Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut Get Out is a fugue of double meaning. It might be about one evil family; it might be about racism in America. The film takes time to reveal itself, and a second viewing is far more informative, and disturbing, than the initial one. The movie follows a black photographer named Chris who goes to visit his white girlfriend’s folks (the Armitage family) for the weekend. On the first viewing, it seems that Chris has stumbled into an awkward gathering filled to the brim with out-of-touch white people. Though the movie’s violent opening scene hints that something untoward is afoot, the Armitages’ behavior is easily written off as tepid racism, a backdrop of microaggressions and inappropriate questions with which Chris is already intimately familiar.
Spoiler alert! There is nothing benign about the Armitages. Long story short, these people brought Chris to their annual retreat so they could steal his body and turn it into a vessel in which to preserve the brain of an aging, blind white man. By the end of the film, it’s clear that what Chris regarded as casually racist offhand remarks were actually a sinister preamble to the purchase and seizure of his body.
At a particularly uncomfortable cocktail party, for example, a woman remarks about Chris’s apparent strength, and takes a quick grope of his biceps. Chris presumably is used to this kind of behavior from white people; he thinks that the comment stems from the pervasive stereotype of the superhuman black man. Because of Chris’s, and the viewer’s, social expectations, the arm grope is easily ignored. But a second viewing of the film reveals that the Armitage family brazenly announced their intentions through prying questions, only the true nature of Chris’s predicament goes unnoticed because the behavior is nothing out of the ordinary—offensive, racist, and undeniably normal.
It’s said that the best jokes, like the best mysteries, are ones where the punchline is contained in the set-up. Get Out proves the adage true. By concealing the film’s twist behind commonplace racism, Peele created a masterpiece that is best appreciated with hindsight. Knowing the ending, nearly every line of the movie takes on a sinister double meaning.
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“Words are useful only because they can be brought to the fore, then swept aside to make room for other words,” the literary scholar Edward Jayne writes in “Metaphoric Hypersignification and Metonymic Designification.” When an artist deploys a metaphor, words can be placed within a new context to make room for new meanings in the same words.
That’s because words and symbols—like those used in the (largely visual) vocabulary of film—don’t have inherent meanings. The process of analysis, then, can and does change the meanings we derive from works of art in predictable ways. Thus, the way information is encoded into language can be as important as the information itself. Form can determine content.
In Get Out, a semiotic analysis reveals what makes the work so impactful. Metaphor, a device wielded liberally by Peele, requires a commitment to lexical fluidity on the part of the viewer. That is, one must discard one’s previous understanding of symbols to appreciate the meaning behind Peele’s metaphors.
According to Jayne, the indeterminacy of metaphor can be a treacherous obstacle for storytellers. By its very nature, metaphor obscures the narrative. Janye wonders: “Which, then, is more important—the verbal matrix of literature that erupts and disperses with new word combinations or its narrative organization that survives in the long-term memory?” It is the author’s job to navigate this duality, coming up with plotting that engages long-term memory while constructing layered meanings that obligate the reader to forget the significance of words and symbols.
The great works of fiction, Jayne contends, achieve a perfect balance between these two opposing forces. But perhaps the best ones reject the premise.
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Peele, for one, navigates the natural tension between plot and interpretation with ease. His metaphors don’t disrupt the narrative; Get Out’s double meanings are understood after a gestalt shift in the viewer’s perspective. The retrospective obviousness of Chris’s dire circumstances underscores the overarching metaphor for American society that Peele has constructed. The slow reveal, and the fact that double meanings were hiding in plain sight throughout the entire film, drives home the allegory.
As an audience, we notice the racist remarks, and yet it takes a murderous cabal of brain surgeons literally kidnapping and stealing black bodies for us to glance back and really see these people for what they were. In Get Out, the ordinary injustices obscure the extraordinary ones.
The Centennial Review, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter 1994), pp. 9-32
Michigan State University Press