So when I went to see Get Out in theaters recently, with its central narrative of race-based body-and-brain-snatching, I couldn't resist reading zombies into it. Between writer and director Jordan Peele's chilling interpretation of the living dead, and his move to open and close the film with a hushed chorus sung in Swahili, I was stunned. All throughout the film my mind was completely blown by its twisting plot line, but even more so because of my expertise in Swahili, and continued research and teaching on discourses of zombies and survival horror across the African Diaspora.
As Get Out unfolds, Peele's Black male protagonist pays homage to the groundbreaking narratives of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). However, Get Out goes beyond these earlier films to offer additionally complex critiques on gender and interracial relationships, and the merit of competing discourses of survival when zombies are afoot. Get Out also harbors an important commentary on the power of communication, and above all else, the extreme costs of a failure to listen.
With a promise to keep spoilers to a minimum, here are 5 reasons why the horrors of Get Out are a particularly apt vehicle for exploring discourses of exploitation, betrayal, and survival in today's America...
1. Racism Has Long Created Dystopia.
That race is both an absolute criterion and arbitrary biological distinction sealing Chris' fate, surfaces as a salient analog for the enduring paradox of America's doublespeak surrounding race as a construct that both matters and doesn't matter. In a contemporary reality plagued by legacies of racial stereotyping and residential segregation, Chris' interracial relationship can be celebrated by diverse audiences as an idyllic locus of transracial reconciliation, and also convincingly sold as a trap that lures him to the rural den of his demise. In a country in which marriage across racial lines requires legal justification (Loving v. Virginia, 1967), and where some Whites voice acceptance but still eye Black-White relationships with varying disgust, Get Out meaningfully tests audiences' own latent biases. How can you fix a problem that people ignore or won't admit to?
Put another way, this extreme paradox in discourses of race is reminiscent of the "blackwhite" proscription of the totalitarian regime at the center of 1984. Black is white and white is black in Orwell's account of power taken through the supplanting of history, truth, and will with propaganda, fear, and a reality-bending language called Newspeak. In a new world order mediated by Thought Police and Victory Coffee, a word's meaning is just as important as someone's willingness to dismiss that established meaning for an alternate one. To question the regime, and to want to choose to live for yourself, was to choose death. "We are the dead," declares Winston, one of 1984's central characters, in what I take as an acknowledgement that his days as a closeted dissident are numbered, and also that reality 'under his eye' (to borrow a phrase from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale) is akin to being a living corpse (p. 135, 1984).
"Power is the ability to define someone's reality and have them believe it as their own."
- Wade Nobles
2. Zombies Are Actually an African Thing.
In Get Out we slowly become familiar with a community of aging and mostly White suburbanites who have taken to improving their own lives by preying on some of society's most vulnerable. As with Jim the blind artist, their method necessitates the subjugation of someone else: young, lovestruck Blacks whose disappearances the public is willing to forget.
This storyline of expendable and forgettable Black lives directly maps onto the stories of untold millions of Africans forcibly removed to the Americas, beginning in the 16th century. Renamed and discarded at the whim of new masters, most of the personal and collective histories of these people will forever be unknown. However, their cultures and languages survive in many of the contemporary words we use in the Americas, including goober, banjo, jenga, and zombie, as well in the ongoing religious practices of Santería, Palo Monte, and Vodun. Swahili and many related languages of the broad Bantu family are understood as having contributed to the development of a the wide array of Englishes, Spanishes, Frenches, and Portugueses in existence today across the Americas (and elsewhere), in addition to creoles such as Gullah (U.S.), Haitian Creole (Haiti), and Palenquero (Columbia).
In French-controlled Haiti, Vodun and the spellbinding practice of making someone into a zonbi, was nothing to be trifled with, as White American visitors to the island came to know, and as dramatized by the 1932 film White Zombie and 1943's I Walked With a Zombie. Moreover, the zonbi was a broad metaphor for enslavement, as it was said to be exacted through tasking the body against its will, and an afterlife of working without end. Gradually, with the movement of previously island-bound French aristocrats to Louisiana to escape the Haitian Revolution, the practice of Vodun came to be known in the U.S. as well, and as they say, the rest is history. (For more information about this, you can visit the online exhibit [ZOMBIES REIMAGINED].)
3. Survival is Not Colorblind.
The situation Chris finds himself in reminds me of a scene in a Season 2 episode of The Walking Dead, in which T-Dawg and Dale engage in rare conversation apart from the rest of their survivor group. A White Dale is shocked to hear a fever-delirious T-Dawg describe how his status as "the one Black guy" makes his survival all the more "precarious" in the American South. (Not to mention that for much of Season 1, T-Dawg was regularly assaulted with racial epithets by Meryl, a vocal White Supremacist.) In the scene, T-Dawg also points to Dale's age as another vulnerability in the ongoing apocalypse: "What are you, like seventy?"
4. Because Sankofa: We Must Listen to the Past.
So many aspects of the ending had my mind spinning, still rushing to piece together the plot. What happened to that guy? To her? But hearing Swahili flood through the surround sound made me feel like the movie wasn't yet over, because the music felt more meaningfully chosen than a standard pop song. Rather, I felt as though I were privy to a coded warning inaccessible to the two hundred or so others in the darkened theater. It was a distress signal sounding through the annals of Black experience, and across the thousands of miles between North America and East Africa, where the vast majority of Swahili-speakers call home.
And even to the untrained ear, the sounds of voices singing in an African language invokes a sense of Diasporic nostalgia that only be interpreted as deliberate in a film calculated around oft dismissed racial microagressions. As African American scholar Saidiya Hartman has deftly explored of her own encounters with enslavement in her family and attempts to recover the past through research visits to Ghana, the voices of the Diaspora are the "millions of lives lost", both known and unknown, of a trade in human beings that "created millions of corpses...as a corollary to the making of commodities" (Hartman, Lose Your Mother, p. 31).
Across centuries during which people's names were changed at a whim, their bodies abused, languages outlawed, and desires to read or marry forbidden, it makes sense that this discombobulated memory would surface in unseen voices of admonishment, as if to say, 'Listen to us, heed our warning, it must never happen again!' These voices in Swahili, then, provide a background to a plot throughout which the central protagonist is forewarned by his best friend, if somewhat comically, but takes no notice until it is too late. This could be tied to the meaning of Sankofa, one of the most iconic in the system of Ghanaian Adinkra visual and discursive symbols. Typically represented as a bird turning its neck towards its backside, or the hemisphere of a heart bending back on itself, it communicates 'Go and fetch your past'. And in the end, this appears to be one of Peele's most meaningful messages.
5. More Than a "Woke Thriller".
By turning focus away from a virus in his zombified scenario, Peele doesn't absolve anyone of blame. In fact, he places blame squarely where it belongs--with those who take advantage of racism, and others who passively allow the system to perpetuate itself. Peele sends a timely message: It's not a virus, but a regime.
Get Out builds on the 1960s genius of the original zombie-revival director George Romero, but crafts a story for our time. Let's just say that things turn out differently for Chris than they did for the Black guy in Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and for good reason. That being said, Peele succeeds in crafting a narrative that appeals to our better nature, and challenges us to engage the truth of our relationships with one other so as to escape a cycle of mistrust, fear, and exploitation. This film is a must-see.