Thursday, March 9, 2017

Being John Mal... colm X: a Get Out Review

It used to be (and maybe still is) that you could drive critics wild by breaking the fourth wall, especially when lecturing, confronting or otherwise upsetting an audience of bourgeois white people. Hence the critical adulation heaped on Woody Allen and Spike Lee early in their careers: a Jew and a black man busting through stifling conventions and shaking up the white folk. I've never been that impressed - dropping the pretense of storytelling to lecture the audience always struck me as a self-indulgent temptation to resist, not a bold innovation to be emulated.

It is breaking the first wall, the one hiding the writer from the actors and the audience, that I've always found more challenging and more rewarding. Charlie Kaufman is the greatest practitioner of this art, rerouting the shallow and endlessly verbose asides of Woody Allen into outrageously deep and wildly unpredictable plunges into his own psyche. Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich go boldly where no neurotic Jewish filmmaker had gone before.

For a few moments in his just-released Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele approaches doing for Spike Lee what Kaufman did for Allen, exploring the wild twists and turns of his own grievances and paranoia instead of just rehearsing stale riffs on racial and social problems. Some of this seems to be conscious - while Peele attributes much of his inspiration to novelist Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives), his use of the head portal mechanic from Being John Malkovich and casting of Malkovich star Catherine Keener suggest a significant Kaufman influence.

Unfortunately Peele stops well short of Kaufman's extraordinary self-awareness, blinkering his self-reflexive journey to avoid any serious (or even satiric) self-analysis. The result is an initially tantalizing, unpredictable thrill ride that ultimately devolves into a more sophisticated version of The Purge series' unhinged anti-white propaganda with a hefty dose of black chauvinism. While predictably raking in the raves and the bucks, it utterly fails to fulfill its considerable potential.

Before launching into the relevant elements of the movie, it's important to understand some key facts about Peele. While he rose to prominence as a capital B Black sketch comic, with viral hits from Barack Obama and MLK impersonations, his upbringing suggests an almost total assimilation into white liberal culture. His father was black but out of the picture from early on, so Peele was raised by his white mother in Manhattan, a few blocks from the SNL studio. Upon graduating high school he went to a fancy-schmancy white liberal haven, Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied puppetry (in addition to being the whitest profession imaginable, puppetry was also the trade of Being John Malkovich's hero) and roomed with a white Jewish lesbian. He married a white woman, fellow NYC-based comic Chelsea Peretti (who actually beat Peele to the satiric punch on white liberal racism with her BlackPeopleLoveUs website in 2002).

A Kaufman-style deep dive into the actual Peele's search for a black or white identity would have been fascinating. Get Out's premise flirts with delivering on that potential, setting up numerous parallels with Peele's own situation. Like Peele, Get Out's protagonist, Chris, is a successful black artist in New York City, in a serious relationship with a white girl, Rose (who bears a very slight resemblance to Peele's wife). Like Peele, Chris' father was out of the picture early.

But the similarities stop abruptly thereafter as Peele builds a wall around Chris' black identity. In addition to casting blacker-than-anybody 2nd generation Ugandan immigrant Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, Peele makes heavy use of best friend/comic relief Rod as an ever-present voice for urban black America, always ready and eager to reaffirm Chris' black cultural identity. Chris also seems terrified of white people, dragging his feet over meeting Rose's white family, and openly expressing his discomfort at being surrounded by white people. None of this rings true for Peele; to the contrary, one of Peele's funnier bits is playing off his racial anxiety over sounding too white.

Peele also hamstrings all ambassadors for the white cultural identity after a promising beginning. Rose initially serves as a rival to Rod, pulling Chris into white-world as Rod chirps in warning, Jiminy Cricket style. She pokes and prods at his insecurities, reframing his Rod-fueled paranoia as a silly streak of narcissism. This playful flitting between indulging paranoia and exposing narcissism is Get Out at its unpredictable best, but Peele is too eager to throw all of his weight behind the paranoia to force Chris deeper into his blackness.

Shirking ambiguity and exploration, Peele barrels into outright propaganda, gearing all the story mechanics to validate Rod's essentially anti-assimilation, anti-miscegenation views on race. Not only is Rose ultimately revealed as a malevolent honey trap, every white character in the story is in on the predatory scheme. When they speak of Chris joining the family, they are speaking only of his body. After Rose disarms his insecurities, her uber-ginger, UFC-obsessed brother will physically subdue him, after which her neurosurgeon dad will implant a white consciousness over the black consciousness suppressed by her hypnotist mom. When things get really hairy, Rose can call in her mind-controlled black servants - actually just hosts for the transplanted minds of her grandparents (you'd think the extended family would have included an Uncle Tom too, but no) - to help her out.

The inherent evil of the whites obviously nips any identity search for Chris in the bud. His new mission is to Get Out at any cost and liberate as many blacks from white culture as he can. The metaphors along the way are so cheerfully on-the-nose as to be parody. As Steve Sailer points out, the uber-ginger's unlikely weapon of choice is a lacrosse stick, a likely allusion to the Duke lacrosse hate crime hoax. His stalking and kidnapping of a young black guy lost in the suburbs is also a blatant shout-out to the Trayvon Martin killing.

Meanwhile, Chris' only means of waking up brainwashed blacks is getting them with the flash from his camera - how else is a filmmaker gonna wake up the people? He's able to escape imprisonment and prevent his own brainwashing by literally picking cotton to stuff in his ears. After impaling the great white hunter via deer antlers and killing the rest of the family, Chris even gets a chance to choke out Rose, Othello-Desdemona style.

This gleeful use of over-the-top symbolism, allusion and cliche while taking the easy way out of an existential crisis closely resembles Kaufman's self-parodying conclusion to Adaptation, when he gives up on his lofty ambitions for the story and lets his idiot twin finish off the script as an absurd thriller. But Peele's extensive public statements about the movie, unless he's playing extremely coy, show none of this self-awareness. As he related in one interview:
"Ultimately, the movie ends up talking about the exotification and the love of the black body and culture. It’s just as twisted a form of racism as the darker, more violent forms of racism. It’s all a piece of the same thing…It’s really meant to point out that any time we see color first or we categorize one another as a race, we’ve already lost an important part of what being human should be."
This is self-evident nonsense: the movie does no such thing. To the contrary, the ultimate danger to Chris is his de-exotification, where his distinctly black identity is swallowed up by ultra-bland whiteness. Throughout the movie the "important part of what being human should be" that has been lost is cultural distinctness. It is the utter lack of cultural blackness that Chris finds disturbing about the brainwashed black people. They talk and dress like old white people, they don't recognize his black solidarity cues and they are way too comfortable hanging out with a bunch of rich whites.

True, Peele takes every opportunity to lampoon white liberals for "exotifying" blacks, literally transforming the adoring pedestal into a platform for a slave auction, but little to none of that satiric bite remains for rampant self-exotification and racial categorization among blacks. Their paranoia is validated on every front as is their narcissism. Whites really are out to get them. They want them for their genetic make-up, their sexual performance, their muscles, their cultural cachet, even their eye for art. The conspiracy-theorizing, self-aggrandizing Rod often sets himself up as the butt of the joke, but ends up as the vindicated hero. Instead of the anti-exotification/categorization movie Peele claims he's made, we end up with a slick, witty repackaging of evil white-wing conspiracy plot of The Purge coupled with a light-hearted but still earnest pitch for the black nationalism touted by John Singleton in Boyz n the Hood.

From his own statement about what he thinks Get Out is saying and the ample parallels to his own life, it seems that Peele set out to fall on a double-edged satire, playing on the legitimate and illegitimate fears of a biracial man meeting the parents of his white girlfriend, and facing the prospect of total white assimilation. And yet he ended up with a bloody revenge fantasy, leaving this alternate universe covered in the blood of his own would-be white in-laws and girlfriend and walking into a big "I told you so" from his anti-miscegenation friend.

By Peele's own standards then, Get Out, for all its critical acclaim and box office success, is a catastrophic failure. Ostensibly digging into sensitive territory in hopes of finding a post-racial identity, Peele completely failed to penetrate even the flimsiest of racial barriers. And instead of owning and humanizing that failure, as Kaufman does so effectively in Adaptation, Peele surrenders to the most immature and irresponsible impulses triggered by the subject matter.