[This post contains spoilers.]
In America, my body does not belong to me. This is the message that Jordan Peele's electrifying horror film Get Out has for black men. Written and directed by Peele, it mines a potentially horrifying event: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who is black, accompanies his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to her parents' home for the weekend — a benign enough event on its own, until the film spins it into a chilling Twilight Zone-esque horror show.
In horror, black men traditionally possess one of two roles: a first-act victim or the comic relief that provides running commentary on how black people don't go upstairs and investigate a scary noise, they run out the house, or some other variation on the white people are dumb and get killed joke. (Those black men invariably get killed themselves — and usually first — before the movie is over). But in a real world where black men can be killed for selling untaxed cigarettes, wearing a hoodie, or just driving, it’s trivial to have a black character as the fourth wall–breaking narrator of a horror film. America in itself is a horror film for black men, and there are no rules you can follow or learn from watching '80s slasher films on VHS that will make sure you see the next morning. And so Chris finds himself not the sidekick, but the doomed protagonist under attack in an all-white suburb from his girlfriend's family, their neighbors, and even the black domestic staff. But beyond Chris and the horrors he suffers, the film depicts the emotional and physical toll that racism has on the American black body.
I first became aware of how useful my black body was when I was the only black student in an all-male prep school English-literature class that was assigned Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. In the book, the nameless protagonist is blindfolded along with several other young black men who are forced to fight each other in a boxing match. After the conclusion of the match, the black men retrieve their payment — fake coins littered across a carpet that electrocutes them when they touch it. The scene is horrifying, but it is a stark reminder that black men in America existed for the pleasure of white men. Whether it was to fetch cotton on a plantation or to fight one another to the death, every muscle in a black man’s body was a tool to be used for his own destruction. In Get Out, Chris realizes that Rose's parents sell black men to the highest bidder in their caucasian suburb because the neighbors admire the skill and bodies of black men. Jesse Owens beating Rose's grandfather out for the opportunity to race in the 1936 Olympics is cleverly chosen as the catalyst for this particular ritual — and what's better than sports to supply an analogy to how black bodies provide pleasure to white spectators, with basketball players who are traded to the highest-bidding team and even America's greatest athlete, Serena Williams, being constantly subjected to discourse on her own body?
How could Peele ever hope to write a horror film that could scare black audiences when we're all too aware how our bodies are in a constant game of Hitchcockian suspense with the elements of the real world? Where our bodies are analyzed, our celebratory dabbing criticized, and our kneeling before a flag creates a national uproar? It was simple for Peele, I learned, when I witnessed how deftly Get Out mines the conventions of horror's body politics.
Body horror is a subgenre that encompasses gross-out tactics, whether it’s a transformation into a fly (The Fly) or having your body sewn to someone else's (The Human Centipede). But the term is a bit of a misnomer, considering that horror's very roots come from the politics of the human body. Back when Bela Lugosi portrayed Dracula preying on his victims, the tactics of horror involved the fear that a monster might use your own body against you by turning you into a bloodsucking creature of the night yourself. Night of the Living Dead robbed men and women of their peaceful afterlives, turning them into zombies.
And then there's the slasher genre, described by writer and horror master Kevin Williamson in Scream 2 (via the voice of Jada Pinkett Smith's Maureen Evans) as "some dumbass white girls getting their white asses cut the fuck up." The horror genre is famous for its misogyny, and films often involve attractive white women (and their black best friends) getting hacked to pieces. As an audience, some women have found it more than a little disconcerting that an entire genre is largely devoted to using their bodies as entertainment.
One pivotal film in horror is Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. In the film, Mia Farrow plays a woman who has been raped and impregnated by Satan, with her own husband's collusion. It was this film in particular that came to mind during the scenes where Chris discovered his body wasn't being used for its sheer strength or attractiveness, but that so a blind man could have his brain transplanted into Chris's head. His literal body was to be invaded, making him a host for nefarious purposes no different than when Farrow's body was violated by the devil himself. That the outcome of Rosemary's Baby differs greatly from that of Get Out shouldn't be surprising. Polanski is, for one thing, a convicted rapist who has violated women's bodies before, and also, he wasn't telling the story of his own body.
When men do find themselves stripped of the body's autonomy, it's often played for laughs, like the opening of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, where a hot teenage boy heir falls to his death trying to impress a girl, or in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, where a teenage boy is possessed by Freddy Krueger and it's used as a hamfisted metaphor for homosexuality: Losing control of your body is like craving dick! In An American Werewolf in London, a John Landis horror-comedy, Landis sends up the idea of a boy being turned into a werewolf, but never once do you feel truly horrified for the protagonist. Landis kills him off in the end because it's still a fantasy for white men to be the victims of society's violence. There's no urgency in protecting the young man afflicted with lycanthropy because white teenage boys who watch it won't see it as an allegory for real-life horror that creeps into your life — here, it's just a movie.
Peele uses Get Out to take control of black bodies and give black men in the audience an allegory that they've craved in horror for decades. In the final moments of the film, once Chris has come out the other side of the carnage, a police car arrives. A director unfamiliar with living in a black body might have gone a darker route and given Chris a new adversary, a white police officer who misinterprets the events of the film. But Peele has lived in his body long enough to want a fantasy, a morality tale of sorts with a hopeful outcome. The police car is Chris's cavalry, because a black man is in it and not a white man. In the real world, our bodies might not be our own, but in Get Out, they're our greatest tools for survival.