The other weekend, I was talking with my best friend from Bates College when the subject of the surprise hit thriller “Get Out” came up in conversation. He asked me, “What did you think?” I gave the usual response, saying it was “so good” and “so funny.” He disapproved of the response and retorted, “No, but what did you really think about it?” Honestly, I had to put a great deal of thought into my response.
After talking more with my friend about the film, I started to frame “Get Out” less as a horror comedy about casual racism and more as a piece to raise mental health awareness. The story begins with black photographer Chris getting invited by his white girlfriend Rose to meet her parents, her father a neurosurgeon and her mother a hypnotherapist. Delving deeper into the hidden messages of the film, my friend reasoned that Chris’s descent into ‘The Sunken Place” plays on the fears that black communities have about going to therapy. The Sunken Place is a hypnosis-induced state—invoked by Rose’s mom—that results in full-body paralysis. I kept my friend’s thoughts in mind as I spoke about black people’s aversion to and distrust of mental health professions on last week’s mental health panel sponsored by Bowdoin Student Government called “It’s Okay Not To Not Be Okay.” It was there that I understood “Get Out” to be a cinematic caveat against African Americans’ practice of trivializing mental health, especially in a time when they are being increasingly burdened with race-based stress and hardship.
The writer and director of “Get Out,” Jordan Peele said that the film was designed to be a period piece for white liberals who believe that, since Barack Obama was elected President, they must be living in a “post-racial America.” This film also illustrates a time when racial tensions are so high that black Americans must work harder to survive both emotionally and existentially. “Get Out” constantly evokes current black American fears starting with the film’s opening scene, which channeled the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. This scene certainly played into my existential fears as a black man. Chris is forced to defend his humanity in the face of endless microaggressions, like when Rose’s brother remarked that Chris’ “genetic makeup” would make him a “beast” in a capoeira fight. As usual, Chris laughs it off with Rose a few scenes later before they start kissing. Laughter serves as his temporary coping mechanism, as it does for many African Americans, but there is a breaking point.
Throughout the film, I found myself screaming at Chris to “get out,” worrying that him being in Rose’s hometown in white suburbia would be detrimental to his emotional and physical well-being. The microaggressions pile up at Rose’s family social when a white woman fawns over Chris’s muscular build and indirectly asks if he is well-endowed, as the myth suggests that all black men are. Later, an older white male tells Chris, immediately after meeting him, that “black is in fashion.” These stereotypical remarks might sound harmless to a white person, but they actually compound the pre-existing struggles of black Americans by treating them as a monolith and reducing them to sexual objects and hot topics. I view Rose’s family and company as a collective of white Americans who do not think they are racist, yet their obsession with blackness makes them unwittingly treat black people like non-human beings, as was historically done in America.
My movie theory prompts a powerful question: What is Chris supposed to “get out” of? I believe the answer rests in the term “The Sunken Place,” which draws several parallels to mental illnesses like depression. After all, “The Sunken Place” results in victims becoming “paralyzed” by their personal traumas. Perhaps my theory is a complete stretch, but as an active advocate for mental health, I believe that black people can “get out” if they destigmatize mental counsel and learn to address traumatic experiences in their lives for the sake of their mental well-being.
Osa Omoregie is a member of the Class of 2018.