This post contains major spoilers for Get Out.
In a particularly cringy sequence midway through Get Out, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is wandering through a very white lawn party, made even paler by an overcast sky. As one of the only black people at the party he is treated with superficial politeness, but also arm’s-length objectification. A bored housewife feels up his muscles as if he were a piece of furniture. One man makes the trenchant observation that “black is cool now.”
In the moment it seems like merely a tone-deaf throwaway line, but it ends up being the hook from which the entire nightmare hangs. Contrary to what the film’s trailers and posters seem to be hinting at, the nice white people of Get Out don’t want to drive black people out, or kill them per se. Instead, they’ve cooked up a complicated and very bloody form of racial vampirism, stealing black bodies for their own souls to live in. They love black people, they insist. Black people are so good at stuff. Black people are so cool.
There’s never been a more appropriate film to be released over Oscar weekend, the pinnacle and grand finale of awards season. Awards season is a time for everyone to fret about liberal Hollywood elites, especially liberal Hollywood elites themselves. It’s a time to give the world a picture of the entertainment industry that is diverse and inclusive and thinks that slavery and segregation was just a shame. This year particularly, it’s a time for everyone to pat each other on the backs and congratulate ourselves that the Oscars or the Globes or the SAGs are no longer #SoWhite. And most important, it’s a time to give lots of stage time and verbal compliments to people of color before handing the trophies to white people.
This past week, The New Yorker’s Oscar week cover depicted the face of a golden statuette, now rendered in warm pastels with a broad nose and full red lips. Titled “#OscarsNotSoWhite,” it’s meant to reflect a record-breaking year for black nominees. In the past, this sort of effort to look past deeply ingrained industry prejudices tends to only affect the acting categories, where Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis are widely expected to take home trophies this year. But to the Academy’s credit, it recognized excellent, highly deserving nominees of color in its below-the-line categories as well, including Arrival cinematographer Bradford Young and Moonlight editor Joi McMillon, both of whose work is indispensable to the success of their films. The Academy was also able to look past the plantation as a setting for an awards-worthy black narrative. (It was close, though — Birth of a Nation felt like a sure thing until public outcry over Nate Parker’s rape allegations sank his chances, in a campaign largely spearheaded by women of color.) But the Academy’s definition of “not white” still mostly means “black,” and many of those black nominees, rather than enjoying the honor of taking home an actual award, get the silver medal: the opportunity to absolve decades of Hollywood guilt.
Nominations can be incredibly meaningful even if they don’t lead to a statuette, and visibility is valuable in ways that can’t be quantified by box office numbers or trophy counts. But such gestures benefit more than just the honoree, and that exact dynamic is what Peele is scratching at like an infected bug bite. In Get Out, the joke, if it can be called that, is that its kindly white characters are so anxious to be absolved of their guilt that they end up abducting and essentially erasing black people in order to feel better about themselves. (Even when he’s about to steal Chris’s body, one of them assures his victim he’s not like all those other white people.) It’s a chilling logical extension of the kind of unspoken double standard that still dominates Hollywood. It feels so good and non-racist to demonstrate your appreciation for black excellence; why not cut out the middleman and embody black excellence yourself? If white people were black, wouldn’t that just fix everything?
The music industry experiences this more acutely than any other arts community, because the music industry markets soul in a much more undiluted way. Who knows why the Recording Academy decided to give their top honor to Adele’s 25, when Beyoncé’s Lemonade culturally and artistically dominated the entirety of 2016 (it’s probably the racism). It ended up working out fine for them; they got all the benefits of bringing the Queen out for the show, giving us a formidable wall of black women as a powerful statement in our dark political days, while still maintaining the status quo. Isn’t Beyoncé great? the Grammys telecast asked. It’s a shame she’s so Urban Contemporary.
In Get Out, Chris’s talent is photography. We see some of his work at the beginning of the film; black inner-city life is his primary subject, shot in stark black-and-white. At one point in the film, a white gallerist rhapsodizes about the emotionality of his images and his unique perspective. Chris’s talent is recognized by white gatekeepers, but rather than lifting him up to fame and accolades, it makes him a target. Not for lynch mobs, but for the very people who covet his experience and soul. Peele’s film is unsparing in its dissection of this uncomfortable “post-racial” fetishization, and by the film’s electrifying closing, the problem seems intractable. It will stick with you, as you binge on Oscar prediction posts and podcasts. It will stick with you as you tune into the red carpet and hear all those liberal Hollywood elites praise the boundary-breaking work in Moonlight and Hidden Figures. And it will stick with you as La La Land sweeps the whole thing.