In February of this past year, Jordan Peele released the American horror film Get Out. The film was a instant hit, grossing $235 million worldwide on a measly 4.5 million dollar budget. The movie follows the story of a black man named Chris who goes on a weekend trip with his white girlfriend to meet her parents in their lavish country home. It doesn’t take long for this seemingly innocent and unsuspecting vacation to take a sinister turn and our protagonist ends up fighting for his life. (If you haven’t seen this movie stop reading right now, sit down and go watch it on HBO).
The dark twist (which again, you should not be reading about if you haven’t seen this movie!!!) is that this white liberal family has been kidnapping black men and surgically transplanting the brains of rich white people into their bodies. This is done for a slew of reasons, from the desire to be athletically fit, to the hope of being ‘fashionable’ to simply wanting to know “what it’s like” to be black. (There’s even a silent auction where Chris is sold to a blind man).
The movie comments on racism in modern-day America in a way that is virtually the exact opposite of Fredrick Douglass’ approach one hundred and fifty years ago. Granted, our situation today is much different than it was in the 1850’s, but the way that both Jordan Peele and Frederick Douglass utilize the role of white people in their stories is glaringly different.
In The Heroic Slave, we have noble Mr. Listwell. Not only is the story told from his perspective, but he is also an invaluable asset in orchestrating both of Madison Washington’s escapes. If Listwell hadn’t slipped Washington those files before he got on the Creole, the way that Douglass wrote the story, Washington wouldn’t have been able to take over the slave ship. It can be argued that Douglass incorporated a “good” white guy to help demonstrate the positive role white abolitionists could play in promoting an anti-slavery America. This book that focuses on the struggles and oppression of a black man was written and designed to be consumed by white people.
Even in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, there is a “white envelope” in which Lydia Maria Child (a white author) testifies to the legitimacy and intelligence of the black author. This type of a white author seal of approval was necessary during this time period.
Peele’s Get Out stands in opposition in regards to including white people in his narrative. First of all, the film is shown through the perspective of a black man. Chris ends up captured and almost “enslaved” but he ends up escaping from his tormentors completely on his own. There is not a single white character that is out to help him, even his girlfriend is revealed to be a horrific villain. Because of this, the film is clearly not made to appeal to a white audience. Not only does it feature no positive white characters, but the film in its entirety comments on the racial undertones and issues of liberal white Americans. It’s not a historical film that portrays the evil slave-owners of the nineteenth century or the vicious and violent acts committed by the KKK in the 60’s. It shows the ingrained racism that festers within white people that are made out the be normal, nice, and “not racist”. The types of white Americans that “would have voted for Obama for a third term” (Peele).
What this says about current American Literature (or movies) is that Jordan Peele was able to write and direct a movie that was made for black Americans. It wasn’t sugar-coated to lightly and politely introduce the concept of racism to white people in a way where they could watch the movie and think to themselves “well I’m not like those white people”. Peele was able to portray (in the earlier parts of the movie) the nuanced and underlying racism that lies just beneath the surface of white-liberal America, and it was impossible not to see yourself reflected in some of the interactions between Chris and his girlfriend’s white family.
Douglass had to appeal to a white audience because he needed them on his side. African Americans were so terribly oppressed that they needed the support of white abolitionists. Today, American Literature doesn’t need to be edited for the sake of the white man. There were arguments that this movie wouldn’t perform well because of its negative portrayal of white people, but every race turned out to the theatre to watch this thriller. As we as a nation continue to write books and movies that feature different perspectives and give voices to different minority groups, we’ll be able to see the continuous benefits of giving everyone a voice. It doesn’t deplete culture; it enriches it.