Students rushed into a crowded lecture hall, shuffled through aisles, grasped their phones in eager anticipation, and scanned the room impatiently. Just a few days earlier Jordan Peele’s directorial debut ‘Get Out’ received an astonishing four Oscar nominations. And in just a few moments Peele was to walk through the door and lead a class discussion on the film.
Before answering any questions, Peele recited a touching anecdote about the impact representation has on young artists.
In 1991, a twelve-year-old Peele watched Whoopi Goldberg accept an Academy Award for her role in ‘Ghost.’ The moment was groundbreaking because it shattered notions that Black artists cannot succeed in a white-dominated industry. For it was not lack of ability, it was lack of opportunity.
“I remember internalizing that. Like wow, she’s speaking to me ‘cause this is something I want to do, I feel like I can do,” said Peele. “When the nominations came together last week, I realized the awards and the acknowledgment is bigger than me, and bigger than my personal accomplishment.”
The students applauded enthusiastically as if everyone in the room understood the historical weight of the film.
What distinguishes the film from other Oscar contenders is its unapologetic depiction of the modern Black experience. Instead of conforming to mainstream motion picture pressures, Peele actively opposed it. He knew it was a story that needed to be told. Told well and more importantly, told honestly.
Students asked several questions about the film’s process including artistic influences and production disagreements. One student inquired about the success of Black films and filmmakers in recent years including Barry Jenkin’s ‘Moonlight,’ Peele’s ‘Get Out, and Ryan Coogler’s ‘Black Panther.’ He wondered if this momentum reflected a temporary trend or stable progress.
Peele contended it was the latter.
“I think there is an ebb and flow. There are backlashes but I do feel…right now is the greatest time in Black film. We might be in the greatest time in film.”
Afrofuturist writer and professor, Tananarive Due, launched the pilot Get Out course last spring. Conveniently titled “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and the Black Aesthetic,” the course explores the overlooked nuances, history, and pioneers of the genre, including William Du Bois and Octavia Butler. It investigates the social utility of black horror and its cathartic approach to “real life trauma.”
Octavia explicates this point in an interview with New York City-based newsmagazine The Indypendent.
“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open,” explained Butler, “I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
Unlike other genres, science fiction and horror provide an unparalleled opportunity for social activism because artists are able to intelligently embed the fantastical narratives with social critique. The covertness allows these ideas not readily accepted by mainstream media to enter society without sacrificing its reception.
One student asked Peele about his experience navigating the tropes of science fiction “without disenfranchising the very real and serious issues of the film?”
“I am not someone who likes to be told the truth. I like to find the truth in what is presented to me. And that’s where the benefit of genre comes to me,” explained Peele, “I can engage the audience on this level of imagination, this level of entertainment, this level of emotion, and within that…you have left the bread crumbs for people to acknowledge the truth that they’ve found.”
Get Out is brimmed with bread crumbs. Arguably, it’s Peele’s ingenious use of symbolism that emboldens viewers to watch the film over and over again and find those hidden truths.
Whether or not Get Out triumphs this Oscar season—which it should—there is no doubt it was the most influential film of 2017. It prevailed economically, visually, artistically, and socially. It helped augment the genre of Black horror while underlining uncomfortable social truths.
Get Out prompted a mainstream dialogue concerning racial suppression and the various ways it manifests: prison industrial system, micro-aggressions, white complicity. But Peele’s greatest accomplishment was giving a name to the normalized conquest of minority groups. By defining racial suppression as “the sunken place,” Peele allows viewers to understand, approach, and dismantle its hold on modern society.