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Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking, cross-genre film Get Out quite literally haunted my dreams for a solid week after I saw it. Anyone who contributed to the $30.5 million it grossed in its opening weekend or the estimated $133 million it grossed thereafter knows that there is no place in a dream for the sinister music it features.
I thought about this movie so much after watching it that the song “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” was the background for my every REM cycle, but after learning that the Swahili phrase and following lyrics translate to “listen to your ancestors … Something bad is coming. Run,” I’m beginning to think my subconscious was warning me about the horrific Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. But that’s just conjecture.
I could write this whole article about the ignorance of that ad, which completely appropriated a whole movement, slapped a white face famous for its privilege at the forefront and softened every rough edge of protest all for beverage sales, but I won’t — it’s already been adequately dragged by Twitter and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter.
What is worth exploring, however, is the fact that while there is still such a remarkable lack of representation for people of color, white people find this new era of black films and TV shows racist. A white woman heading a movement that has been led by black people for black people gets past a board of Pepsi’s advertising consultants, but programs exploring racism are berated.
Despite Get Out‘s 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it was met with opposition from white America, which labeled it as “100% Anti-white film used as propaganda,” “white shaming” and “outright racism.” New Netflix shows like Dear White People and Luke Cage have been criticized in similar ways.
Within one day of being uploaded to YouTube, the trailer for the Netflix series based on the 2014 indie film Dear White People received more than 54,000 down votes and only 2,800 up votes. This show, too, was called “anti-white” and “racist” and sparked a Netflix boycott that one Twitter user even connected to the feminist cause with the use of the hashtag “#ShePersisted.”
Similarly, the Netflix series Luke Cage, which chronicles the life of a black “ex-con fight[ing] to … save his neighborhood,” according to its Netflix description, was met with resistance from white audiences. The show was said to be racist and politicized because of its lack of white characters and its discussion of black issues, but the show is set in Harlem, a historically black community. The show’s primarily black and Latino cast is an accurate representation of the setting, unlike the nearly all-white cast of HBO’s hit series Girls, which also takes place in New York City — to say nothing of the endless amount of other strikingly white-dominated shows throughout TV history.
Shows exploring racism, featuring main characters of color with few to no white characters or white characters in the villain role feel racist to white people because they’re not used to shows or movies without white heroes. The loss of this privilege feels like oppression, but it’s really just equality.
Black representation isn’t racist — what’s racist is the history of Hollywood and the current state of representation in the average movie. In a study conducted by the University of Southern California, researchers found that in the top 100 grossing films of 2015, 73.7 percent of characters with speaking roles or names were white. Because of representation, television has been found to boost the self-esteem of white boys but lower the self-esteem of white girls and all black children.
Even after blackface was deemed socially unacceptable, Asian, Latino, Native American and Egyptian characters (among many other races and ethnicities) have been historically played by white actors, many of whom have received Oscars for their racist portrayals.
That issue isn’t just an issue of the past either — in the last 10 years alone, Johnny Depp has played a Native American, Jake Gyllenhaal a Persian, Carrie Mulligan a Latina and Emma Stone a part-Hawaiian character. The critically acclaimed La La Land, a movie in large part about jazz and jazz culture cast both leading roles to white actors. People of color are often left to play supporting roles that are entrenched in racist tropes, like Latino Noel Gugliemi who has played the same stereotypical character named “Hector” in 16 movies and shows and other roles labeled “thug” and “gang leader.”
These casting injustices continue to happen, but when the human torch is played by Michael B. Jordan, James Bond is rumored to be played by Idris Elba or Rue is Amandla Stenberg, there is an outcry from some white fans.
Hollywood and television continue to be a white- (and male-) dominated establishment that is made with white audiences in mind, which is why Get Out and Dear White People may rub white viewers the wrong way, but they’re not watching closely enough.
These programs aren’t racist — first, reverse racism does not exist, a fact Dear White People the movie points out in an artful rebuttal as to why the title of the movie and its ideas aren’t racist — they are simply giving a voice to injustices that have been present in black people’s lives forever.
Get Out doesn’t place white people in the role of villain for nothing — it explores racial issues through satire, turning racial horror movie tropes on their heads while tackling issues like fetishization. I witnessed audiences knowingly laugh at jokes about police interactions, interracial relationships and the discomfort of being a minority in a predominantly white setting.
Peele brings to the forefront the insidious nature of “nice racism,” unpacking acts of racism that aren’t as overt as police brutality or other blatant discrimination. The evil in the movie is the stereotyping and othering that the white characters place on the black characters and things that white people in real life often don’t even realize are racist. That’s the beauty of Get Out: it points out that these “small” injustices are significant and real to people of color.
I invite opponents of the movie to re-watch it to try to understand the deeper implications and look at the role race plays in the movie. It is rich in metaphors and symbols, giving an image to what it feels like to be oppressed— “the sunken place” stands in for the way in which black bodies and black behavior are policed by white society and the deer motif communicates the fear many white people have towards the equality marginalized groups seek and are slowly gaining.
Movies and shows like these are necessary for providing accessibility to movements like Black Lives Matter. Representation — and positive representation at that — is important for the way we see ourselves. I’m sure it can be uncomfortable seeing someone who looks like you as the villain for the first time, but that’s something people of color have been dealing with our whole lives. Room must be made for real-life depictions of everyday racism and movies and shows where black people are the heroes, and I guess those that don’t like it can cancel their Netflix subscriptions.
Contact CU Independent Opinion Columnist Lauren Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org.