“Get Out” and the death of White racial innocence
In the New Yorker Rich Benjamin reviews a couple of movies:
As “Get Out” climbs above the hundred-million-dollar mark at the box office and starts to open around the world, I keep thinking of my original viewing of the film, in downtown Brooklyn, where I could count all the white people in the large movie theatre on one hand. When Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), the good-looking, amiable black protagonist of the movie, stabs a white woman to death, impales a preppy white man with the antlers of a steer, and watches idly as a white woman is gunned down on the road, the black audience cheered and burst into gales of howling laughter. Jordan Peele’s début film was already on its way to becoming a social phenomenon, one-upping his “Key & Peele” TV antics and speaking uniquely to the country’s sour racial mood. While black and brown youth flock to megaplexes to see “Get Out,” the blue-state bourgeoisie flow to art houses to see Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which channels the writing of James Baldwin. Predictably, the two films are rarely playing in the same venue. But one cannot help but compare the zany satiric bite of “Get Out” with the resonant intelligence of Baldwin in “I Am Not Your Negro.” Both of these films, in their different ways, mock and cheer the death of white racial innocence.
In “Get Out,” we watch as Chris agrees, with skepticism, to drive from the city with Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), his cheery, can-do white girlfriend, to visit her liberal family at their manicured, utopian estate in the country. As they pack for the weekend, Chris asks his lover, “Do your parents know I’m black?” “Should they?” Rose says, taken aback, eyes beaming bewilderment and hurt. “I Am Not Your Negro” opens, too, with a spirited display of white racial innocence. A young Dick Cavett hosts James Baldwin on his popular talk show, in 1968, and stammers, “Why aren’t the Negroes getting more optimistic?” Cavett’s chaste, bright eyes blink sadly as he struggles to phrase his rather basic question. Baldwin’s response elegantly rips into America for not being able to confront the language of racism, to say nothing of the fact of it. “White people are astounded by Birmingham. Black people aren’t,” Baldwin says. “They are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars.”
“I’m terrified at the moral apathy—the death of the heart—which is happening in my country,” Baldwin adds later. In his mordant telling, Americans are consumer zombies struck by an “emotional poverty so bottomless and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life. This failure of the private life has always had the most devastating effect on American public conduct and on black-white relations. If [white] Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have become so dependent on what they call the Negro Problem.” Secluded in splendor, the Armitages, too, harbor desolate private struggles that lead them to inflict external racial terror.
Peck’s documentary attempts to depict the thirty-page manuscript that Baldwin never finished: the personal, visionary account of the truncated lives of three of his close friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Decades after the deaths of these leaders, the white show of naïveté they sought to unmask is as grotesque as ever. “But how can this happen?” the white liberal asks, when a barrage of digital footage—Walter and Freddie and Tamir and Alton and Laquan—made his country’s systematic brutality no longer deniable. “But how can this happen?” the white liberal asks, upon learning that Donald Trump carried virtually every demographic of white person, running the campaign that he ran.
White racial innocence meanders across time and political context. White blindness, as Baldwin saw it, crafted the social illusion that blacks have no reasons for being bitter. This era was followed by one in which whites would giddily talk up a color-blind America. They would avoid discussing race out of a sincere ethical desire to wash the stain of racial differentiation from our nation. These types saw (and still see) themselves as Reverend King’s disciples; they prefer color-blind conversations, policies, and Supreme Court Justices. Other color-blind acolytes, however, dismiss racial debate as a distraction from real issues, such as unemployment, “broken borders,” “law and order,” and “voter fraud.” All lives matter. And, most recently, we’ve witnessed the delusion of those whites who fancy themselves and the country as post-racial: there has been a sea change in racial attitudes, thanks to President Obama’s tenure, and we are going to bury racism in a dustbin, and racial identity and distinctions have become passé.
No longer. When even George W. Bush, of the disastrous Katrina response, bemoans the racial tension inflamed by the Trump Presidency, something is afoot. “Yes, I don’t like the racism, and I don’t like the name-calling, and I don’t like people feeling alienated,” Bush said recently. We’ve begun to witness, over the last eighteen months, the shell of white racial innocence crack. Lately, so much polite and impolite racism has been seen and heard, in such a way that you can’t un-ring a bell.
Baldwin could have been speaking today when he said that whites are cruelly trapped between what they might like to be and what they actually are. That moment of understanding, the very instance when whites acknowledge the blunt truths that make their innocence no longer cute, let alone plausible, is what delivers profound horror—or sidesplitting laughs—in a movie as sharp as “Get Out.” . . .