The Blacker the Berry: Race relations in ‘Get Out’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’

Films discussed:
Get Out
(Peele, 2017)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
(Kramer, 1968)

Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi, 1993)
OJ: Made in America (Edelman, 2016)
Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016)
13th (DuVernay, 2017)

‘Civil rights is one thing. This here is somethin’ else.’
— Tillie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Meeting bae’s family is never easy. In-law jokes don’t span world culture for nothing. But what stokes the flame in that teeming-couple kindling is the unspoken question on anxious parents’ lips: are they like us? Now, class can be a slow-burner for division, a simmering pot brought to the boil over time. But there’s nothing more incendiary than the immediacy, the elephant-stomping-in-the-room evidence, of race. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, we find preserved a Hollywood-sanitised treatment of the interracial marriage question – quite the scandal in Western 60s society. It’s central situation, a black boyfriend brought home to meet all-white parents, is mirrored in this year’s Get Out. The difference in genre and tone of these films, pivoting around the control variable of a shared plot, tells us a lot about race relations: their portrayal in social circles and the media, how a film’s outlook changes based on the racial background of the team behind it, and the public’s shifting reaction when faced with its controversial stimuli.

Beyond the subject matter, here’s how the films line up:

  • Guess had a white director, Kramer, Get Out a black one, Peele.
  • They were made almost 50 years apart – 1968 and 2016.
  • Both feature successful black male lead characters: Sidney Poitier’s seminal Doctor, John, and Daniel Kaluuya’s promising photographer, Daniel.

… and most crucially, genre:

  • Guess is a family comedy/drama. Get Out is a psychological horror.

Guess’ Hollywood stars, clichéd supporting cast and pastel colour palette preserve its status as a ‘light’ affair, smoothing the rough edges of controversial subject matter – made in the shadow of the ‘interracial couple’ issue, a union which horrified (conservative)Western society. In Get Out, the film itself is horrifying – perhaps more accurately reflecting the outrage, 50 years on, in black communities that have borne witness to repeated police man-slaughter (Martin, Garner, Brown, Scott and more) and endured unfair treatment under the law more widely.

A lot has certainly changed in half a century. The subject matter films are permitted to cover has widened considerably, for example, and may account for some of the films’ differences. But the most striking difference is the genre shift. It’s made possible by a black director, who can draw on the personal experience of too-eager, white condescension.

As Peele says in interview, ‘it’s clear we’re far from a post-racial society’. A fact blatantly obvious especially in light of the Ferguson/Baltimore race riots, whose extensive world press coverage was only halted by election season. But this factual reality[1] is suppressed by sheltered, societal elites, the purported ‘tolerant’ mass, who found their harmonious narrative brutally torn down in riots that marred Obama’s last days in office. The overwhelmingly white elite targeted by such protests is often stereotyped as having friends-in-high-places: establishments of education, politics and law. The privileged might cultivate these connections by frequenting middle-class lawn parties, with pearl-marbled water features and breezy gazebos. One such white-washed family affair is prominent in Get Out, whose guests seek to plaster over racial divisions with platitudes. ‘I’d vote for Obama a third time if I could’, Bradley Whitford’s Dean says, in cringey earnest.

Get Out’s power to shock derives from its refusal to hide behind such PC phrases, exposing the falsity in sanitised ideals of multicultural society. Faced with frank discussions of ‘superior genetic makeups’ and the climactic reveal of horrific, racially-motivated murders, these pandering party platitudes are spotlighted for what they are: isolating attempts at appearing ‘normal’ and ‘inclusive’. They imply a loftiness in the speaker, reeking of condescension rather than genuine attempts to make cross-racial connections.

Guess, on the other hand, makes palatable the controversies of its time. Kramer, the white director, achieves this through a light tone, a jaunty soundtrack, and of course, the casting of the peerless Sidney Poitier. Guess also features Poitier’s parents to balance the teams, a luxury not afforded to Get Out’s Kaluuya, who is isolated and alone in a white wilderness. Poitier, however, seems perfectly at home in pasty provincialism. As he says to his father: ‘…you think of yourself as a coloured man. I think of myself as a man.’

Guesswho

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner …. John’s parents arrive

Are we to read this as akin to OJ Simpson’s race-relinquishing efforts (as argued in the excellent documentary OJ: Made in America)? Where the ghetto-raised quarterback used his star power to rub shoulders with old, white, Long Island golfers, as if to rub off his ‘blackness’? Where white advertising executives found they didn’t mind giving the first black man TV sponsorship, only if it was OJ?  To the point where, when asked about his race, Simpson would reply ‘I’m just OJ?’

“Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, y’know?”
― Chris Rock

Simpson’s egotism is an extreme example. But Poitier’s lone stance as black pinnacle among 60s Hollywood stars has led some to label him a ‘token’ example of diversity (also accused of this phenomenon: Denzel Washington in the 90s, Will Smith in the 00s). As a side note – masculinity in these films is fascinating. It might be a mistake to draw parallels between Get Out and Moonlight, given the proximity of shooting-schedules, but it seems serendipitous to say the least that we have two black male leads who weep openly during these films. This is a surprisingly rare phenomenon on screen, and lends both Moonlight and Get Out’s characters a humanity missing from, say, Poitier, whose anguish is usually expressed in blustering fury, a resolute manliness, a muscular sharpness in tone. In any case, the topic of black masculinity and class is rich and far-reaching, far better explored by more qualified people than me, in films like Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Here Will Smith’s character impersonates Poitier’s son to gain access to the home of a wealthy white couple.

There’s something to it. It’s a thread which runs through all these films – the nomination of ‘successful’ members of the black community, ordained and elevated, as it were, to inhabit white society. Albeit, Kaluuya’s elevation doesn’t last long. The white folks soon try to rid him of identity completely, colonising his brain with dominant parts of theirs, as they have done with countless other African-Americans. But maybe that’s the point. In Get Out, we have the horrifying manifestation of cultural whitewashing laid bare: middle class white Americans laying traps for the most desirable members of the Black community (‘Black is so in fashion’), then proceeding to leech off their youth, talent and potential (very relevant: Netflix doc 13th, which argues biases in the American justice system has led to the massively disproportionate imprisonment of blacks: a network akin to a modern-day slave trade).

Get Out’s jump-scares, ratcheted tension, unnerving string sections and nightmare dream sequences are horror tropes translated from personal experience. Guess, while headline-making at the time, is shown to have its outrage shackled by the domestic drama genre, filtered through a white director, stereotypes exposed in the light of present day. Despite being filled with murder, malice and disfiguring hate, Peele’s film is more relatable. It’s portrayal of race relations is darker, something lovers cannot surpass, but ultimately seems more realistic.

Pretty unnerving innit.

[1]  One has to distinguish this from ‘fake’ reality these days.

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