paranoia sets in. Chris calls his best friend, Rod, a TSA agent, to vent. Rod is the film’s comic relief but also embodies a different kind of double consciousness: he immediately suspects foul play, and that the Armitages are trafficking black people as sex slaves. Rod fake-flirts with Rose, but would never date her. He sees through the eyes of white people not just as a way of understanding their world, but to understand them. His double-consciousness isn’t only adaptive but defensive: he stays away, and advises Chris to get the fuck out.

* * *

Peele enacts his own double-consciousness with the camera, employing and revising the formal devices brought to the fore by white directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick both to reflect the overbearingness of white consciousness and to push toward a black resistance. The opening scene of the film brilliantly sets up the tone of the film by tracking LaKeith Stanfield as he uncomfortably walks down the sidewalk in a white suburban neighborhood, eventually bringing to mind the famous airplane scene from “North by Northwest.” The proximity of the camera makes it so that the intrusion is not Stanfield, but the artificial world that has been built up around him.

“Get Out” doesn’t concern itself with a redemptive narrative for white people, nor does it try to position black people as firmly righteous in their reactions to racism. We identify with Chris not because he’s a perfect model of the black citizen, but because we are given the chance to identify with him, to understand his split inner life, and hope to God he can find his way through the outer one. Comedian Chris Rock famously said, in a 2014 interview in New York magazine,

When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserved what happened to them before.

Black people have not “progressed”; some of us, despite all odds, survived. This is true throughout the diaspora—from black Americans to black Brazilians to Jamaicans to Rwandans—even where the relationship to whiteness differs. White people’s desire that black people assert a kind of nobility or high-mindedness in the face of racism is predicated on the idea that whiteness is a fair reaction to the presence of black people, rather than its own delusion. “Get Out” is a searing takedown of this idea. Good-intentioned, liberal-minded micro- and macro-aggressions are not explained away or forgiven, and kind-eyed white people, and white viewers, cannot remain hazily removed from their daily acts of ignorance and violence. For once, they are torn away from their own dominant view—that their well-meaning, “color-blind” modes of alienation are anything other than racism—and made to question their own consciousness.

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Cassie da Costa is a writer who focuses on moving image and performance. She's based in Brooklyn and works as a member of The New Yorker's editorial staff while also producing the magazine's video podcast, The Front Row, featuring film critic Richard Brody.

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