Get Out: Dis-Belonging & The Horrors of Racism
Death by Hanging (1898), is an anthropological film that depicts the actual hooding, hanging, and death of a Black man hung in Florida. According to Professor Robin Means Coleman author of Horror Noir (2011), Death by Hanging (1898) marks the beginning of a semiotic relationship between the cinematic genre of horror & Race.
AMB Picture Catalogue (1902) provided the following detailed description of the film Death by Hanging (1898):
[...] probably the only moving picture that was ever made of a genuine hanging scene. It was taken in the court yard of the Jacksonville jail, and shows the execution of a man. The man is seen mounting the platform accompanied by several clergymen. The executioner adjusts the black cap and the noose about the prisoner's neck. The trap is touched and the body is seen to shoot through the air, and hang quivering at the end of the rope. A very ghastly, but very interesting subject.""the only moving picture that was ever made of a genuine hanging scene. It was taken in the court yard of the Jacksonville jail, and shows the execution of a man. The man is seen mounting the platform accompanied by several clergymen. The executioner adjusts the black cap and the noose about the prisoner's neck. The trap is touched and the body is seen to shoot through the air, and hang quivering at the end of the rope. A very ghastly, but very interesting subject."
Death by Hanging (1898) is especially eerie because it provides no context for the hanging. No mention of the crime committed. No indications of humanity, but rather presents the violent act in anthropological form.
Similarly, Birth of a Nation (1915) told the story of the rise of the Klu Klux Klan in defense of the idealized white woman, produced some of the earliest anxieties around Black man. Think "super predator." The so-called fear of Black men's obsession with white women has set the standard for race in film and filmmaking for times to come. Neither Death by Hanging nor Birth of a Nation are traditionally considered "horror" films. Yet both speak to the semiosis between race and horror.
Horror has traditionally mirrored the anxieties and fears of a society. Horror films typically feature white actors and presume white audiences. A handful of directors are attempting to address issues of race and sexuality, and the exploitative power that horror movies have. Many Native American and African American directors/screenwriters and actors have begun to use the horror genre to bring issues of racism and violence to audiences. Using the symbolic and graphic nature of the films, they can express their views and issues uncensored, and break through the white-centric audience to depict a more real, diverse world.
In the movie "Get Out" a young Black man is kidnapped by white body snatchers who want to steal his "eyes." Eyes are central in western visual culture and lore (Jenks, C. 1995). The protagonist's way of seeing or perception of the world is considered novel. The body snatchers want to inhabit his body and way of being in the world, they want to literally embody him. The metaphor of body theft works allegorically on the level of those who subscribe to the notion of cultural appropriation but also translates to the literal traditional understanding of bodies being extracted and displaced via slavery, colonialism etc. Horror as a choice genre to represent racial dynamics is not new but has been used to provide the freedom to play out certain realities for mainstream audiences.Horror as a category makes the allegorical components more palpable to a wider audience. The genre allows us to critically engage with a difficult topic. The film presents a perspective nearly never presented in mainstream construction of white femininity and presents a caricature of white neoliberal liberal racism for example the bit about"voting for Obama for a third term."
Films tend to polarize racism when addressed directly, which doesn't occur often (See history of mainstream films that deal with race). From Gone with the Wind, to To Kill a Mockingbird or the more contemporary A Time to Kill, grapple with race in traditional ways relying on traditional narratives that are extreme. Whites are saviors or Klansmen. "Get Out"presents a more nuanced portrait of whiteness in general. It critiques neo-liberal whiteness but presents it using main-stream formula. the film presents a narrative that rarely occurs in mainstream cinema. "
How far did "Get Out" actually bend the mold. Think about it, the film begins with the violent abduction of a black character which can safely presume dead stays with the cliche of the black character dying first. Also the comic relief black character remained in tact, this time as a TSA officer, a diminutive of actual police officers which the film enacts when the cops laugh him to scorn. Still given the tradition of horror & race relying on the fears and anxieties of predominately white audiences, and the fact that the film maintains many of the troupes of horror, it begs the question what was the true horror? What could be more scary than a black man who escapes real or symbolic punishment and survive?!? Whose nightmare could very well depend on the audience. AHHHHHH! Scary!
Jenks, C. (1995). The Centrality of the eye in Western culture: An Introduction - in - Visual culture. London, Routledge. ISBN-100415106222
Means Coleman, Robin R. Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. New York: Routledge, 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
NPR Staff (2017). The horror, the horror: "Get Out" And the place of race in scary movies. The Code Switch Podcast. February 23, 201710:15 AM. http://n.pr/2nkfYoP