Catherine Peng

Warning: Contains spoilers for “Get Out”

Your skin is not black, but you don’t mind if the skin of others is. You watch “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s debut horror-satire film, and arrive at its scariest moment: the final scene. Chris, the African American man played by Daniel Kaluuya, has killed almost all of the monstrous occupants of the Armitage household and has nearly escaped. He’s finishing the last one: Rose Armitage, his girlfriend before she revealed her thorns. And that’s when the harsh blue and red lights flash, illuminating the bloodstained black hands wrapped around the white throat. Chris staggers as he stands, arms raised in nonaggression, but as Rose weakly, deviously, calls for help, you know in your heart that it’s over. Help is here.

To understand how Peele gets us to this climactic scene, let’s rewind. “Get Out,” a movie that fuses horror and comedy in the service of racial commentary, is upfront with you, even aggressive, about the politically charged nature of its content. “Do [your parents] know that I’m black?” Chris asks his girlfriend in one of the movie’s first lines of dialogue, and for every frame afterwards you cannot help but be painfully conscious of the sharp contrast between Chris’s pitch-black skin and the blinding sea of whiteness around him, just as he must be.

It would be uncontroversial to say that the villains of “Get Out” are white people. The movie doesn’t do anything as nonsensical as suggesting that all white people are evil; rather, it simply seeks to dismantle the fantasy, perpetuated and believed by many after Obama, of a post-racial America. Fittingly, then, what is so unsettling about the white villains of “Get Out” is that their villainy is disturbingly plausible. They are not cross-bearing members of the KKK or gun-toting rednecks, crass caricatures that you can safely dismiss as laughable relics of a bygone era far removed from yourself. They are wealthy liberals cognizant of their own whiteness, the kind who believe that proclaiming their love for Obama evidences their progressive credentials. These whites, far from being repulsed by blacks, find them fascinating. The white guests at the Armitage house party openly objectify and fetishize Chris’ body, alluding to tired stereotypes of black physical strength and sexual vitality. They dehumanize Chris by reducing him to a set of desirable genetic traits. Peele plays these moments of absurd ignorance for laughs, inducing a cognitive dissonance between the ridiculous content and its gruesome implications. The comedic becomes the horrific and the horrific the comedic. The racism of the white guests cannot be easily dismissed because it appears in the guise of well-meaning open-mindedness. Their bigotry appears obvious to you, but your nervous laughter betrays your uncomfortable awareness that these can be people you know. They can be people you are close to. They can be you.

“Get Out” furthers this basic notion by casting one of its most progressive characters as one of its worst villains. After enduring increasingly nauseating microaggressions at the Armitage’s party, Chris encounters Jim Hudson, a blind white art dealer who decries and mocks the racial insensitivity of the other party guests. Hudson converses with Chris as though he were a normal human being, and so, like Chris, we come to trust him. But Hudson’s acceptance is eventually exposed as a sham, because it is he who bids the highest at the auction selling Chris’s body, and it is he who will possess it. Confronted with this stranger’s betrayal, Chris can only ask, broken, the question that haunts every scene of the film: “Why black people?” Hudson’s chilling response, that he doesn’t care about the race of the victim, only the vitality of the eyes, exposes the devastating hollowness of his racial acceptance. Hudson’s rejection of racism in principle is rendered meaningless by his willingness to not only accept the existence of a racially oppressive system, but to in fact profit from it. His (literal) colorblindness does not free him from complicity in the exploitation of black bodies for white benefit, it implicates him. In other words, Hudson’s indifference to race is itself racist. The hypocrisy of his egalitarianism uncovers a scary truth: that the expressions of prejudice that most potently perpetuate systemic racial oppression are often the most seemingly innocuous. Do you, too, in your self-assured enlightenment, believe yourself above race?

Peele immerses you so deeply in Chris’s agonized perspective that by the time you arrive at that climactic scene, with his raised hands lit blue and red as he stands amidst bloodied corpses, you know what will happen next. You’ve read about it, rationalized it, dissected it from afar, and yet now, for a few heart-stopping moments, you finally begin to feel the barest semblance of the cold fear that men like Chris live with every day. You begin to understand what it means to curse, not cheer, the arrival of those flashing patriotic colors. “Get Out,” in many ways, exists to bring you to that single moment of visceral despair. And when Chris’s friend Rod finally emerges from the vehicle, his skin safely black, you sigh in relief, because you know that Chris, miraculously, will survive. And he must survive this encounter, because as much as “Get Out” is about black subjugation, it’s more importantly about black agency. So Chris lives. But that survival is not enough to erase those three seconds of horror at the inevitability of Chris’s fate.

That is the true terror of “Get Out.” Its brain implantations and bodily possessions may not be literally real. But the exploitation that they represent, and the virulent racism that enables its existence, most certainly is. In the final minute of his film, Peele forces you to acknowledge that basic fact by suddenly transporting you from the realm of allegorical fiction to a scene that plays out, that has never stopped playing out, all over the country. The ultimately happy ending, ironically, is a fantasy that only serves to remind you of the bleak reality of racial America.