Linking The Underground Railroad to Get Out
Novelist Colson Whitehead and Writer/Director Jordan Peele, are receiving a bonanza of critical acclaim for their latest artistic contributions. In November 2016, Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for Fiction, while Peele’s groundbreaking humoristic-horror film Get Out recently passed the $100 million threshold for domestic box office sales. The film’s distributor Blumhouse Productions has never had a movie accomplish this feat faster—and that’s including their highly successful Paranormal Activity series (Yohana Desta,Vanity Fair). With incomparable dexterity, both the book and the movie illuminate the covert disenfranchisement of African Americans.
Beyond the ample documentation of the historic atrocities committed during slavery or the long fought battles for equality during the Civil Rights movement that still obfuscate American race relations to this day, both The Underground Railroad and Get Out offer a new perspective on the African American experience. The reader and the viewer are invited into the thoughts and fears of a black slave girl in the 1800s and a black male who’s half of an interracial couple in 2017. Penetrating the timeline that divides them, is an indistinguishable thematic connection of psychological warfare and oppressive control driven by fear that intimately links these two artistic works. Having finished the book only a few days before seeing the movie, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the two, which ignited a motivating curiosity to explore the topic further.
Like a slave version of Gulliver’s Travels, The Underground Railroad follows a young girl named Cora through her quest for freedom after her mother abandons her on a Georgian plantation. Surviving a series of harrowing escapes and close calls with slave-catchers, Cora navigates her way through the Antebellum south via a fictional locomotive that carries runaways north from state to state. By researching 18th and 19th century slave narratives (among them Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs), eugenics literature and the 1930s Works Progress Association’s interviews with former slaves, Whitehead weaves a tale of daily life from the perspective of a slave on-the-run with commanding authenticity (Fresh Air).
Taking some historical liberties, which included a childhood belief that the Underground Railroad was an actual train traveling through an elaborate network of stations connected all the way to Canada—Whitehead exposes the systematic oppression that was necessary for the slave industry’s survival. He describes a system that not only used fatal violence and isolation tactics on the oppressed and those who’d help them obtain freedom, but insidious psychological repression tactics that proved to be the most effective way to keep blacks in bondage (Fresh Air).
“We accomplished the impossible…but not everyone has the character we do. We’re not all going to make it. Some of us are too far gone. Slavery has twisted their minds, an imp filling their minds with foul ideas…they always disappear in the night because deep in their hearts they know they are unworthy. It is too late for them,” (The Underground Railroad p.283).
It’s Whitehead’s account of the defiant courage exhibited by the character Cora and the nearly 100,000 real slaves who did escape using the Underground Railroad that makes their story so remarkable and compelling to read.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, I normally don’t do scary—especially psychological could-definitely-happen-in-real-life-scary. But with a 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the consistent word-of-mouth praise, I knew I had to man-up and see it. Get Out isn’t your typical horror movie; infact there is a generous amount of satirical comedy that thankfully defuses the tension. That being said, for all the anomalies present, the fear factor dominates—playing on racial anxiety and substantiated paranoia. In an interview Peele gave All Things Considered he said, “This is the only woke horror movie of all time, save for Night of the Living Dead. ... I felt like race has not been dealt with in my favorite genre, which is horror. Every other human horror has its sort of classic horror movie to go along with it. So I kind of wanted to fill the gap in that piece of the genre of conversation.”
Rose played by Girls’ Allison Williams and Chris played by Black Mirror’s Daniel Kaluuya have been dating for 4 or 5 months when Rose invites Chris to her parents house for the weekend. Chris is apprehensive because Rose has failed to mention to her parents that her boyfriend is black. Assuring him that her parents aren’t racist, he goes despite the heeding advice of his best friend Rod. Once the couple arrives seemingly normal and progressive parents played by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford welcome them. It’s not until the slightly odd behavior of the black groundskeeper Walter and the black housekeeper Georgina becomes increasingly disturbing that Chris begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Without giving any of the movie away, let’s just say that Chris must find ways to safeguard himself against psychological warfare and get the hell out of there. Through exploring racially motivated persecution, Peele takes the viewer on a shocking journey with all the thrills you’d expect from a classic horror and imbues it with the significance of a socially conscious drama like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Get Out opens with a black man walking through a white suburban neighborhood. He doesn’t belong there and it quickly becomes apparent that he is not welcome there. Obviously this is a topical controversy that has saturated the news cycle for the last 5 years—exacerbating racial division in America. Police brutality and the disproportionate surveillance of blacks in America by law enforcement has galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and put a spotlight on the modernity of systematic racism in the current political climate. Regardless of where one might fall on the political spectrum of this issue, films like Get Out provide a clear summation of the fears black people live with everyday when it comes to the reality of being black in the wrong place at the wrong time. “ I wanted to represent the fact that what many people may not understand is the fear that a black man has walking in a white suburb at night is real. And I wanted to put the audience in that position so they could see it and feel it, (Jordan Peele, All Things Considered).”
In The Underground Railroad we read the origins of these fears and see the historic practices unapologetically at play. The slave patrollers of the 1800s had the power to stop black people and inspect their papers. If anything seemed suspicious to the slave patroller they had the right to detain, beat and jail the black person (Fresh Air). “Any white person with the slightest authority could demand to see the bonafides of any black person walking around. Of course, growing up in the city, I'm acquainted with being pulled over by cops, being handcuffed and questioned as I'm going out about my business. ... We have a new name for it — "stop and frisk" — and 200 years ago it was "law and order, (Colson Whitehead, Fresh Air).”
There are many ways to exercise control over someone. Perhaps one of the most skillful tactics enslavers used was grouping Africans who spoke different languages and had opposing customs together in efforts to prevent uprisings. But beyond the brutal violence of whips, chains, rape, and food deprivation was the ultimate tactic of brain washing blacks into believing their plight was divinely prophesized. Proclaimed as an inferior race with mental deficiencies that rendered them unfit for education or advancement, enslavers convinced their captives that they were less than human with no decent right to want anything more for themselves. They were property and considering that fact, what right did they have to run, let alone dream of a better life?
Being sold from one hell to the next, which resulted in fractured families—mothers and fathers separated from their children; mercilessly beaten, and sexually violated on a regular basis was a surefire way to drive the light out of the most resilient slave’s eyes. But the enslavers had their own fears—ones born out of the anxiety naturally associated with oppressing a growing population of mistreated people. “People, perhaps rightly, were afraid that if black people were freed they would exact retribution. They’d been breeding slaves… and then one day you’re like, actually, we’re outnumbered by these people that we torture, brutalize, and subjugate,” (Colson Whitehead, Fresh Air).
Though not as blatantly obvious but just as unsettling, that same attempt to psychologically manipulate and control is present in Get Out. An eerie sensation overwhelms the viewer as Chris interacts with Georgina and Walter more and more. There is a vacancy—a lifelessness that seems to betray who they really are—but Chris can’t quite put his finger on it. A similar feeling of Stockholm syndrome is reflected in the character Homer in The Underground Railroad. He is the devoted lackey to the most diabolical slave catcher, Ridgeway, who relentlessly hunts for Cora throughout the novel. Although Ridgeway freed Homer, the boy still remains faithfully by his side. When Cora asked why the boy doesn’t go if he’s free to, Ridgeway says, “Where? He’s seen enough to know a black boy has no future, free papers or no. Not in this country. Some disreputable character would snatch him and put him on the block lickety-split. With me, he can learn about the world. Find purpose,” (The Underground Railroad p.202). The hopeless truth of this statement still doesn’t explain why Homer goes out of his way to help Ridgeway capture other slaves. Like a victim who becomes attached to their abuser, Homer is loyal and emotionally connected to Ridgeway for reasons he probably can’t even explain to himself.
Cora, on the other hand, knows that she must fight for her freedom despite her circumstances and the limited prospects available to her. Chris must also fight for his survival in the place he is most vulnerable. Your enemy will always look for the soft underbelly of your convictions and strike there. “Every great horror movie comes from a true fear, and ideally it's a universal fear. The tricky nature of this project is that the fear I'm pulling from is very human, but it's not necessarily a universal experience, so that's why the first third of the movie is showing, and not in an over-the-top way, in a sort of real, grounded way, just getting everybody to be able to see the world through my protagonist's eyes and his fears,” (Jordan Peele, Fresh Air).
Pop culture has seen an influx of television shows, books, magazine articles and films delving deeper into this subject matter. Perhaps that can be attributed to the political upheaval happening around the world. The relevance of this topic and the willingness of our society to address it and take stock in its validity seems to be surging. “Conceiving the book, it didn’t’ take a lot of energy to find parallels for the language of the slave problem and the inner city problem. All those debates still are going on in different coded language. But, yes the legacy of slavery reverberates in Jim Crow laws, separate but equal, institutionalized racism, the incarceration state—all the things that the people in The Underground Railroad are struggling with have parallels—echoes today,” (Colson Whitehead, Fresh Air).
What I love about film and literature is its ability to inspire empathy and conversation. More often than not, we learn something new, gain a different perspective and seek to understand others more readily. When a film or book affects us, we tend to share and talk about it with others. Ultimately we have been changed by it. Books like The Underground Railroad and films like Get Out hold a mirror up to us and provide a reference point for reflection. Their popularity suggest a recognizable shift in our collective ability to stomach the discomfort of these subjects, which hopefully leads to healing and actions that support our new understanding. “Part of being a human being unfortunately, is the urge to prejudge people. So I think the only way we can really approach this is to say look, this is a human trait and it's how we as individuals choose to deal with our own internal racism and face it. That's our only way out,” (Jordan Peele, All Things Considered).