White mansions, black bodies:
Get Out and the New Age
On February 24, 2017, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out opened as the number one film in the United States, grossing $33 million at the box-office, and dazzling critics in the process. For instance, The Atlantic writer David Sims noted,
“It’s an atmospheric, restrained, extremely effective work of horror with a clear point of view, a darkly hilarious movie that never trips over itself in search of a cheap laugh or scare.”[open notes in new window]
Slate’s Aisha Harris was equally impressed, summarizing,
“In hitting that sweet spot between scary and hilarious, and laying bare the many layers of America’s historic treatment of the Black body, Get Out could soon land an enduring spot on the syllabi of many a college course, alongside both Rosemary’s Baby and Between the World and Me." 
In the ensuing weeks, spectators ventured to theaters in droves to view Peele’s racially infused social horror thriller to the tune of $175 million in the United
States, and $79 million in overseas markets for a cumulative total of $254 million, an astounding feat given the film’s minuscule $4.5 million budget. Finally, Get Out earned three Academy Award nominations—Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay—and Peele won the Oscar for the latter.
In the weeks leading up to and in the aftermath of Get Out’s release, Peele participated in the typical promotional junkets and interviews, discussing the film’s conception and predominant themes. Because Get Out examines racial politics, and opened a little over a month after the inauguration of former President Donald Trump who predicated his campaign on racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, ableism, and xenophobia, interviewers often asked Peele about his inspiration for the film seemingly expecting to learn that the 45th President of the United States had inspired it.
To the contrary, in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Peele explained that he actually conceived of Get Out in 2008 to challenge the post-racial fallacy that proliferated after the election of former President Barack Obama. As Catherine Squires explains in The Post-Racial Mystique, in the immediate aftermath of Obama’s historic win, politicians, pundits, bloggers, and members of the general public used “colorblind” and “post-racial” interchangeably, declaring that the United States’ first Black Commander-in-Chief’s election signaled that the country had moved beyond racism. Consequently, (and as has been well documented in trade papers and academic scholarship), Peele penned Get Out’s screenplays an emphatic response to proponents of ridiculous colorblind and post-racial ideologies, which the numerous killings of unarmed Blacks—Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice—throughout former President Obama’s two terms in office proved false. Peele noted,
“It was very important to me to just get the entire audience in touch in some way with the fears inherent [in] being Black in this country. Part of being Black in this country, and I presume being any minority, is constantly being told that ... we’re seeing racism where there just isn’t racism.”
Indeed, in recounting the story of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young Black man, who finds himself in a perilous situation after his White girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), takes him to visit her “liberal” parents at their country home, Peele infuses the horror/thriller genre with poignant examinations of overt and covert racism.
While Get Out’s examination of contemporary racial politics was and remains much needed and relevant, I contend that the film also functions as a powerful commentary on the predominant ways that Hollywood and independent films have historically depicted slavery.
This article is divided into three sections, the first of which discusses Hollywood films’ presentations of slave plantations as inspired by the Lost Cause Tradition, demonstrating the ways in which mainstream cinema has depicted, distorted, and policed the “right ways” to exist as Black. The second section focuses on independent cinema’s presentation of what I refer to as the Panoptic plantation, a horrific construct that reveals the depths of slave states’ surveillance and control of Black bodies. The article concludes by detailing how Get Out is endemic of what I assert is an original and frightening construct of slavery and plantations that functions as a harrowing metaphor for contemporary racism and the ways in which it polices and haunts Black bodies.
The Lost Cause Tradition and Reunion Films
Historically, Hollywood has shown a somewhat perverse fascination with slavery and the Civil War, a point that Ed Guerrero elucidates in “The Color Purple. Brother from Another Planet: The Slavery Motif in Recent Popular Cinema.” He explains that for nearly 70 years, the “overt inscription of the slavery motif” has characterized mainstream studio films. Indeed, Hollywood cinema has predominantly presented slavery and slave plantations via the Lost Cause Tradition, a revisionist narrative strategy that emerged during Reconstruction. In Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War, Gary W. Gallagher explains that in the aftermath of the War Between the States, “former Confederates confronted the postwar world as a people thoroughly beaten on the battlefield but defiantly unapologetic about their attempts to establish a slaveholding republic.” However, “Lost Cause writers understood that slavery posed the greatest obstacle to their constructing a version of secession and war that would position them favorably before the bar of history.” Therefore, they ushered in
“The Lost Cause Tradition, a formula that offers a loose group of arguments that cast the South’s experiment in nation-building as an admirable struggle against hopeless odds, played down the importance of slavery in bringing secession and the war, and ascribed to Confederates’ constitutional high-mindedness and gallantry on the battlefield.”
After the Civil War, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, the president and vice president of the Confederacy, respectively, emerged as two of the most prominent Lost Cause writers. Their efforts to reframe history after the South’s loss present stark contradictions to their sentiments regarding slavery and secession prior to and during the Civil War. For example, on March 21, 1861, Stephens delivered his famous, or perhaps infamous, “Cornerstone Speech,” asserting that the new Confederate constitution “put at rest forever [sic] all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists among us. . . . This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution [sic].” He further emphasized white supremacy as the catalyst for the war boldly proclaiming,
“Our new government is founded upon …, its foundation rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon the great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Jefferson Davis also made clear that the South seceded because of slavery, asserting that Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party’s plan to end chattel servitude would render “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.” Consequently, Davis noted, Southerners were “driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.”
Despite their emphatic speeches espousing Black inferiority and citing slavery as the catalyst for secession and the Civil War, Stephens, and Davis both later reversed course in their memoirs. In A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States, Stephens explained,
“war had its origin in opposing principles…a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other. Slavery, so called, was but the question on which these antagonistic principles, which had been in conflict, from the beginning, on diverse other questions, were finally brought into actual and active collision with each other on the field of battle.”
Not to be outdone by his former vice president, Davis followed suit in The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, contending, “that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” While Stephens and Davis are but two examples of Lost Cause writers, and the strategies they implemented to manipulate the memory of the Civil War, the style proliferated. This rhetoric was so effective in distorting the actual cause of the conflict, that today, a segment of the United States population still falsely claims the bloody war was a struggle for “states’ rights.”
In addition to its enduring effects on the United States’ collective memory of the Civil War, the Lost Cause Tradition also had a major impact on popular art, culture, and cinema. As the majority of Hollywood films recounting the Antebellum, the War between the States, and its aftermath make clear, Lost Cause proponents helped Hollywood normalize and perpetuate distorted Civil War narratives. Screenwriters and filmmakers have consistently relied upon such skewed mythologies to produce what British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and Oscar-winning screenwriter and professor Kevin Willmott classifies as “Reunion Films” or movies with the primary goal of reuniting the North and the South. Perhaps the most important aspect of reunion films is that they are recounted from a Southern perspective. The narratives generally focus on the trials and tribulations of handsome, chivalrous active-duty or former Confederate soldiers and/or virginal Southern Belles. The films valorize their Southern protagonists, creating feelings of empathy for the South—the region of the United States that owned and exploited Black people and seceded from the Union and fought to establish a slaveholding republic. In doing so, the movies depict fictitious situations between slave plantations’ white mansions, the Southern protagonists (read slave masters) who reside in them, and their relationships with Black bodies (read slaves). Willmott explains that Reunion Films rely upon a host of other characteristics; however, for the sake of brevity, this article highlights three—
- Heroes as Blackface Darky Lovers, and
- Segregation Imagery.
Here I apply these concepts to David Butler’s light-hearted Civil War story, The Littlest Rebel (1935). Based on a play by Edward Peple, Rebel tells the story of Virgie (Shirley Temple), an adolescent Southern Belle whose privileged, tranquil existence is shattered by the onset of the Civil War. When a battle breaks out on her plantation, she loses her white mansion, and more importantly, her mother who dies after contracting a severe illness when forced to live in the harsh outdoors. Fortunately, a Black body in the form of kindly, loyal, Uncle Billy (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) springs into action to care for Virgie. Risking his own life, he retrieves her father, Confederate Army Captain, Herbert Cary (Jon Boles), from the front lines, providing him with safe passage back to his once glorious plantation—now located in Union occupied territory. There, Captain Cary is discovered by Colonel Moss (Jack Holt), a sympathetic Union officer so taken by little Virgie that he colludes with her father to protect her. He gives Captain Cary a pass and informs him of the whereabouts of one of his extra uniforms that he can use to disguise himself as a Union officer to safely transport Virgie to safety. Their plan fails and both are arrested for treason and scheduled to be hung. Once again, Uncle Billy steps in and he and Virgie tap dance their way to Washington, DC, where they successfully appeal to the Great Emancipator himself, President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.) who pardons both her father and the Union Captain, symbolically reuniting the North and the South.
Rebel’s opening montage immediately positions it as a Reunion Film. Set to a slow rendition of Stephen Foster’s minstrel show tune, “Swanee River,” the song’s connection to the degrading blackface stage tradition and its lyrics foreshadow the fantastic and distorted tale that will ensue. The first verse is as follows:
"Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,
Far, far away,
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.
All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.
All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home."
As the lyrics illustrate, Foster wrote the song in “Black slave dialect,” and in minstrel shows Whites in blackface would have performed it as one of three stereotypical caricatures—Jim Crow, Mr. Tambo, or Zip Coon. Hence, “Swanee River” chronicles a free “Black man” yearning for the good old days of enslavement, making it apparent that like minstrel shows, Rebel and Reunion Films, more broadly emerged from White imaginations.
During Rebel’s opening sequence, “Swanee River” plays over images of the Cary plantation, positioning it as what Willmott categorizes as a southern version of Camelot, on pristine, majestic fields, complete with a beautiful white mansion, and the presentation of slavery as a genteel way of life. Indeed, Rebel opens on a bright, sunny day, and the cinematography enhances the beauty of the successive images of a slave shanty positioned on a lush piece of land, contented slaves working in a beautiful field, and horses drinking from a serene pond. The sequence concludes with an establishing shot of the Cary family’s white mansion, and because they are hosting Virgie’s birthday party, well-dressed slaves stand in front of the home like paid valets greeting arriving guests. Although the sequence is only twenty seconds long, the music and iconography position chattel slavery as a civilized institution comprised of beautiful plantations on which slaves contentedly work without oversight. This fictitious construction absolves Rebel’s Southern White protagonists for owning and exploiting Black bodies.
Additionally, Reunion Films feature “Heroes as Blackface Darky Lovers,” which means White protagonists who love their slaves and share deep emotional connections with them. These Southern protagonists are generally kind, heroic, and steadfast as they endure and overcome hardships. In essence, their narrative function is to garner sympathy for and make White slaveowners likable. Such characterizations demonstrate that not all of them, and other Whites by extension, were/are racist, and the scripts thus obfuscate their roles in policing and exploiting Black bodies.
Virgie is a quintessential Hero as Blackface Darky Lover, and as such, Rebel goes to great lengths to demonstrate that she loves some Black people. In one scene, she steps away from her birthday party and exits her white mansion to visit some “special friends” who want to speak with her. The action shifts to the back porch where Mammy (Bessie Lyle), instructs a slave girl named Sally Ann (Hannah Washington) to present Virgie with a gift on behalf of all the slave children gathered on the porch: Mammy says, “stand up straight and speak right out to Miss Virgie.” Virgie emerges from her white mansion. Then, quite predictably because of her feeble intellect, Sally Ann botches her pre-planned speech when presenting the gift, a Black baby doll resembling minstrel caricatures and other grotesque Black memorabilia, In true Hero as Blackface Darky Lover fashion, Virgie loves the doll, proclaiming it the nicest birthday present she received.
This scene plays up Heroes as Blackface Darky Lover mythologies and is arguably worse than most Reunion Films, because it uses children, the mise-en-scene, and the dialogue to perpetuate racist Black/White binaries. For visual contrast, Virgie (whose name is a constant reminder of virginal White womanhood) is fair, blonde, innocent, and wears a white dress, while Sally Ann (Hannah Washington) has a dark complexion, wears a somewhat dingy dress, and is emotionally fragile. That Sally Ann forgets the birthday salutation connotes her lack of intelligence, making it apparent that she would be unable to exist in the world without White oversight. In contrast, although much younger than Sally Ann, Virgie is intelligent, confident, comforting, and reassuring, upholding distorted White supremacist logics about Blacks. Still, the children are friends, a relationship that presents slavery as a civil institution in which Whites love their enslaved Blacks and vice versa.
The scene on the back porch intersects with the third element of Reunion Films—Segregation Imagery—which means presenting Blacks and Whites as best when they are among “their own kind.” The end of the scene is telling. As Virgie reenters her white mansion, she tells Sally Ann and the others that she will save them some cake. Yet, she never asks why Sally Ann and the other slave children cannot accompany her inside to celebrate with the rest of the kids. Instead, Virgie rejoins her all-White attendees, upholding hierarchies of separatism in which worthy White kids party with her inside the white mansion while the Black children happily wait outside for leftovers, or second-class citizen cake.
The Littlest Rebel is an exemplary Reunion Film that makes the Civil War civil. Significantly, many other films perpetuate similar ideologies, repairing strained ties between Northern and Southern Whites along the way. For instance, D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915), David O. Selznick’s alleged masterpiece, Gone with the Wind (1939), Ride with the Devil (1999), Cold Mountain (2003), True Grit (1969 & 2010), News of the World (2020), and the FX series, Hell on Wheels (2011-2016) are all notable examples that illustrate how the Lost Cause proliferates cinema and media. Although Reunion films may seem innocuous, they continue to inform the United States’ collective memory of the Civil War and perceptions of Black bodies. As Willmott explains:
“Reunion Films affected American viewers by kind of making Northerners accept racism and Southerners not see racism. I don’t think that’s how Hollywood initially intended them to be, but that was the end result. Slavery became normal, and when it becomes normal, it becomes less horrific and normalizes racism. A big part of how that works is just by normalizing Southern plantation cultures. Northerners came to view Southern plantation culture as a positive, not a negative.”