|Director Jordan Peele on the set of Get Out, with actress Betty Gabriel|
I think I said something I regret. Last week, writing about Jordan Peele’s breakout horror film Get Out, I talked about how ordinary people hypnotize themselves to get along with American society, because remaining awake enough to resist the consensus is difficult and costly. I used Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) as my example. Yet, as observant readers would probably notice, Get Out isn’t supposed to be about everybody.
Nobody has said anything to me. Given my low readership, I doubt anybody has even noticed. (This blog hasn’t exactly been the self-supporting resource I’d anticipated.) Yet to remain honest with myself, I feel obliged to clarify what I did and didn’t mean: I, a working-class white man, cannot claim particular affinity with Chris Washington, his experiences, or the Black American experience. We all hypnotize ourselves. But that doesn’t make it a universal experience.
I derive the concept of “consensus hypnosis” primarily from psychologist Charles Tart, whose book Waking Up popularized the concept. When I first encountered Tart and his theories, I didn’t realize he was a popularly derided parapsychologist whose theories about human consciousness are unbounded by such trivia as facts or evidence. I simply surmised, based on experience, that his idea, that we blind ourselves to our surroundings, made sense.
Even if Tart himself comes tainted with career baggage, that doesn’t mean his ideas are invalid. An increasing body of research in psychology, and related disciplines, reveals that everybody, regardless of race or economic status or other indicators, goes through life partly blind. We lack a characteristic psychologist call “mindfulness,” a term borrowed from Buddhism. For audiences interested in learning more, I recommend John Kabat-Zinn and Dan Ariely.
|Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams in Get Out, before the real horror starts|
This consensus hypnosis experience isn’t what Chris faces in Get Out. As an African American travelling into a white community, he remains conscious of race and loaded expectations. In an early scene, a policeman demands Chris’ ID following a routine fender bender, even though he wasn’t driving. Chris’ girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) gets outraged by this racial profiling. Chris soothes Rose’s anger while complying with the police.
Chris understands he’s black, with the attendant baggage. He’s just accepted he must perform certain Stupid Human Tricks to persevere. He literally accepts the cultural expectations of black men in America. That contrasts him to the movie’s other two prominent black characters: Andre King (Lakeith Stanfield), who disparages white suburbia before his symbolic lynching; and Rod Williams (Lil Rey Howrey), who warns Chris to stay away from White Country.
Thus Chris hypnotizes himself, not to reality, but to meta-reality. Injustice feeds upon injustice, and compliance with authority is concession, especially when authority misuses its power to restrain and shackle free citizens. Yet the opening scenes demonstrate that, by complying, Chris has been richly rewarded. He has a lucrative career, a beautiful girlfriend, and hasn’t gotten priced out of a Brooklyn so gentrified, even Patti Smith tells newbs to look elsewhere.
I daren’t reveal too much. However, it spills nothing to say that each act of compliance makes the next, bigger act more likely. Surrounded by honkies at Rose’s parents’ house, probably in the Hamptons, Chris accepts one incident of casual intolerance after another with equanimity. Rose encourages Chris to rebel against flippant racism, which gets harder and harder to explain away, yet Chris remains unwilling to rock the boat.
This storyline provides Chris multiple opportunities to break his conditioning, multiple incentives to resist, yet he doesn’t. Compliance has paid handsomely in prestige, and the sunk costs of getting along have become insuperable. Suburbia has to perform substantial outrages before Chris finally balks, by which time it’s too late. He’s bought into the system so deeply, escaping may cost more than he can afford to pay.
|Daniel Kaluuya in the iconic moment from Get Out|
As a white American, I can’t pretend I’ve ever had that experience. I’ve always enjoyed the protection of a society which equates “white” and “normal.” (Substitute the word “white” with “male,” “heterosexual,” “educated,” and the statement remains unchanged.) Yet I cannot help wondering: how have I complied with the system in ways that measurably harm me? A few answers spring to mind, but more, surely, remain hidden.
I regret presenting my meditation on Get Out as though somehow, the movie were about me. Thinking that, even accidentally, puts me on the story’s wrong side. Yet I cannot know, until they ambush me, what similar compromises I’ve made with the system. This movie emphatically isn’t about me. Yet, with slight changes of luck, it’s about where I could wind up.