The liberating power of transgressive film genres

In his latest feature, Naked Reality (2016), which unfolds 150 years into the future, Cameroonian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Bekolo uses sci-fi to reimagine African potential just like he did in his 2005 film, The Bleeders (Les Saignantes). Imagination, in this context is synonymous with the ability to envision a state (in both senses of the word), where humans have learned to ask the questions that will grant us access to the limitless answers waiting to be unearthed.

Like Bekolo, the American film director Jordan Peele – in his immensely popular debut feature Get Out – also uses a transcending genre to overcome oppression and limitation. Both filmmakers seem inspired by the kind of forward-looking patriotism that Guardian columnist Gary Younge wrote in 2012: “Just as Martin Luther King’s dream was ‘deeply rooted in the American dream,’ so the African-American challenge to the national polity has long been for it to live up to its promise, rather than to live down its past.”

Get Out is the sleeper hit of 2017. It has already made US$229 million since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, encouraging countless memes and GIFs and being inserted into political debates.  And just like Key & Peele, the successful sketch comedy TV show of which Peele was part, the film tackles a nation of diversity, bigotry, contradiction and inequality.

Get Out’s protagonist Chris (played by British actor of Ugandan origin, Daniel Kaluuya, whose casting, was briefly controversial), is a young successful photographer. As the film begins, Chris is about to meet his white girlfriend’s family for the first time.  Arriving at the doorstep of Rose’s (Allison Williams) liberal wealthy parents’ secluded home, the pair does not even make it inside before things start to go as badly as Chris had feared and his TSA-agent friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) predicted.

Rose’s father – a neurosurgeon – treats Chris with awkward familiarity and swears by Barack Obama. Her mother – a psychiatrist specializing in hypnosis – is inappropriately nosy and treats the family’s black housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), with kind condescension. Both Georgina and the family’s black caretaker Walter (Marcus Henderson), distance themselves from the kind of blackness that Peele has Chris represent and instead seem insanely dedicated to Rose’s family and their version of whiteness.

As the weekend progresses, the family members’ lack of boundaries weighs increasingly heavily on Chris. The guests at an annual function, hosted by the parents during their stay, offer no relief either, as Chris is bombarded with awkward references to black celebrities and fantasies revolving around blackness, in addition to research questions aimed at pinning the entire black community down. Chris experiences one sole moment of meaningful exchange in a brief conversation with a blind art dealer, who is familiar with Chris’s artistic work and envies his gaze. When Chris decides that he has had enough, the movie takes a radical turn. Real inclinations and intentions are revealed, with dire consequences.

Get Out unfolds in a suspenseful twilight zone between Obama and Donald Trump’s Americas, whose major difference lies in which self-image to project. This zone is one of hypocrisy, lies and arrogance, but also of lucidity, solidarity and a heightened vision of community and justice. The potential for both great comedy and horror, needless to say, is colossal.

If Peele pulled a winning ticket in terms of the timing of his first film, he gives back in the form of a masterful and topical horror movie. With a remarkable cocktail of terror and delight, he also offers stress-release through a film peppered with old-school horror elements.

It is precisely the liberating potential of these transgressive genres – comedy and horror – which makes Get Out outstanding. Peele’s sharp contemporary analysis helps too.

Like a balloon bending clown at a children’s party, the director tweaks and plays around with everyday situations and concepts like assimilation, appropriation, wokeness and respectability. Get Out unfolds at a level where those who believe that they are down with contemporary culture, popular-sociology and psychology, still are likely to be caught off guard by the film’s nuances and sudden twists. What is more, in a time when self-righteousness is rife, it is liberating that none of the film’s characters are immune to inconsistency or self-deception.

The hero and sympathetic underdog Chris makes a good living from producing the kind of raw artistic documentary photography in urban settings, which tend to speak to the tastes and prejudices and fantasies of the wealthy. And Chris, who seems to have undertaken a class-journey, enjoys the perks of the same gentrification process, which forces others to leave their homes. Dating Rose seems part of Chris’s aspirational project, even if not consciously. Rod, in this context, is not just Chris’s ally or a mere horror film device. He is also a clear-sighted and frank guide for viewers witnessing Chris’s journey down the rabbit hole. There, at the Sunken Place as Peele calls it, the director invites us to explore Chris’ role as a passive observer and accomplice, and if we are up to it, our own too.

Rod is not immune to the lure of respectability either, as he keeps referring to the kinship between TSA agents and detectives, who in his view are both guardians of safety and security. Never mind the fact, which Get Out also alludes to, that one of the most dangerous situations a black person in the United States can be subjected to, is standing face-to-face with armed police.

Girlfriend Rose’s uber-confident approach to life is an unequivocal illustration of unconscious privilege, including the freedom from fear. Similarly, the rest of her family and the guests at the party serve as textbook-examples of the same bold claims to right of interpretation, freedom of movement and total control. There is also the possibility, however, that what comes across as supremacy instead are strategies to conceal and overcome fears, inadequacy and impotence, partly caused by unearned privilege and historically unsettled bills.

Get Out belongs to the same tradition, which has seen several versions of Stepford Wives and Frankenstein-depictions too. Both tales deal with the kind of social engineering and interventions aimed at enhancing society and humankind, such as free dental care and education, but also of sterilization and lobotomy programs. Each era has its own ideals and definitions of improvement. It is an essentialist and elitist view of human kind, which allows for both glorification and contempt, that sets the agenda in Get Out.

More broadly, the film can be seen in light of the Afrofuturism genre, to which many count the author Octavia Butler, which in short, offers physical and mental liberation through supernatural or non-realistic means. In John Sayle’s film, The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Joe Morton finds refuge from slavery at home on planet Earth. Although his life in New York is far from perfect, Harlem becomes the place where he can live up to his full potential. Afrofuturism thus offers an arena for emancipation, without the restrictions imposed by physical laws and human capacity. The disadvantage is that those seeking to enslave and repress based on race in the case of Sayle and both race and gender in the case of Butler, play by the same rules.

And where Peele focuses on the U.S., Bekolo’s sharp and unmitigated critique is not limited by national borders, but extends to leaders (and followers) whose words and actions hinder African development and self-realization.

The splatter scene in Get Out, in addition to fulfilling the requirements of the genre, serves the same purpose as Obama’s anger-translator in Key & Peele’s recurring sketch; to free up the physical and mental space needed to reimagine the world and our role in it, as well as enabling the entirely or partly subdued to reach our fullest potential.

Similarly, answers awaiting questions, dreams waiting to be released and potential to unleash are recurring themes in Bekolo’s oeuvre as a filmmaker, author, social commentator and provocateur. It is only natural then that Bekolo turns to sci-fi and the supernatural to bypass natural obstacles such as budgets, state repression and centuries of still ongoing Afrophobic bullying. And it makes sense that Peele, whether or not he has watched or read Octavia Butler and Jean-Pierre Bekolo, does the same in Hollywood.

* This is an edited version of an article that was first published online in Swedish by the Swedish film journal, FLM.

Katarina Hedrén

Katarina Hedrén, based in Johannesburg, writes about film for Africa is a Country.

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