2017 in review: Get Out, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the stories we tell ourselves
Note: this review contains spoilers.
For my reflection on the past year in cinema, I didn’t want to make a traditional Top 10 list. Any list I make would be pretty arbitrary; I didn’t see enough movies released in 2017 to judge the whole field. But I also avoided a list because when I looked back at the movies I did see, a common thread emerged. The year in movies was, for me, an exploration of the stories we tell ourselves, and what happens when it becomes apparent that those stories are not what they seem.
So many of the best movies I saw in 2017 hinge on this idea. Blade Runner 2049 followed a secret that threatened to upend the world order, as the protagonist chasing down that secret figures out his own role in the story. Lady Bird centered on a defiant high schooler trying on different personalities for size, adjusting her own personal narrative with each spurned family member, friend, or love interest.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi questioned whether the good versus evil narrative of the legendary franchise was as clear-cut as it seemed. Coco traced the journey a boy takes to prove the story his family has been telling itself for generations is incomplete. The Disaster Artist followed the making of a story, and what happens when the vision for that story clashes with reality. Even The LEGO Batman Movie follows this mold, gleefully and goofily reexamining the origin story Batman tells himself.
Amid a strong slate of movies, though, no 2017 film came close to exploring this idea in a more visceral or memorable way than Get Out. It’s entertaining, and damning, and it will likely be the movie that comes to define 2017. It’s also a tremendously layered movie, one that I’ve appreciated more every time I watch it.
Upon initial viewing, I knew Get Out was something I’d never seen before, but I also couldn’t quite generate the language to describe what that something was. Recently, though, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, a collection of essays written during the Obama years, as well as more recent reflections by Coates on those essays. The essays range from considerations of Bill Cosby’s black respectability politics to the mass incarceration of black folks to reparations. Through it all, Coates provided me the language to describe the impact Get Out delivered on screen: white supremacy is not only upheld by a system of laws and institutions, but by a powerful story we continue to tell ourselves.
Get Out is the story of a black man named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) going to his white girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents’ house for a weekend getaway. Standard unease around white people soon gives way to horror as Chris discovers the family’s true intentions: auctioning off Chris’s body to the highest bidder, in order to serve as the vessel for a white man’s mind.
Multiple viewings of Get Out bring the realization of just how meticulously crafted the deception by the Armitage family is. They use little force to entrap Chris. Instead, the Armitage family deliberately weaponizes the narrative of white innocence. Allison Williams’s indignation at her family and friends’ racism goes from being a satire of how white people find self-importance in their allyship to a demonstration of the story of white innocence can be manipulated to uphold white supremacy.
Eventually the movie turns, and the narrative the Armitages are really operating on becomes apparent. The most disturbing part, though, might not be what they do, but their awareness of its wrongness. As Coates writes: “White supremacy is a crime and a lie, but it’s also a machine that generates meaning.” Sustaining that meaning for the Armitages is more important than the enormous crime they're committing. What director Jordan Peele deftly accomplishes in this reveal in Get Out is what Coates explains his intention is in dissecting white supremacy: “...to tell my people...that they were right, that they were not crazy, that it really was all a trick.”
The Armitages aren’t the only ones living this deceptive narrative, though: they may have weaponized it, but Chris has internalized it. It’s no coincidence that Chris’s friend Rod (a very funny LilRel Howery), skeptical of going to this white family's house, remains safe the whole time; Rod doesn’t deny the threat of white supremacy. Meanwhile, Chris, under the hypnosis of Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener), says he did nothing during his mother's death because “I thought that if I did, it’d make it real.” The parallel is clear: denying the threat of white people, Chris believed, could protect him. But playing into this narrative just dooms him further. Coates senses the danger of succumbing to performative respectability, and articulates its folly:
“There is a basic assumption in this country, one black people are not immune to, which holds that if blacks comport themselves in a way that accords with middle-class values, if they are polite, educated, and virtuous, then all the fruits of America will be open to them...[this] denies the existence of racism and white supremacy as meaningful forces in American life...[and] often augments the very white supremacy it seeks to combat.”
The Sunken Place is a rich allegory for everything Get Out is driving at here: black people are forever stuck existing as a function of a narrative created by and for white people. “You’ll be able to see and hear...[but] your existence will be as a passenger, an audience,” Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), the man hoping to take Chris’s body, tells him of the Sunken Place. This purgatory is directly akin to Coates's rumination on the American black experience: “We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative.”
Kaluuya’s face in the first Sunken Place scene is one of the most striking images I’ve ever seen in a film. His expression is full of fear, but not surprise; it’s a realization that it really was all a trick.
After the full scheme of mental transplantation is laid out for Chris, he still has a question for Hudson: “Why black people?” Hudson responds with ignorance: “Who knows?...Don’t lump me in with that. I could give a shit what color you are.” The joke here is further layered by the fact that Hudson is blind. The implication is that it doesn’t matter if people say they are colorblind, as long as their actions support institutions that suppress black people. Rewatching Get Out, it seemed to me there’s a genuine chance that Rose’s father really would vote for Obama again, and that Hudson might really think he’s not a racist, even as they literally use black bodies to uphold a system of white power.
What allows them to do so is the story Hudson and Rose’s father tell themselves, that black suppression is an incidental fact to their power, and not the essential cause. “Our alienation was...produced by American design,” Coates writes. “The story...was incomplete, and this incompletion was not thoughtless but essential.”
This is why the movie’s ending is so particularly satisfying: Chris, after killing the entire Armitage family, is saved by Rod. For once, the story is one entirely of and for the black characters.
Yet the victory is a small one. Rod may declare that he has the ‘situation handled,’ but he still can’t convince the outside world of the terror Chris experienced. When he brings the case against the Armitages to the police, they laugh him away. As Coates laments: “How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you? What does the story you tell matter, if the world is set upon hearing a different one?”
The closing image we get on Chris’s face is not one of triumph, but of defeat. The illusion he had about the world around him has been shattered, and though he survived, the world at large won't listen to the story he has to tell. When the black man serving as the vessel for the mind of Rose’s grandfather briefly regains self-consciousness, he hardly hesitates before killing himself. He’d rather die than continue to exist for someone else.
One of my favorite writers, Chuck Klosterman, often likes to say that criticism is basically autobiography. I think that’s generally right, even though it’s always harder to see in one’s own writing. Perhaps a self-reflection on the stories we tell ourselves has always been in the movies, or any form of storytelling. Maybe I'm writing about it because our president’s campaign slogan was literally a call to rekindle a past that never existed, and the chaos of the past 12 months has our country questioning whether we ever knew what we were, and I just noticed it at the movies because it’s something I’ve been thinking about anyway.
But I think there’s another possibility: I noticed this theme because it arrived at the movies in such a glorious variety of iterations. It was in the biggest action movie of the year; it was in an animated movie about Mexican culture; it was in a horror-comedy about white supremacy. Perhaps I noticed because even though the idea that we should consider how the stories we tell ourselves shape the world has always been there, it’s never come from so many different perspectives.
In describing some of his ancestral heroes, such as Ida B. Wells and Margaret Garner, Coates writes:
“All of these heroes had failed to cajole and coerce the masters of America. Their ambition of a better world had been frustrated...These were not stories of hope, but were they without import? If [they] had failed to help the country at large locate its morality, they had succeeded in living by their own. And that was all they could control. Within the small and narrow frame of their own lives, all they had was their own conscience, their own story. The lessons they passed down were not about an abstract hope, an unknowable dream. They were about the power and necessity of immediate defiance.”
Get Out may not be a victorious story, but there’s no denying it is a story of immediate defiance. In a way, the same can be said of the existence of Get Out, and Lady Bird, and Coco, and The Last Jedi, and all of them at once. 2017 was important because all of these voices have a story now.
I think I’ll take that as a positive heading into 2018. The very fact of these films is an act of defiance. In 2017, it often felt like our common understanding of the truth was collapsing in real time. But if I learned anything at the movies last year, it’s that no matter how many stories we tell ourselves, for better or worse, the truth always catches up.