Stranger in the Land of Get Out

The first time I ever knew about Get Out was at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Here I was, sitting with my partner at the time, watching this preview unfold at the theatre about a young Black man named Chris and his white girlfriend Rose going to her parents’: introducing him for the first time.

I recall a part of me inside cringing, knowing that something really bad was going to happen to Chris. This feeling only got worse at the sight of Georgina, the Armitages’ helper, with her Stepford wife smile, and tears slowly trailing down her face. This is complete with Chris being bound to a chair, and the presence of hypnotism, and the whole implication of slavery happening under a polite veneer at the Armitage property. You see, I thought that what was going to occur was that the Armitage family used mesmerism or brainwashing, even torture – physical and mental – to break down minorities, Black people,  and get them to serve them in modern day slavery: a racist cult that made their slaves appear to obey them out of freewill. In my mind, I was seeing Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner becoming a horror film version of Twelve Years a Slave. I didn’t know Jordan Peele at this time, or watch any of the work he did, which was comedy. But I knew this film was going to be a big deal. 

There has been a lot written about Get Out over the years, including how some people were surprised that white people, or other groups could relate to – and root for – Chris in the circumstances of the film. And while there has also been a lot of social commentary examined, and I absolutely believe that in the hands of anyone other than Peele the whole brain transplant element that skirted like the line between old B film horror, and genuine contemporary appropriation metaphor, might have fallen flat, I think I will lead with how I specifically related to Chris.

It’s, arguably, an intersectional place. There is a lot of baggage, and societal stereotypes around Black identity, and that carries its own resonance. That is not what I am attempting to unpack here, as it’s not my place. But the tension that Chris feels as he is introduced to Rose’s family, whose identity and background is different from his own is something with which I can relate. 

I was born into a Conservative Jewish family. That has its own cultural and historical weight when dealing with the rest of the world, and it’s even more impactful when you have interfaith, or interracial relationships. For the most part, when I have discussed this I’ve focused on my family’s perspectives and treatment of me and my partners, as most if not all of my partners haven’t been Jewish in the slightest. But one thing that is ingrained, on some level, from at least my experience is to always be careful of those people that aren’t Jewish: that are non-Jewish, or Gentile. There have been many experiences where Jews were considered allies by Gentiles, or even friends in different nation-states, and groups, only to get turned on later, and either become ostracized, exiled, abused, or even killed. And Jewish history has had its own Biblical and historical encounters with slavery, and genocide. 

This is something I was taught by my family, by synagogue, and by Hebrew School: the outside world will accept you to an extent, but it can turn on you quick when things go wrong, or even if you are doing too well, or you are too different, or you are “assimilating too efficiently.” And there are other groups who, historically, have tensions with my ethnicity, and even if they hadn’t been hostile interactions they grew up in cultures that believed in stereotypes, and might even subconsciously project them onto you. Now, for me, I wanted to live my life. I still do. I want to believe in the power of independence, individuality, and knowing where you come from, but not letting it dominate you: or keep you from new experiences, and especially something like love. 

But then we get to the other side, which is the strength of the bond you might make with someone who isn’t in your group, and being among their kin: in their territory, away from your own, or even the illusion of an open society. When Chris is invited to the Armitage home it seems friendly enough, but there are the awkward jokes, the looks, the things that aren’t said – especially the things that aren’t said – and sometimes little microaggressions that your partner might not see, or even participate in without consciously knowing. 

I can only speak for myself. One girlfriend’s mother sat with us in her car after she drove me home, and told us she knew that despite our different backgrounds, she was all right with us: all the while I knew she would castigate my girlfriend about it behind my back. Her siblings would be friendly to my face, but I always felt a tension there, and words that weren’t said. Her father never talked to me, or rarely did. It felt like there was this quiet, tolerance there. They were Eastern-European and Mediterranean respectively, raised by Eastern Orthodoxy, and they had a Jew in their household – that, granted, they invited – who nevertheless was dating their daughter. I would see the iconography of a culture that sometimes persecuted mine, even if Eastern Orthodoxy had a better relationship with Judaism than Catholicism or Protestantism arguably did. But I never once forgot that Eastern-Europeans did unleash pogroms on my ancestors, and that once in the Old World, a Jewish man being intimate with a woman from those cultures could result in his beating, or death: or worse.

In another situation, I had a partner with Northern European background, and their ties to Protestantism. And while they were nothing but friendly to me, we travelled there – the two of us – to see them deep in the North. I found myself in an old house, generations owned, not unlike that of the Armitages but without the forest or the deer as far as I knew. And that isolation, even though I met them before in my region, made me nervous: to be a household that wasn’t mine, alien but not, and I can remember Chris’s apprehension even as I can consider what I felt watching the city recede to the wilderness of the North, and away from what I knew. 

There is this idea of xenos: of guest-friendship. It is the idea that the stranger, or the outsider should be honoured and treated as one of your own. At the same time, there is xenophobia, which is the fear of the outsider, that can often lead to misunderstandings, and hatred. There is a barrier where it is all right to be friends with someone different, but anything beyond that can be difficult, and go bad. This is a lot of baggage. But you can see, looking at Chris at the Armitage residence, feeling his immense discomfort, and his sensitivity towards those gestures – even second-guessing himself and feeling bad that he;s feeling those emotions, wondering if he’s projecting them at times due the gaslighting of the family in this case – why I can relate. 

When I finally did get to watching it, I saw there were differences between my preconceptions of the film, and what I saw. Brainwashing and mesmerism were elements, but there is also the weird science of that brain transplant, the attraction of Chris as a commodity which is an extension fo the objectification of slavery in America. I never trusted Rose, not even from the previews, and sure enough I was right. She had a very Delilah resonance about her, and I knew she was going to betray him: that she was luring him to her family to be abused, and used for some malicious purpose. 

The fear of the outsider, and the Other is strong, and it can condition you if that is the culture – or a culture – in which you have been raised. Is that household kind and simply ignorant, or are you projecting? Or under that veneer of politeness and hospitality is there a genuine resentment, or hatred of you simply because of where you come from? Are you the friendly stranger to become potential family and are there expectations of you to bring something to the table as if you are a resource, or are you to be the Other sacrificed to maintain, or even increase the power of the group that despises you, or sees you only as that object with which they want to exploit, or be rid? Are you being treated by a host, or a potential enemy? Are you a guest or an outsider? These are ancient, human questions, and instincts. 
I’m glad I saw Get Out. And, looking back at this writing, and my attempt to explain how I relate to Chris and the soul of the film, it makes me wonder if I succeeded, or just projected my own experience in lieu of that understanding. It’s funny now, when I think about this film and how important it is, or could become. I think about how people equate the Jewish experience with whether or not someone has watched Schlinder’s List. And I wonder if, just like Dean Armitage and his vow that he would “vote for Obama a third time” if he could, if one day someone will claim to even begin to understand Black experiences and trauma because they watched films such as Roots, or Get Out itself?

Whatever the case, I wasn’t ever threatened or hurt. I definitely didn’t have someone wanting to use my body, or a cultural history of chattel slavery with which to contend. But the feeling of being isolated, being a stranger in a strange land and not knowing where I stood, but historically having negative cultural experiences howl at me from beyond the void of time, making me question if what I was feeling was valid, but ultimately wanting to at least leave the discomfort and tension of the situation  is something that I think is a human experience. And I think, at least once in our lives, especially from lived minority experiences, we’ve all felt the need to run, to get away from the stereotypes and perceived notions of others, to find our sense of people, of family again: or sense of self.

To Get Out.

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