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Film

Hollywood & Hidden Racism in America, 1967-2017

“I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could.”

-Dean Armitage

In the closing moments of the 2017 film Get Out, the protagonist Chris Washington chokes the life out of his girlfriend Rose Armitage. Chris is a 26-year-old dark skinned black man and Rose is an upper class white woman. Watching Chris tightly grip his large black hands around Rose’s neck, as blood trickled from her mouth, took me back to my ninth grade literature class. I was one of only three black students in a class full of whites reading Richard Wright’s seminal novel Native Son (1940). The novel’s tragic figure Bigger Thomas was sentenced to death for suffocating, decapitating, and burning the corpse of a young white woman that he worked for. With the exception of O.J. Simpson, the narrative of black male violence against white women routinely ends badly for brothas. As fate would have it a police car arrives on the scene just as Chris finishes choking Rose, but the officer turns out to be his homeboy Rod.

I have to credit a student in my African-American history class with encouraging me to see Get Out and write this article. I purposely chose to view this film at the local Magic Johnson Cinema in a predominantly black Maryland suburb. The audience, almost on cue, erupted in applause and laughter when they saw Rod, an overzealous Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer, sitting inside the car. “That’s why I don’t date white women,” one moviegoer sitting behind me told his girlfriend. “You know better,” she replied. Get Out, the best reviewed film of 2017 so far, uses satire and horror to explore uncomfortable issues of interracial dating, phony white liberalism, violence against black bodies, and hidden racism in Donald Trump’s America. One of the film’s most shocking scenes involves a room of wealthy whites playing a game of bingo modeled after a slave auction. Chris is the valued prize in this auction and his loving beau Rose is secretly working to trap him. Ironically, Get Out debuted in the same year as the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). The film arrived on movie screens in the final years of the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of black power activism, and the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize interracial marriage. While that film questioned white liberalism and the notion of a color blind society, ultimately viewers walked away with a message of optimism regarding future race relations in the country. Get Out, on the contrary, leaves moviegoers with feelings of cynicism, pessimism, and fear. This article analyzes Hollywood’s attempt to tackle America’s race problem and white Americans’ denial of their own implicit racial bias.

The Glory of Love
On the morning of July 11, 1958, Mildred Loving, a black woman, and her white husband Richard were arrested while sleeping in their bedroom. The couple was found guilty of violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws which prohibited marriage and sexual relations between blacks and whites. The couple was told to accept a year in prison or leave the state for 25 years. After a brief refuge in Washington, DC, the couple secured the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to fight for their rights to live together in Virginia. On June 12, 1967, U.S. Supreme ruled that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law violated the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment(Kevin Noble Maillard, Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Marriage, 2012). While the 2016 film Loving brilliantly portrayed the couple’s ordeal which banned anti-miscegenation laws nationwide, this issue of interracial love was addressed by Hollywood a half-century earlier.

On December 12, 1967, six months to the day of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner debuted in American theaters. It was a long way from The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood’s first presentation of interracial romance. The 1915 film by D.W. Griffith portrayed black men as rapists preying on unrelenting white women in the Reconstruction era years after the Civil War. In one scene a white woman jumps from a cliff to her death to escape a “thirsty” (too eager) black man lusting after her. Other scenes display black congressmen voting to legalize interracial marriage. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is formed to rescue all of the white women. Hollywood and the nation had progressed quite a bit between 1915 and 1967. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starred Sidney Poitier as a 37-year-old black doctor named John Prentice going home with his new 23-year-old white fiancé Joanna “Joey” Drayton (Katharine Houghton) to announce their engagement. Black film and television historian Donald Bogle describes Poitier as the archetype for the ideal black man that was readily accepted by the black middle class and mainstream white America. Poitier, the first Bahamian and African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, typically played roles that espoused middle class values of respectability. His characters were the antithesis of the violent bucks, dimwitted coons, and shuffling uncle toms popularized in American popular culture since the 19th century. “His characters were tame, not threats to the system. They were non-funky, almost sexless, and sterile,” says Bogle (Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, 2016). Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner character John Prentice was beyond perfect. The Johns University educated doctor graduated magna cum laude. He worked briefly as an assistant professor at Yale University. He was a director of the World Health Organization (WHO) and was planning to build hospitals in third world countries and a candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize. He should have been any father’s dream candidate for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

John and Joey met while they were both spending time in Hawaii. Joey fell in love with him after their first 20 minute conversation. John, whose wife and young son died eight years earlier in a train accident, fell head over heels for Joey. He proposed to her after only ten days. The couple’s plan was to get married two weeks later in Geneva, but first they need the approval of Joey’s parents. The couple flies to the home of Joey’s parents in San Francisco, CA. Joey has to be the most idealistic white woman in American history. She was completely oblivious to the possibility of her parents or friends having an issue with her engagement. She was the embodiment of a color-blind individual.

Unfortunately, her parents were not as open-minded. Upon meeting John her mother Mrs. Drayton (Katharine Hepburn) nearly faints from shock. Surprisingly, it does not take her long to support her daughter’s decision. She immediately fires an employee who expressed racist feelings about the engagement. Her husband is much slower in his embrace of the relationship. Mr. Drayton’s first reaction is to order his secretary to check the records in the library and the Medical Association to see if John was really a reputable doctor. He invites the local priest, Monsignor Mike Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), over to their home for counsel. This would not be odd if the family was actually Catholic. Monsignor Ryan finds humor in the fact that Mr. Drayton, who has always proudly carried the flag for white liberalism, harbors so much implicit racial bias. Mr. Drayton supports civil rights, he and his wife raised their daughter to be colorblind, and then there is his trusted black maid Tillie. Tillie, played magnificently by Isabel Sanford, who is best known as Weezy on The Jeffersons (1975-1985), has worked for and lived in the Drayton’s home since Joey was a baby. Mr. Drayton considers her a family member. Her devotion to Joey is reminiscent of Mammy’s (Hattie McDaniel) love for Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Tillie viewed John with skepticism from the moment he walks into her home. She calls him one of those smooth talking, smart ass niggers preaching black power.

Eventually, John’s parents drive in from Los Angeles, CA, to meet Joey. John’s father shares Mr. Drayton’s disapproval of the marriage. In spite of his love for Joey, John, playing the role of the good Negro, promises the Draytons that he will walk out of their daughter’s life if they do not grant him their blessing. Although John rebukes his father for failing to see that change was possible and racism was becoming a burden for only past generations, he fails to do the same for Mr. Drayton. John politely corrects his comments about blacks being innately better dancers, but he fails to challenge his deep seated reservations. The Monsignor and Mrs. Drayton deserve the most credit for influencing Mr. Drayton’s decision to approve the marriage at the end film’s conclusion. As the film ends the two families sit at the dinner table preparing to finally eat dinner. The film’s lighthearted anthem “The Glory of Love,” performed by Frank De Vol, plays as the closing credits appear on the screen. Although Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner addresses racism and shames whites for masking implicit racial bias with smiles, inclusive language, and support for civil rights. Ultimately viewers can walk away feeling good about themselves. As we have seen in recent family-friendly films about race such as The Help (2011) and Hidden Figures (2016) there is a kumbaya moment and feeling of optimism at the conclusion. Good always triumphs evil. Love always triumphs hate. The 1967 Sidney Poitier film was perfectly aligned with Hollywood’s agenda to promote Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” legacy. The film was a perfect counter to the growing militancy of the Black Power Movement. The fictional narrative was evidence that America could finally move beyond its nagging race problem if black men and white women could marry each other.

Yes We Can
In 2008 Americans got their closest thing to a real life version of Poitier’s character Dr. John Prentice. Barack Obama was an Ivy League educated black man who was determined to change the world and leave racial prejudice on the ash heap of history. His Vice President Joe Biden described him as the “first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice guy.” Obama, the son of a black African man and a white American woman, would become America’s first black President. The fact that his maternal grandparents were willing to accept their black son-in-law allowed for the nation’s first black president nearly four decades after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He would go on to receive a Nobel Peace Prize and be reelected in 2012. Several white journalists, and some blacks, immediately introduced the term post-racial to describe America in this new era of welcoming a black family in the White House.

In her New York Times essay “The End of the Postracial Myth” Nikole Hannah-Jones explains how white liberals in predominantly white states like Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania laid the roots for this post-racial myth by voting for Barack Obama in historic numbers. According to Hannah-Jones, the Great Recession placed these whites from Rust Belt towns and farming communities in such dire straits that they were willing to accept Obama’s color blind message of audacious hope and change. “There are times when working-class whites, whether rural or urban, will join an interracial alliance to get the short term gains they want,” says UCLA professor of History Robin D.G. Kelley.

Hannah-Jones correctly states that racism and racial anxiety have always existed on a spectrum. Therefore whites can still harbor racist views and engage in racist behavior without mirroring the outright repugnant behavior of the blatant segregationists we see on episodes of the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize (1987-1990). She points to the example of a 53-year-old white woman from Iowa named Gretchen Douglas. Douglas was a lifetime Democrat who voted for Obama, but was turned off by his fiscal policies, support for social welfare programs which she thought favored minorities, and his allegiance with the Black Lives Matter Movement. “Obama really turned me off when he said the boy (Trayvon Martin) could have been his son.” Douglas saw President Obama’s support for Trayvon and later Michael Brown as a declaration of his choosing a side in the racial divide that he promised to bridge. In 2016 she became a Republican and voted for Donald Trump. The same Donald Trump who called himself the “least racist person ever”, despite engaging in housing discrimination in the 1970s. Trump, the former liberal turned conservative Republican, denies harboring racial bias despite the following contradictions:

(1) disrespecting the legacy of civil rights icon John Lewis
(2) supporting the Tea Party’s claims of birtherism that questioned the legitimacy of Obama’s citizenship
(3) stating that most black people live in crime-infested ghettos
(4) blaming the Black Lives Matter movement for violence against police while ignoring the complaints of the activists
(5) his insensitive remarks to American Urban Radio Networks reporter April Ryan during a White House press conference. Ryan asked the president if he was planning to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus. He rudely suggested that she should organize the meeting because they were her friends.

Trump denies engaging in racist rhetoric or behavior despite appealing to the KKK and other hate groups. The Academy Award nominated documentary film 13th features a mashup of Trump’s racially charged 2016 campaign rallies with scenes of white southerners verbally and physically attacking civil rights activists during the 1950s and 1960s. While many of Trump’s white supporters deny that race was a factor in their vote or their distrust of Obama, it falls on deaf ears for most African-Americans. In the midst of all of this highly charged atmosphere Hollywood has given us Get Out, the post-post-racial version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for the Age of Trump.

Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga
Film critics have labeled Get Out as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Alfred Hitchcock’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Stepford Wives, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The film is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, co-creator of the Comedy Central sketch comedy television series Key & Peele (2012-2015). It should be noted that Jordan Peele is the son of a black father and white mother, his wife Chelsea Peretti is white, and his comic partner Keegan-Michael Key is the son of biological and adoptive black fathers and white mothers. Peele brings his unique perspective on race and interracial relationships to his film. Get Out begins with the same narrative as its 1967 predecessor, but with an ending that would never have been approved by Hollywood executives 50 years ago. The film’s protagonist Chris is preparing to take a weekend road trip to meet his girlfriend Rose’s parents. Chris, a talented photographer, is played by British actor Daniel Kaluuya, an interesting fact given that Sidney Poitier was not an American born black man either. Rose is played by Allison Williams, a co-star of the popular HBO series Girls (2012-2017) and daughter of former NBC anchorman Brian Williams. Chris’s best friend Rod, played by Lil Rel Howery, emphatically advises him not to go on the trip. But Chris ignores the warnings because he is madly in love with Rose. Rose is the stereotypical liberal white millennial who is ignorant to many of the subtle nuances that many black people pick up on at all times. For example, when their car is stopped during the trip the white police officer asks to see Chris’s license. Although Rose was driving the car, Chris is quick to oblige. But Rose barks back at the officer because she believes that he is disrespecting her man. This would have been a perfect sketch for Saturday Night Live as it becomes a pattern throughout the film. Chris does not feel safe and Rose assures him that he has nothing to fear.

The couple arrives at her parents’ beautiful home in a lily white upper class suburb. Her father Dean (Bradley Whitford) is a twisted version of Mr. DraytFon. “How long has this thaaang been going on,” he sarcastically asks Rose and Chris. Dean is a Democrat who would have voted for Obama for a third term, as he tells Chris. His father, Roman, lost to the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics. Although Dean tells Chris that he was proud to see Owens obliterate Adolf Hitler’s myth of white Aryan supremacy, his father never got over losing that race. This minor reference to Owens is the underlying premise for the entire film. The Armitage family is obsessed with racial superiority. Early on Rose’s creepy younger brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) tries to put Chris in a headlock and tells him that he should consider trying Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) because his “genetic makeup” would make him a superior athlete in the sport. A similar conversation takes place later in the film during a party at the family’s home which resembles a funeral. All of the guests go out of their way to be nice to Chris. An older white man tells him that he has the physical makeup to dominate golf if he dedicates himself to the sport.

Just like in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,the family’s black help does not trust their new visitor. The maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) constantly unplugs Chris’s cell phone causing the battery to die. When he makes a comment to her about his experience as a black man in America she begins laughing and crying uncontrollably. “No, no, no, nooooo, no, no, no, aren’t you something,” she tells him. Georgina assures Chris that she is quite happy in the Armitage home and that her black experience is not one of hardship. Chris receives a similar response from the family’s black landscaper Walter (Marcus Henderson). Finally, Chris meets a young brotha named Logan King (played by Atlanta’s LaKeith Stanfield) at the party. Other than the help, Chris and Logan are the only blacks at the party. When a partygoer asks Chris to define the black experience he turns to Logan, asking him to respond instead. Logan, who is married to a white woman 30 years his senior, gives a politically correct, clichéd response that pleases the audience. As Logan is speaking Chris snaps a photo of him with his cell phone. The camera’s flash causes Logan’s nose to begin bleeding profusely. Logan becomes hysterical and grabs Chris warning him to “GET OUT!”

In his 1963 speech “Message to the Grassroots” Malcolm differentiates between the “house Negro” and the “field Negro.” The “field Negro” works outside in the sun tending to the crops. He or she is not considered a member of the family. The “field Negro” is unruly and looks for the moment to rebel. The “house Negro” lives in the big house and is given nice clothes, better food, and better sleeping quarters. He or she is made to feel like a family member by his or her paternalistic masters or bosses. If the master gets sick the “house Negro” says,“What’s the matter, boss, we sick?”

The “house Negro” is a proponent of the double-consciousness to please white folk that W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of in The Souls of Black Folk. Chris is a “field Negro” in the presence of a bunch of “house Negroes.” But as we learn by the end of the film these “house Negroes” have been more than just brainwashed. “Logan” is really Andre Hayworth, a black musician from Brooklyn who has been missing for the last six months. Rod believes that the whites in this neighborhood are kidnapping black people and turning them into sex slaves, which turns out to be true.

The Armitages are using Rose as bait to lure in young, gifted blacks to snatch their bodies to be used as hosts. In one scene Rose searches the internet for the top black college football and basketball players, so that she can find more prey. Her paternal grandparents are living inside the bodies of Walter and Georgina, which explains why Chris sees Walter running wind sprints outside at night. Remember, her grandfather never got over losing to four time gold medalist Jesse Owens 80 years ago.

Throughout his visit Rose’s mom Missy (Catherine Keener) stirs a cup of tea to hypnotize Chris under her wicked spell and take him to what she calls “the sunken place.” Professional basketball Hall of Famer/scholar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes an excellent article for The Hollywood Reporter about what he interprets as the film’s underlying message concerning black bodies. Kareem writes:

Most important is the idea that when you live under constant physical threat of violence — whether from police, the legal system or racist groups — that in itself is a way to control people. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his blunt and incisive book Between the World and Me, describes this daily dilemma for people of color: “Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.” What startles some viewers of Get Out is that the biggest threat to the young black protagonist isn’t the predictable redneck leftovers from Deliverance, but the wealthy white liberals who probably donate to the ACLU and tearfully tell their friends to watch Moonlight…. It’s horrifying watching poor Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) paralyzed in that chair while his will and body are being stolen, because growing up, I felt as paralyzed as him. I practiced hard and earned a good living. But I knew as a child that my name and religion were not my own…. I was paralyzed by that past, by white America’s expectations for how a black man should behave, by how much gratitude I should constantly express for allowing me to succeed… Reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time inspired me to find my own voice. When I used that voice to speak about political and social injustice, some Americans responded with hatred and death threats.

Chris, on the surface, plays the role of the good Negro, but he is constantly questioning everyone around him. He is the trickster from African-American folklore and Brer Rabbit tales who plays along as a matter of survival until his opportunity comes to pounce upon his enemy (John W. Roberts, From Trickster to Badman: The Black Hero in Slaver and Freedom, 1990). Chris is left with no other option but to kill every white person in sight, including his beloved Rose.

There is no happy ending unless you were rooting for the black dude. Jordan Peele uses the film’s theme song “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” which is Swahili for “Listen to the ancestors, run!” for his closing credits rather than the optimistic “The Glory of Love” found in the Sidney Poitier film. Jordan Peele told GQ that he intentionally chose music that lacked “a glimmer of hope to it” to capture the horror of being black in America.
Guess Who’s Coming Dinner was appropriate for the time period coming on the heels of the Loving decision. It acknowledged that most white Americans still had a problem with civil rights when it resulted in interracial marriage and complete equality of the races. Nevertheless, it promoted the hope and change of the Civil Rights Movement, President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The film foreshadowed the election of President Barack Obama and the naivete of believing in the post-racial society myth. Get Out speaks to black America’s trepidation with the string of unresolved police shootings, the exit of Obama and entrance of Trump into the White House, and the continued efforts to convince us that racism is a burden for past generations.

Can Hollywood save America?
Both Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Get Out were box office smashes. The former film, distributed by Columbia Pictures, earned $56.7 million on a $4 million budget. The latter, distributed by Universal Pictures, earned over $140 million in its first four weeks on a modest $4.5 million budget. What this says is that the public wants to see these types of films when they are well done. Hollywood follows trends that benefit its bottom line to make more money. As a result we could see more thought provoking films like Get Out to come. I find this to be quite interesting because Hollywood is just as guilty of contributing to the race problem as it has been helpful in fighting it. Hollywood gave us The Birth of a Nation, and Gone with the Wind, and has been notorious for promoting racist stereotypes and tropes for decades. Hollywood has a long history of white supremacy, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) boycotted Hollywood in the early twentieth century to ban The Birth of a Nation and The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show.

Anyone remember that 1990 rap song “Burn Hollywood Burn” by Ice Cube, Chuck D., and Big Daddy Kane or the #oscarssowhite campaign on Black Twitter just a year ago? Michael Eric Dyson could have probably devoted an entire chapter to Hollywood’s hidden racism in his latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. But Hollywood has also given us Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Roots, The Cosby Show, and The Wire. Since 2015 Hollywood has premiered a bevy of new black television programming that presents multi-dimensional images of the African-American experience. You could not go to the movies last year without seeing thought provoking black films. The Kevin Hart and Tyler Perry comedies competed with Fences, Hidden Figures, I Am Not Your Negro, Loving, Moonlight, O.J.: Made in America, and The Birth of a Nation (the Nat Turner version) for the public’s attention.

2017 begins with Get Out debuting in theaters the final week of Black History Month and two days before the fifth anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death. Clearly, this film is drawing more than black viewers to earn that much money. Is Hollywood trying to teach white viewers something about hidden prejudice and implicit racial bias? Are the white executives in many of these studios learning something from these films that might force them to question their own feelings about race? Only time will tell.

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.