NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 18 Issue 3 - Fall 2018 - Page 40

DOU B LE SPEEC H AN D DOU B LE CONSC IOUSN ESS Dean continues his double-talk about Jesse Owens winning and defeating “Hitler’s Aryan superior race bullshit.” His criticism of Nazi racism projects a liberal sentiment, which anticipates the stereotypical appearance of Black workers on the White estate, “I know how it looks.” Dean explains that Georgina (Betty Gabriel), the maid, and Walter (Marcus Henderson), the groundskeeper, were hired to help his aging parents. A seemingly innocent comment is actually another instance of double-speak, a double entendre: “After they passed, we couldn’t bear to let them go.” The word “passed” applies to two interpretations: “death” and “another place.” “They” is a compounded pronoun in reference to Dean’s father and mother and to Georgina and Walter, the latter of whom are literally trapped within a dual consciousness in a bizarre coexistence with Dean’s parents, who passed on into the bodies of the “help.” The actions and speech of Georgina and Walter not only mirror “double consciousness,” as they perform their menial tasks dutifully and happily, but it extends into another realm of absurdity that is reflective of DuBois’ description of the psychological and physical torture of this oppressive condition: “One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, . . .” 4 This quote is applicable to Georgina, who exhibits moments of disorientation: losing concentration, exhibiting nervous expressions, and even physical breakdowns. She has difficulty recalling popular expressions, such as “snitch,” calling it “tattle tell.” When Chris confides in Georgina that being around too many White people makes him nervous, she shakes and stammers: “No, no, no, no, no, no. The Armitages are so good to us. They treat us just like family,” which is a double entendre, because she is family as Grandma Armitage. Tears well up in her eyes, barely able to maintain her composure as her two selves struggle within, and “whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” 5 Her response is an explanation slave owners offered to defend the “peculiar institution” of slavery. She also states, “I assure you, I answer to no one,” which conversely is the voice of Grandma Armitage, asserting her authority as the true “mistress” of the house. Language and gesture are ambivalent signs in Chris’s encounters with Walter and Georgina, who are introduced without last names, as if they are pets or slaves without surnames. While Walter is chopping wood, Chris jokes about how hard they are working him. With the intonation of an old White man, his reflexive reply: “Nothing I don’t want to be doing.” This statement echoes slavery propaganda that argued physical labor and servitude were the true nature and appropriate condition for Africans because they lacked higher level thinking skills. Grandpa Armitage becomes a faster runner in the body of Walter; and Grandma Armitage is able to stay in her wonderful kitchen, another patriarchal notion, in the youthful, pretty form of Georgina, and a cinematic allusion to The Stepford Wives (2004), another film about mind possession and repression. As Dean explains: “We keep a piece of her in the kitchen.” The genius of the script is the foreshadowing embedded in the double entendre of the dialogue and in the imagery. The tour of the house foreshadows in coded language, as Dean tells Chris, that the basement door is sealed because of “black mold down there,” which is actually a reference to the transformation of Black bodies into “black molds,” where White brains are inserted through a surgical procedure performed by Dean, who is a neurosurgeon. The Armitages appear “not be racist,” as Rose insists from the very beginning, only ignorant and rude like many neoliberals; and, their duplicitousness is not fully realized until a large portrait photograph of Chris appears in the gazebo, posed for the Bingo bidding. This is also the site where Chris’s tour of the estate ended, and precisely where his visit at the Armitage’s will end — on the auction block. Being John Malkovich (1999), directed by Spike Jonze and starring John Malkovich, John Cusack, Carmon Diaz, and Catherine Keener, seems to a blueprint for Get Out, but without the racial dimension. The gist of the plot is about a portal that facilitates an in-the-body experience as Malkovich. The portal is a link to immortality but is inadvertently discovered by Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), a puppeteer whose talents are adept at controlling Malkovich, and who eventually becomes Malkovich. Like Get Out, Schwartz occupies the mind and controls the host. What’s interesting is the cinematic strategy to represent the view of the interloper is similar to The Sunken Place, whereby the host is aware of the presence of another force and is unable to do anything about it. But this mind meld is more like being inserted into an avatar. The designs of those who occupy Malkovich also parallel Get Out, including sexual pleasure, gender identity, and artistic fame. The film is a bizarre comedy, however, and the characters are not portrayed as malevolent, but rather as unfulfilled and desperate to be someone else, or to achieve immortality. Beyond situations and settings in the film that reflect common encounters that resonate with a Black audience, Peele extends the concept of “double consciousness” into “The Sunken Place.” The evil intentions of the Armitages are not suspect until Missy hypnotizes Chris. Missy initially offers her services to cure Chris of his nicotine addiction, which parallels a characteristic of Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) in Meet the Parents, who chews Nicorette to hide this same problem from his girlfriend’s father. Rose defends Chris’s refusal by saying, “Some people don’t want you messing around in their heads.” Another double entendre, which is exactly what happens in the basement of the Armitage’s home. Again and again, Rose appears to defend Chris, which endears her to him and projects to the audience the illusion that she is sincere. Protecting him from her parents’ aggressive and inappropriate behavior, however, is actually an offensive strategy to settle his uneasiness. This mirrors her defensive actions after the deer accident when the highway patrolman asks Chris for his identification. She challenges the patrolman’s authority, implying that this request is racially motivated. Subsequently, Chris says to Rose, “That was hot.” Chris also notices a teddy bear on the nightstand beside their bed, which looks curious and is reminiscent of a scene in Meet the Parents, which is not a toy, but spyware planted by Jack Byrnes (Robert DeNiro) to observe Greg. This suspicious behavior is funny in Meet the Parents, but in Get Out, it relates to more sinister motives. Likewise, in order to hypnotize him, Missy tricks Chris into a disingenuous conversation about the death of his mother that disarms and weakens him. She stirs and taps the perimeter of her teacup, another symbol of Southern gentility, and sends him to “The Sunken Place.” The view of the real world from The Sunken Place is like a view through a telephoto lens that extends the human eye and frames a scene in the distance. But unlike photography, whereby Chris controls the mechanism of the camera, The Sunken Place is like a space of suspended animation. It is an intensification of “double consciousness,” wherein the person is helplessly trapped, experiencing a world from afar, while suffering within. Of course, when Chris awakens, he thinks he has experienced a dream, and only vaguely remembers that he may have been hypnotized, because now, the thought of a cigarette is repulsive. Shortly after the cell phone conversation with Rod, Rose hits a deer that runs into their highway. The killing of the deer operates on two levels: first, it reminds Chris about how his mother died in a hit-and-run accident, and this guilt urges him to exit the car and go into the forest to see the dying buck; second, several images of stuffed deer heads appear as trophies from hunting expeditions and as wood carvings in the Armitage home. After Chris and Rose arrive, Dean Armitage congratulates his daughter on the killing, because according to him, it is “one less buck.” “They are taking over the eco-system.” “Buck” was a term used during slavery in reference to young, Black males. Unbeknown to Chris, he is the buck slated to have his head stuffed with the mind of some White man. Rose’s mother is Missy (Katherine Keener), a name that is a contraction of “Mistress,” and relates to the architecture of the Armitage mansion with its white pillars and expansive veranda, reminiscent of a “Big House” on a southern, slave plantation. “Armitage” also resounds like “Hermitage,” the name of President Andrew Jackson’s plantation. 3 Dean gives Chris a tour of the estate, including the house and the family photo gallery, which brings into conversation a story about Dean’s father, who was unable to race in the 1936 Olympics because Jessie Owens was faster: “He almost got over it.” The operative word in this double entendre is “almost,” because now his father runs faster than Owens with the legs and speed of their Black caretaker, Walter. W. E. B. DuBois coined the concept of “double consciousness” to describe the bizarre circumstances Black folks experience in a White controlled society: “— a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world,” which is particularly applicable for this young Black photographer, navigating his reflection in the gaze of White people at his girlfriend’s parents’ house, while providing non-threatening responses to inappropriate and ignorant comments about him and/or his Blackness. This duality is the film’s motif. Dialogue and characterization are laden with double entendre, producing a rich labyrinth of symbiotic imagery. TH E SU N KEN PL AC E