(Oscar Nominee DANIEL KALUUYA as Chris Washington in Universal Pictures’ Get Out.” /​Universal Pictures)

For all our many dif­fer­ences and mis­un­der­stand­ings, there’s one thing that every cul­ture on earth under­stands: human sacrifice.

During China’s Shang Dynasty – between 1600 B.C. and 1000 B.C. – young women were drowned in the Yellow River as a sac­ri­fice to the riv­er god Hebo, who would then take them as wives. In Mesoamerica, the Inca rou­tine­ly sac­ri­ficed thou­sands to accom­pa­ny a deceased king to the after­life. Similar rit­u­als took place in Roman-​era Gaul and Britain where Celtic tribes prac­ticed a col­or­ful vari­ety of sac­ri­fi­cial rites to keep the gods appeased. First Century Druids were espe­cial­ly indus­tri­ous: sprin­kling the fields with the blood of chil­dren to ensure a fer­tile har­vest while using their entrails to divine the future.

The point being that these weren’t crim­i­nals – these were lead­ers, val­ued ser­vants and loved ones. Sacrifice wasn’t a pun­ish­ment – it was a reward. To be cho­sen for sac­ri­fice meant you were one of the BEST PEOPLE IN THE LAND.

And that brings us to Get Out.

In an oth­er­wise dim year, where production-​line-​sequels dom­i­nat­ed the box office and small, orig­i­nal films strug­gled to get atten­tion, actor-​turned-​writer/​director Jordan Peele’s bit­ing horror/​satire has been a bright spot. Made for less than $5 mil­lion, it has earned more than $200 mil­lion, made numer­ous ten best lists, won piles of crit­i­cal acco­lades and has now added four Academy Award nom­i­na­tions, includ­ing three for Peele as writer, direc­tor and producer.

It’s also his first film.

And yet, in more than a few con­ver­sa­tions, I have dis­cov­ered that a depress­ing­ly broad swath of the movie-​going pub­lic is deeply mis­read­ing the film. Not that that’s nec­es­sar­i­ly unique or a bad thing – some of the great­est films of all time have and con­tin­ue to spur pas­sion­ate debate. But in this moment, as the enter­tain­ment indus­try wres­tles with issues of sex and race, and in a year when peo­ple are cel­e­brat­ing what appears, on the sur­face, to be one of the most diverse” Oscar class­es in his­to­ry, it’s impor­tant that it not miss a cru­cial chance to iden­ti­fy and address one of the industry’s most deeply engrained prob­lems, a prob­lem for which Get Out offers cru­cial lessons: sanctimony.

If you haven’t seen Get Out, then stop here and do your­self a favor and watch it, as spoil­ers will ensue. For those who’ve seen it, let’s be clear: if you think this is a movie about racism (at least as tra­di­tion­al­ly under­stood), you’ve com­plete­ly missed the point. The fam­i­ly in Get Out does not kid­nap and per­form their mad sci­en­tist brain-​swapping surgery on black peo­ple because they hate them. They do it because they revere them. They want to lit­er­al­ly live IN THEIR SKIN. Like our ancient fore­bears, they have placed the best among us on a pedestal, and set them aside for rit­u­al sac­ri­fice pre­cise­ly because they are the best.

The take-​away here should be evi­dent to any­one who has ever been patron­ized. We have all been on the receiv­ing end of such over­done attempts to make us feel includ­ed that we feel like freaks. If we’re hon­est, most of us have prob­a­bly been on the oth­er end of that equa­tion as well – going so far out of our way to mask our prej­u­dices that we end up reveal­ing them instead. Some of my best friends are…” as the cliché goes.

Get Out is designed, like all good films, to force audi­ences to see them­selves in the movie. It is for this rea­son that non-​white audi­ences like­ly find the film both hilar­i­ous and cathar­tic, and why sig­nif­i­cant por­tions of white view­ers seem to miss the point entire­ly – because to see them­selves in the film would be to con­front a cer­tain sanc­ti­mo­ny they aren’t yet ready to acknowl­edge. But acknowl­edge it they must if Hollywood is to seize the cur­rent moment and make it into some­thing con­struc­tive. The stakes for large num­bers of Hollywood arti­sans are huge – the sta­tus quo with which they have lived for gen­er­a­tions is no longer accept­able; but a new, more sanc­ti­mo­nious sta­tus quo would be intolerable.

Around the ear­ly 1990s, dur­ing the year-​end screen­ings when UCLA grad­u­ate film stu­dents unveil their films and field ques­tions from pro­fes­sors and fel­low stu­dents, a par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pelling the­sis film had just con­clud­ed, and its direc­tor walked to the front of the audi­to­ri­um. It was clear every­one in the the­ater was think­ing the same thing – we had just seen a film fea­tur­ing an all-​white cast, and the direc­tor was a young black man. Aren’t black direc­tors sup­posed to make movies about black peo­ple and the black expe­ri­ence? Weren’t we all expect­ing to see a white man stroll up and field ques­tions? Sure enough, one of the first ques­tions broke the ice: You’re a black man, and black actors have such a hard time get­ting good parts. But you made your movie with an all-​white cast?” His answer for­ev­er changed my under­stand­ing of the movie busi­ness. I put out cast­ing notices that weren’t spe­cif­ic about race,” he said, because I just want­ed to get the best actors. I didn’t want to lim­it myself. But I learned too late that black actors won’t answer a cast­ing call unless it specif­i­cal­ly asks for black actors.” (I am, of course, recre­at­ing the con­ver­sa­tion based on my best recollection).

The beau­ty of cin­e­ma is pre­cise­ly that it enables peo­ple to step inside some­one else’s soul – to jour­ney to the most far flung cor­ners of the globe, the fur­thest reach­es of the uni­verse, to ven­ture for­ward or back­ward in time, to enter an artist’s mind and expe­ri­ence and see the world through their eyes. It is the most pow­er­ful­ly empa­thet­ic art form ever cre­at­ed – and yet how often does it tru­ly real­ize such possibilities?

I would argue that one key rea­son we fail is for the very rea­son out­lined by the grad­u­ate stu­dent in the sto­ry above – as both artists and con­sumers, we are habit­u­at­ed to lim­it­ing our­selves… and oth­ers. Whatever our race, what­ev­er our back­ground, we put our­selves and oth­ers in box­es with which to make sense of the world. We may no longer believe in women’s work” ver­sus men’s work” but we cer­tain­ly believe there is such a thing as a chick flick” or a guy movie.” We may give lip ser­vice to being judged by the con­tent of our char­ac­ters,” but how often can Hollywood artists real­ly say that happens?

Triple Oscar-​nominee Jordan Peele and CineGods’ own Timothy Cogshell /​Courtesy LAFCA

One rea­son that #OscarsSoWhite touched such a nerve was because Hollywood prides itself on inclu­sion” and diver­si­ty.” But what do those words real­ly mean? If you hang around this busi­ness long enough, you real­ize that every­thing is basi­cal­ly mar­ket­ing. From black dress­es (the Golden Globes) to a ros­ter of all-​female pre­sen­ters (the SAG Awards) to the wear­ing of col­ored rib­bons to raise aware­ness for what­ev­er cause du jour dom­i­nates the most recent news cycle – the goal is nev­er so much to do any­thing as to appear to be doing some­thing. Actress Rose McGowan, who was one of the first to pub­licly accuse Harvey Weinstein of rape and sex­u­al assault, minced no words on the silent protest” of black dress­es at the Golden Globe Awards. YOUR SILENCE is THE prob­lem” she Tweeted. Two years ago, in an inter­view with the New York Times, direc­tor Ava DuVernay – who is no stranger to the super­fi­cial­i­ty of mar­ket­ing hav­ing once run her own pub­lic rela­tions firm – said of the invo­ca­tion of diver­si­ty,” I hate that word so, so much.” Driving past the slo­ga­neer­ing, DuVernay got straight to the point: There’s a belong­ing prob­lem in Hollywood. Who dic­tates who belongs?”

I would take DuVernay’s ques­tion a step fur­ther. Who dic­tates where they belong? For the prob­lem that Hollywood now faces – and the issue that makes Get Out so rel­e­vant – is not so much the issue of a broad­er Hollywood fam­i­ly – peo­ple of all races, creeds, nation­al­i­ties and per­sua­sions – but a ques­tion of what sto­ries they will be able to tell, what expe­ri­ences they will be allowed to share, what emo­tions will con­nect them with which audi­ences. If diver­si­ty” sim­ply means assign­ing peo­ple a cat­e­go­ry and shov­ing every­one in a box which can con­ve­nient­ly be checked when the time comes to tick off sta­tis­tics of inclu­sion,” then black actors will con­tin­ue to com­pete against each oth­er for roles that are specif­i­cal­ly black, women will con­tin­ue to com­pete against each oth­er to direct women’s pic­tures,” gay-​themed and religiously-​themed films will be tagged as LGBT” and faith-​based” and denied any­thing but niche dis­tri­b­u­tion, while Asian and Latin per­form­ers will con­tin­ue to play the very stereo­types they’ve been forced to play since the incep­tion of cin­e­ma. So long as Hollywood can demon­strate sta­tis­ti­cal diver­si­ty, it will declare itself diverse.”

But is there belong­ing? Most cer­tain­ly not.

We may cel­e­brate the nom­i­na­tions of non-​white actors in Academy Award cat­e­gories as progress, but a glance at the his­to­ry of the Academy Awards reveals the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of non-​white per­form­ers have been nom­i­nat­ed for race-​specific parts. Few and far between are those whose nom­i­na­tions – much less wins – have come from roles where they were in open com­pe­ti­tion with all actors – and not just those of the same race.

If the year of Get Out is to have any mean­ing, if the spir­it of Jordan Peele’s bit­ing­ly smart and brave film is to have any lin­ger­ing res­o­nance, then we will all need to take a long, hard look at how we patron­ize one anoth­er, how we pigeon-​hole and stereo­type one anoth­er, how we lim­it one anoth­er as artists, whether by race, age, ori­en­ta­tion, reli­gion, per­son­al­i­ty, expe­ri­ence, pol­i­tics, gen­der – the list can go on infi­nite­ly. This is the sunken place” where we will find our­selves if we fail to heed the need not for diver­si­ty,” but for – as DuVernay sug­gest­ed – belong­ing.”
What will tru­ly change the movies – and the Oscars – for the bet­ter is to rec­og­nize that endem­ic to that sense of belong­ing is a real­iza­tion that true diver­si­ty isn’t mea­sured from with­out – by mere­ly count­ing num­bers and check­ing check­box­es. It’s mea­sured from with­in – by rec­og­niz­ing that every artist is infi­nite­ly diverse in their abil­i­ties and in their ambi­tions, that what con­nects an artist to an audi­ence is their shared human­i­ty, irre­spec­tive of race, gen­der, creed or nation­al­i­ty. Certainly, no one would dis­pute that it’s progress for Patty Jenkins to direct Wonder Woman or for Ryan Coogler to direct Black Panther. But why not con­sid­er Jenkins to direct Man of Steel? Or Coogler to direct Captain America? Better yet, in the inter­est of belong­ing… why not ask Jenkins and Coogler what sto­ries they want to tell? Why not let the artists decide what sto­ries they want to tell, to touch the hearts of film­go­ers who so des­per­ate­ly want their hearts touched?

Give that some thought this year while watch­ing the Oscars, espe­cial­ly if you’re root­ing for Jordan Peele and Get Out. Awards are fleet­ing. But the lega­cy of a bet­ter movie busi­ness for all artists and all movie lovers is forever.

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