Warning: this post contains mild spoilers for the film Get Out.
I finally saw Get Out last night, and loved it. The film was laugh-out-loud funny, scary, and helped me somewhat imagine what it’s like to be a black man walking through a white suburb, or a black man talking to a white police officer. How on your guard you need to be, the feeling of constantly being in enemy territory. Get out! But where can you escape to?
Above all, I thought the film had a really interesting insight about racial power.
Chris, black, has been dating Rose, white, for five months. They go to visit Rose’s parents for the weekend. ‘Do they know I’m black?’ Chris asks. ‘No. They’re not racist’, says Rose. They’re certainly liberal, but they’re not colour-blind – Rose’s father greets Chris with ‘hey, my man!’ and enthusiastically tells him of his admiration for Obama. At an all-white drinks party, we see the subtly alienating ways white people interact with blacks: admiring his physique, asking him about ‘the African-American experience’.
But this is a horror film, not just a study in social manners. Rose’s mother is a psychiatrist, and she offers to hypnotize Chris to break his smoking addiction. ‘Don’t let her into your head!’ warns Chris’ friend on the phone. She manages to hypnotize him, and takes him back to his weakest and most painful memory. And then she leaves him there, paralyzed with fear and shame. He falls down, down, into his subconscious, more and more submissive and suggestible, looking up at her peering down on him like a goddess. ‘Now you’re in the sunken place’, she says. He’s in her power, under her spell. He’s got her under his skin, like the other black people he encounters at the mansion, who walk around like zombies.
The film evokes the experience of falling into the sunken place quite well. The sequence reminds me of Under the Skin, also about a body-snatching white goddes who puts her victims in a trance.
And it shows, once again, how effectively films can portray altered states of consciousness and evoke them in the audience. Think of how Hitchcock explores states like hypnosis, trance, vertigo, psychosis and so on, or how Danny Boyle explores altered states in films like Trainspotting, Trance and Sunshine. Or Fellini, Christopher Nolan, Andrea Arnold, Tarkovsky, Chaplin, Herzog, Jackson, Bunuel, Lynch…Cinema has developed a language of altered states.
One of the film-makers most interested in exploring altered states of consciousness is Stanley Kubrick, whose film The Shining is one of the defining influences on Get Out (according to director Jordan Peele). The Shining is a difficult film to pin down, it entrances and possesses you, it has ‘an attention to almost a subconscious level of perception’ as Peele puts it, so that people watch it over and over looking for hidden meanings (a bit like Get Out). But many of the fan-theories about the Shining suggest it’s about the dark magic of imperial power – how the elite can cast their spell on the weak and use them to do their bloody bidding, particularly for violent genocide (the film is filled with mini-references to genocides like the Jewish Holocaust or the American war on Native Americans).
Empire, the film may suggest, is a spell, a violent, evil curse, and its power carries on through the ages.
And that’s true. Empire is a spell. If you want to rule another people, make them feel dazzled, mesmerized, small and helpless when they look up at their conqueror. Put them in the sunken place. Put a curse on their minds and bodies, so that they feel their inferiority and submission in their guts, their bowels, their bones, in the way they walk, the way they tighten up when a white person walks into the room. Make them automatically have to smile, bow and serve, even if a part of them watches from the sunken place, and hates themselves.
How did tens of thousands of British manage to rule India, a nation of several hundred million? Through guns and violence, yes. But mainly through the spell of empire. ‘The prestige of race was the mainstay of the Raj’, writes the historian Lawrence James. The curse. ‘We are better than you. You are weak and helpless. We are gods.’ Repeat it over and over until it gets under their skin. Re-inforce it with all the props of power.
I woke up to the evil of the British empire late, aged 40, just this year in fact, when I visited Kolkata, and saw the Victoria Memorial. There, in the middle of this falling-down city, was a giant white palace, and inside it, a statue of the white goddess, Victoria. The whites all lived in ‘white town’ (seriously), and might have up to 100 staff for a family of 4. The empire was designed as a spell, to razzle-dazzle the natives and keep them submissive. ‘We are better than you. We are gods.’
We weren’t gods. We weren’t even very good administrators. We left India in 1947 with a literacy rate of 7%, a life expectancy of 27, 90% living beneath the poverty line. We allowed India to be repeatedly devastated by famines, in which millions died – the most recent was the 1942 Bengal Famine, in which 1-2 million died. The viceroy begged Churchill to send assistance, but he refused. ‘I hate the Indians. A beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits’, he said. Two million dead in one famine – four times the total British dead in World War II. Clearly, brown lives didn’t matter nearly as much as white lives.
British colonialists were prepared to sacrifice millions for the myth of our own racial superiority. The Nazis or the Belgian empire were more obviously evil, but our evil was more subtle – we didn’t just kill, we mind-fucked. We oversaw ‘the obliteration of the most precious possessions of the colonised, their identities and their self-respect.’
The spell of empire lasted until World War II, when Indians were stunned to see the mighty British army routed by the Japanese. By Asians. ‘Why are they running…they are sahibs’, asked one astonished Indian soldier in Burma. ‘They’re not sahibs, they’re Australians’, he was reassured by another Indian soldier, desperate to keep his faith.
Yet so effective was this spell, that it still exists. Any white visitor to India feels it – locals are desperate to take a selfie with you, people sometimes give up their seat for you on the metro, you get special treatment wherever you go. Some Indians are still in the sunken place, still under the spell of white supremacy. ‘Where are you from? Oh Britain! Good country!’ Huh? We fucked your country. We mind-fucked your ancestors. And apparently we’re still mind-fucking you. ‘I almost feel like a god‘, one white male expat declares in a recent article on India.
How do you break the spell? Through a counter-spell. The Indians were partly freed from the spell of the Raj by the even more powerful spell of Gandhi. They found something – or someone – they believed in more than the White God. In this case, it was the Hindu holy-man.
Kubrick thought the arts could also work as a counter-spell. To undo a curse, you have to be taken into a trance, shown the awful truth as in a dream, woken up to the evil – and the arts can do that. White people also need to wake up. We’re also under the spell, blind to the evil lurking in our basement. How many British people have ever heard of the Bengal famine?