I recently watched the highly entertaining thriller Get Out and the deeply disturbing documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Turns out they’re the same movie. They both deal with the subjugation of the unpopular voice — whether black, female, gay, Muslim, Jewish or immigrant — through the enslavement of the body. Get Out uses the medical-horror genre, and I Am Not Your Negro uses ex-pat African-American writer James Baldwin’s passionate outrage at the martyrdom of his three murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. But both films explore the differences between the end of legal slavery and the lingering effects of institutional slavery. The urgent message in both is that unless the body is free from others trying to control its actions and free from constant threat of injury or death, that body, that person, that people are still enslaved.
Get Out‘s well-deserved 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and huge financial success have as much to do with its sly, subversive message as its spooky ride. Written and directed by the immensely talented Jordan Peele, the film embodies and expresses the African-American experience with infrastructural racism in a way that blacks hope whites will better understand after seeing it. Most important is the idea that when you live under constant physical threat of violence — whether from police, the legal system or racist groups — that in itself is a way to control people. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his blunt and incisive book Between the World and Me, describes this daily dilemma for people of color: “Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.”
What startles some viewers of Get Out is that the biggest threat to the young black protagonist isn’t the predictable redneck leftovers from Deliverance, but the wealthy white liberals who probably donate to the ACLU and tearfully tell their friends to watch Moonlight. This echoes something the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, where his body had been locked up for marching for freedom: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
Why is that relevant today? Because 54 years later, we’re still facing the same issues of imprisoning and enslaving the body, through direct and indirect violence as well as through limiting educational and job opportunities. The charming Armitage family of the movie may seem liberal, but they could just as easily be Trump surrogates, a family of chipper Kellyanne Conways, whitesplaining away racism.
A couple weeks ago, President Trump announced that he was “the least racist person” during a press conference in which he openly demonstrated clueless racism by bristling at a black reporter’s question of whether or not he would be including the Congressional Black Caucus in discussions about issues related to the African-American community. Which he then followed up by aggressively suggesting the reporter should set up the meeting, implying because she’s black she must know them personally. What makes Trump’s pronouncement of his lack of racism so stunning is that it occurred soon after the U.S. Justice Department abandoned its longstanding fight against the Texas voter ID law, which is a blatant attempt to restrict poor and minority voters. This week, the GOP revealed its health care plan to replace Obamacare, a key provision of which is to defund Planned Parenthood as punishment for providing abortion services, despite the fact that none of its federal funding is used for abortions. Texas legislators are discussing a bill that permits doctors to lie to women about the health of their fetuses to discourage them from seeking an abortion. These are ways to control women’s bodies, putting them in physical and financial danger while reducing their value to society by proclaiming they aren’t smart enough to choose their own course. And Trump’s administration has decided to withdraw the previous administration’s support for the rights of transgender students at public schools, further imprisoning those children in their bodies.
Slave shackles by any other name.
It’s horrifying watching poor Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) paralyzed in that chair while his will and body are being stolen, because growing up, I felt as paralyzed as him. Watching James Baldwin struggle with the frustrations of black bodies being destroyed both physically and mentally in the documentary reminded me of my own struggles as a young black man in the ‘60s. I was the poster child for the Good Boy, which to many Americans meant Good Negro. Everyone was telling black children that if you studied hard and did what you were told, you could be successful and welcomed into white society. I studied hard and earned good grades. I practiced hard and earned a good living. But I knew as a child that my name and religion were not my own. Alcindor was the Christian slave monger who owned my ancestors. I was paralyzed by that past, by white America’s expectations for how a black man should behave, by how much gratitude I should constantly express for allowing me to succeed. I overcame that paralysis when I adopted a religion and name that I felt connected me more to my cultural roots. Reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time inspired me to find my own voice. When I used that voice to speak about political and social injustice, some Americans responded with hatred and death threats. Ironically, I was just doing what people came to America to do since it was founded: reinvent myself according to my beliefs rather than someone else’s.
Raoul Peck’s unforgettable I Am Not Your Negro chronicles the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s, while Get Out shows how the public racism of that time has hidden itself by burrowing like a ravenous tapeworm into the bowels of America, growing fatter each year as it feeds off good intentions and bad faith.
This story also appears in the March 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.