Celluloid Psychology – Get Out!

The satirical horror film, Get Out, is written and directed by Jordan Peele, known for his skits involving the portrayal of minority stereotypes with MADTV and the recent popular comedy series, KAY and PEELE. This film contrasts his earlier comedy works with a more serious and terrifying look into the prevalent effects of modern racism.

In an interview with Kevin McCarthy from Fox DC 5, Jordan Peele explicitly states his intention to let his audience know Get Out is directed by a black man. He wants his audience to know he intentionally layered hidden, subtle messages within the film to address how racism is not a feature of the past, but rather, an ever-present issue that is constantly skirted. That is, ignorance begets more racism and re-lived mistakes of the past. This is evident in the scene where the main character, the black man Chris meets white girlfriend Rose’s relatives at the weekend family reunion. Most members remark on how they would vote Obama for a second, third, or fourth term, and how their favourite sports players are black, etcetera. Peele says this scene depicts how most people will use popular and well known people from his race as a way of “extending an olive branch”, however, in reality, this is objectification. The premise for such action defies the point that we can all relate on the basis of being human. That is, Peele finds people try to connect with him on a racial basis first, rather than a person to person basis, signifying a discomfort with pre-perceived, latent, unidentified racial issues.

The film has its moments of satire and humor between Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his friend (Lil Rel Howery), however, the true nature of the film is horrifying, intense and suspenseful.

The story begins with Chris and Rose (Allison Williams), a young couple who embark on a trip to a remote, suburban town located outside the city to visit her parents, Missy and Dean (Catherine Keener and Bradly Whitford). At first, Chris has apprehensions of meeting Rose’s parents because he expects there could be conflicts on the basis of their interracial relationship. Despite Missy and Dean’s seemingly warm and accommodating behaviour, as the weekend visit progresses, Chris’s initial fears are realised with the progression of increasingly disturbing discoveries of Rose’s familial attitudes toward racism.

The first 15 minutes of the film give you a taste for the severity of the racial experience as you view the racial harassment of a young black man in a suburban neighbourhood, the racial profiling of Chris’s friend by an older woman, and then, at Chris’s apartment where Rose meets him, he begins asking her whether her parents are ok with him being black and their relationship being interracial. The immediate saturation of racial topics and issues in these scenes push to give the viewer a perspective, or taste of what it is like to be a part of the non-dominant, or target minority within the population. It is my opinion that the consistent topic of race is meant to initiate viewers to question whether they know how it is for someone who is black in modern society. During my second year in the Counselling Psychology program I read an article by Peggy Macintosh titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Napsack. The article revealed how many areas of life can affect a person who either fits or does not fit the prescribed dominant populace, or racial ideal. That is, white, male, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, Anglo saxon, young, and so on. Not fitting the majority of these prescribed dominant ideals means suffering the loss of privilege within Western society, despite the current paradigmatic push for pro multi-cultural values. Indeed, this is why this film is so big, as it shows the prevalence of racist values counter to the progressive multicultural movement. Racial struggles and loss of privileged rights are depicted in the symbolism used in this film to convey the disabling and complex emotions of helplessness, internal conflict, personal violation, and so on.

Our life experiences can be so powerful at times that we may experience full-on alexithymia (trouble or inability of putting our experiences into words). Indeed, this is why such artistic modes of expression exist; to portray such experiences in ways that words cannot describe. Get Out exemplifies the realities of social injustices through the art form; embedded in human nature as a universal healing method that acts as a narrative to reveal subconscious material embedded within the mind (Tan, 2012). The characters involved in this film embody the powerful struggles one may experience in a racist societal context; the white girlfriend, and her professional parents, Missy and Dean; one a neurosurgeon (Dean), the other, a psychiatrist (Missy). Both powerful, both from professions that are historically feared by many as enforcers of societal norms; i.e., if you deviate outside the norm, there is a treatment/ prescription for that. Further, such professionals tend to be blind to their privilege as Norcross and Karpiak (2012) state that the percentage of clinical psychologists who identify as part of a racial or ethnic minority group is under 10 percent. This fear of others in higher social positions dictating the criteria for normal, is a fear embodied and realised by several contemporary films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Dangerous Method, A Therapy, Side Effects, and so on. Considering that the form of art provides meaning making, and the power to express without restriction or the oppressive refutation of others (Potash, Copland, & Stepney, 2015), I argue that this piece of art provides deep insight into the horror of what it is like to experience racism through symbolic portrayals of helplessness and assigned objectification.

Symbolism of the Deer and Racist Attitudes:

Peele uses deer throughout the film to symbolize helplessness and highlight effects of racism. For example, when Chris hits a deer he feels helpless and tortures himself over it. Conversely, Rose’s parents believe the deer being hit as a victory as “Every deer I see dead on the road, I think, It’s a start.” Chris’s care for a living animal contrasts Rose’s parents? objectification of the animal as a thing. Missy and Dean’s house is full of deer decorations and parts (including a mounted head on the wall). They use the deer even though they think the deer is worthless of any subjective value. Thus, the deer represents the objectification of a living being, similar to the banish of privileges obvious behind acts of racism.

The Meaning of that Sinking Feeling and The Surgery

Peele exemplifies how traumatic racism can be in his film by using Missy and Dean as key instigators. Missy dives into Chris’s mind using involuntary hypnosis, making him paralyzed and unable to escape what seems like a dark hole in his mind (see movie to find out what it is). Dean elects to perform a different, but equally invasive act on Chris. This is poignant as these acts demonstrate the symbolic stripping of a person’s identity and personal autonomy as a human being. They treat Chris and other black people the same way they treat the deer. I never imagined how being recognized as colour-first could be so terrifying. Why? Because I do not know what it is like, since I am privileged and fit the majority of the dominant traits. Get Out discloses layers to the experience of being a racial target that cannot be put into words. They must be put into portrayals of experiences on different planes as a means of involving the viewer.

Peele’s premise as a black director is to take aim at people’s tendencies to internalize racist concepts outside of their conscious awareness (Collins & Arthur, 2010). The content in Get Out signals traumatic experiences with the goal to integrate the unsolved into the conscious awareness so that it can be rationalized and resolved (Rosen et al., 2013). This is art, this is communication on a deeper level. Overall, the film is fantastic, and provides a close-up of racism on a personal level. An essential concept gaining great exposure within our current paradigm.

Difficult experiences may be the anti-thesis to art that draw the present into the darkness (illness), while creating art extracts the darkness (illness) from the person into the present (Rosen, Matic, Mardsen, 2013).

ReferencesCollins, S., & Arthur, N. (2010). “Culturally sensitive working alliance.” In Arthur, N., & Collins, (Eds.), Culture Infused Counselling (pp. 103-138). Calgary, Alberta: Counselling Concepts.
McCarthy, Kevin. (Fox DC 5) (2017, February 17). GET OUT interviews – Jordan Peele, Allison Williams, Daniel Kaluuya. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnuSQSTHOr8&t=76s
McIntosh, Peggy. (2003). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack., In Plous, Scott (Ed). Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination, (pp. 191-196). New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill, xiii, 609 pp.Norcross, J. & Karpiak, C. (2012). Clinical psychologists in the 2010s: 50 Years of the APA Division of clinical psychology. Clinical psychology®, 19(1).Potash J.S., Copland D., Stepney C., Stella A. (2015). Advancing multicultural and diversity competence in art therapy: American art therapy association multicultural committee 1990-2015. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 32(3), 146-150. Retrieved from http://0-www.tandfonline.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/doi/abs/10.1080/07421656.2015.1060837#.Vleds3arTIURosen R. M., Matic M., Mardsen E. (2013). Adlerian art therapy with sexual abuse and assault survivors. The journal of Individual Psychology, 69(3), 223-244. Retrieved from http://0-eds.a.ebscohost.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=d74a4176-7f9b-6d0-8a2b-8e6a254dae8c%40sessionmgr4003&vid=3&hid=4205Tan, A. L. (2012). Art therapy with trafficked women. Therapy Today, 23(5), 26-31. Retrieved from http://www.therapytoday.net/article/show/3130/art-therapy-with-trafficked-women/

Melanie is a second-year Masters student studying Counselling Psychology at AU. She is fascinated by pop culture and uses a critical lens of examining its meaning in the context of modern psychology.