This article contains potential spoilers for Get Out and The Thing with Two Heads.
I can’t quite remember where I first heard it, but there’s an old line about racism that’s stuck with me. It goes something like this: “Northern whites like to think they’re less racist than southern whites, but really, they just express their racism differently. Southern whites want to keep black people as low as they can; northern whites just want to get as far away from black people as they can.” There’s probably a good deal of truth to it, and as a white person who can claim to be either northern or southern, depending on whom I’m trying to impress (or disappoint), I can’t help but be a little offended.
And yet, an idea’s offensiveness usually has very little to do with how true it is.
In any case, it’s tangentially related to this fact: Jordan Peele’s new horror-comedy Get Out has, as of this writing, spent five weeks in the box office top ten and made back its production budget half a dozen times over. And it’s not hard to see why: there’s simply nothing else like it. Hollywood makes very few movies aimed at a black audience, and the ones they do make — e.g., crime flicks, stoner comedies, sex romps — seem designed mainly to reinforce awful stereotypes. The number of smart horror films that take the black perspective seriously (instead of just using black people as easy chainsaw fodder in the first act) is a very, very small one. Unsurprisingly, there was an untapped audience waiting for just such a film.The racism Peele is poking at in Get Out is a sort that’s proven difficult, if not impossible, to excise from American culture.
The story, if you haven’t seen it, goes something like this: Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a professional photographer who’s dating a white woman named Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). He’s nervous about meeting her parents but they welcome him to their secluded acreage with open arms, only occasionally going out of their way to announce their love for Obama or drop outdated jive-talk into the conversation. But then, of course (this being a horror movie), things start to get… unsettling.
The family’s groundskeepers are young black people who act suspiciously like old white people trying to act like young black people, and their friends and relatives seem strangely interested in Chris. By the time Chris learns the truth — that the Armitages are running a black-market surgical ring in which aging white people pay to have their brains transplanted into the bodies of young black people — it’s (almost) too late.
Whether that premise is scary, or silly, or both, is obviously up to the viewer, but there are cinematic and literary precedents for it. Frankenstein is obviously a touchpoint, but Get Out also draws heavily from the tradition of B movies like The Head That Wouldn’t Die and They Saved Hitler’s Brain. Many (too many) critics have also compared Get Out to The Stepford Wives, a ’70s cult film and novel in which “uppity” suburban housewives are replaced by servile robots. For my money though, the best comparison — or at least the film I couldn’t get out of my head while watching Get Out — is probably The Thing with Two Heads.
You’ve probably encountered at least the premise behind The Thing with Two Heads, even if you don’t know the film: it’s frequently parodied, and the film itself is something of a staple on late-night cable TV (you can even watch the whole thing on YouTube right now, if you want). Briefly, though, the basic idea of The Thing with Two Heads is this: Brilliant, aging, and super-racist surgeon Maxwell Kirshner (Ray Milland) has developed a technique for transplanting a head from one body to another: the head of one creature is sewn onto the neck of another, temporarily creating a two-headed organism (a “thing with two heads,” if you will). After 30 days, the new head takes over completely and the original head is removed. Kirshner himself is dying of lung cancer and insists on being the first human subject for his own technique. The only body donor who can be found, however, is a (falsely) convicted murderer on death row, Jack Moss (Rosey Grier) — who is black. When Kirshner awakes from surgery, he’s not happy.
It probably goes without saying that The Thing with Two Heads is a far worse film than Get Out (even if Get Out does trade on a similar campy, ’70s B movie tone) and justly deserves its reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good midnight feature. What starts as an intriguing horror premise quickly gives way to a solid half-hour of pointless car chases. Then, after promising a Sweet Sweetback-esque third act in which Moss will finally prove his innocence, the whole thing just… ends (presumably having spent its entire budget on blowing up cars). Still, the film is striking, at the very least, for addressing head-on (get it?) a reality that Get Out takes its entire running time to work up to: that despite the end of slavery, white people still seem to think they’re — to use a popular phrase — entitled to black bodies.
Admittedly, that phrase — “entitled to black bodies” — has become somewhat overused of late, to the point that it often obscures the truths it summarizes. And yet, what it summarizes is undeniable history: from slavery to lynching, from Jim Crow to housing discrimination, from mass incarceration to police brutality, much of white racism seems to manifest itself in declarations of power over what black people can and cannot do with themselves — and those of us not directly engaged in these things still benefit from them. Of course, whenever a broad range of cultural phenomena is summed up in a pithy phrase, those implicitly condemned by the phrase tend to object. No doubt Rose’s parents in Get Out would take personal offense if the phrase were applied to them; perhaps Dr. Kirshner in The Thing with Two Heads would as well. And of course, that’s exactly the point.
Still, the racism portrayed in Get Out is of a very different sort than the racism in The Thing with Two Heads. In case you haven’t figured it out from the title, The Thing with Two Heads is not a subtle or nuanced film, and essentially screams “Hey, Dr. Kirshner is a big racist!” at the viewer ten minutes in, during an appropriately uncomfortable scene where he tells a skilled surgeon he’s unwelcome at Kirshner’s hospital because of his skin color. (It’s an on-the-nose setup that theoretically promises hours of hilarious banter once Kirshner finds his head situated on a black man’s body, but thanks to a weak script, it never really pays off.) This stands in stark contrast to Get Out, in which the Armitages desperately flail about trying to prove that they’re “not racist.”
In other words, the racism portrayed by The Thing with Two Heads is a very “white” understanding of racism, which isn’t shocking, since, despite some fine performances from its black actors, The Thing with Two Heads was written, produced, and directed entirely by white people. The Thing with Two Heads understands racism as purely a matter of personal prejudice, a problem with certain white people — y’know, those racists out there. This is decidedly not Peele’s understanding in Get Out — unlike Dr. Kirshner, the villains of Get Out actually aspire to inhabit black bodies. The racism Peele is chasing after in Get Out is the sort that says, “I can’t be racist! I like Will Smith and The Sugarhill Gang! Heck, I wouldn’t mind being black!”
And yet, the Armitages’ victims end up no better off than Dr. Kirshner’s victims.
The racism Peele is poking at in Get Out is a sort that’s proven difficult, if not impossible, to excise from American culture, even if the overt prejudice of The Thing with Two Heads has waned somewhat. To put a fine point on it, it’s the sort of racism that values everything about black people — except their humanity. The sort that falsely equates a lack of active disdain for one’s neighbor with love for one’s neighbor. The sort that’s more afraid of being called “racist” than it is of doing harm to those of another race. For a white viewer, it’s far from easy to have this finger pointed at you for an hour and a half. But for anyone seeking to follow Christ, it’s not an entirely unfamiliar feeling.
The saying that we’re all sinners has become, at this point, such a tired bromide as to elicit eye-rolls even from most believers, and yet, if taken seriously, it’s an utterly devastating revelation. Each of us fails, every day, at serving God and serving our neighbors. Each of us practices evil daily, and often that evil takes advantage of existing structures like the societal racism we were born into. “Each of us is evil” is certainly no more offensive, or inaccurate, than “Each of us is racist.”
In a universe without grace, this is a bleak diagnosis. It’s fitting that neither Get Out nor The Thing with Two Heads is able (or willing) to redeem any of their white characters — both conclude with their black characters simply rising up and taking back what’s theirs. I can think of no other way for a secular understanding of systemic racism to end — if all history is a dialectic struggle, there is no possibility other than endless violence.
The only solution I know of lies in the powerful throwing aside their crowns and saying, “I am your servant.” This, ultimately, is what love of neighbor is: not simple tolerance of him, but actually casting aside one’s own interests in favor of his — and everyone from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand has agreed this is absolutely contrary to human nature. It’s far easier an ideal to strive for, however, if it’s already been done.
This, then, is the hope I cling to, because I know of no other. Christ, forgive me. Christ, help me to become a servant to all men.