(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?
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.