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Modernist Afterlives In Performance—The Afterlife of Modernist Acting

It was her mouth, and not yet she, that cried.

It was that shadow cried behind her mouth;

—William Butler Yeats, At Hawk’s Well (1916)[1]

There is a striking moment about two-thirds of the way through Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film Get Out (2016).[2] While visiting his white girlfriend’s family estate for the weekend, the film’s black protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is approached by one of the family’s African-American servants, Georgina (Betty Gabriel). At this point in the film, the audience is aware that Washington has been uneasy about the visit since before the couple arrived, in large part because his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) had not disclosed his race to her family before their visit. As a black man surrounded by the white family and their mostly white friends, Washington’s discomfort increases despite the reassurances of his girlfriend. In this brief exchange with Georgina, he attempts to find some commonality in his discomfort. Structured as a series of slowly tightening counter-shots between the two characters, the sequence depicts Georgina approaching Chris to explain why she has unplugged his cell phone (repeatedly). When he confesses to her that “When there are too many white people, I get nervous,” Georgina responds with a repeated, “No. No. No.” It’s a phrase intended as comfort, but the moment instead conveys a sense of the uncanny that is, indeed, the key to understanding the film as a whole. It is also a moment deeply indebted to the interwoven histories of acting and media in modernism.

Peele’s film received significant attention when it appeared in 2017 and was nominated for Academy Awards in Directing, Lead Actor, and Best Picture, and he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Mainstream film reviews focused on the film’s critique of a so-called “post-racial” America in the wake of the Obama presidency, and amid twenty-first-century movements such as Black Lives Matter.[3] Popular discussion also focused on the film as a pastiche of previous horror films of conformity and paranoia, most notably Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Bryan Forbes’s The Stepford Wives (1975), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). YouTube videos emerged to decode the film’s many cultural and cinematic allusions and references, including a video by Peele himself responding to fan theories posted on the discussion forum Reddit.[4] Writing in Science Fiction Film and Television, Michael Jarvis unpacks the film’s racial politics within the horror genre:

The incisive brilliance of the film is that it hinges precisely on the US post-racial moment, where overt acts of racism are frowned upon, but so is scrutinising the social text of whiteness for foundational antagonisms undergirding the shiny façade of liberal humanism. Both are indecorous, but the latter is paranoid, a pejorative characterisation that rejects non-hegemonic and racialised knowledge, and can help keep white supremacy potent as an invisible subtext. A white, patriarchal discourse casts doubt upon the knowledge of women and people of colour; as The Stepford Wives and Get Out make clear, it also compels them to doubt themselves.[5]

Although the film is unquestionably specific to US politics in the early decades of the twenty-first century, Peele’s film contains allusions that point to a longer history of racial marginalization within cinema and media culture. What most accounts of the film ignore is just how far back these connections go. As I argue here, Peele offers a critique of media that extends beyond the 1960s to the earliest days of cinema itself. Embedded within the exchange between Georgina and Chris is a history of acting and film that illustrates how the emergence of popular Hollywood cinema and subsequent mass media, such as television and video, created and perpetuated the kinds of cultural and bodily appropriation that Peele’s film critiques. Although brief, this scene is not only necessary to understand the larger implications of the film and its historical connotations but also, as I argue here, demonstrates the extended impact of early twentieth-century acting theory in contemporary culture. For all of Peele’s emphasis on current events and his critique of “post-racial” America, the film’s focus on duality is thoroughly modernist, informed by specific acting techniques and situated within a critical media archaeology presented as inherently racist. Peele thus deftly posits the fallacy of a post-racial America as a failed performance, one in which the presentation of self is a façade both created and perpetuated by media.

Get Out

The exchange between Chris and Georgina is one of the film’s most recognizable and significant moments. It is featured in the trailer and augurs the film’s ending long before many in its audience will have realized the climactic revelation. As Georgina moves toward Chris, both the formal uncanniness of the shot and Georgina’s unnatural manner create a growing sense of dread. Framed tightly on screen, Georgina is shot at an indirect angle from the side and slightly below her eye-line, a position that gives the viewer an off-center perspective without becoming a fully canted angle.[6] The lens is focused on her face, causing the background to blur and projecting only her immediate facial features in sharp focus. Cinematographer Toby Oliver shoots the scene with a wide lens close to Gabriel’s face such that the depth of field further unsettles the viewer’s relationship to her figure on screen.[7] However, the most unnerving part of the shot is not created by the camera apparatus, but by Gabriel’s performance. In the screenplay Peele describes her thus: “Georgina's voice is shaky and careful,” and, later, her “eyes get lost for a moment. A tear falls down her face as if there is a pain behind her otherwise vacant smile.”[8] In the film, Gabriel’s acting transforms this moment from conventional horror-film anxiety into a moment of uncanniness that reaches beyond familiar tropes to encompass African-American film history, avant-garde acting, and the emergence of the contemporary avatar facilitated by new media.

Betty Gabriel as Georgina in Get Out.
Fig. 1. Betty Gabriel as Georgina in Get Out.

As Georgina approaches Chris, she does two things simultaneously: she laughs and cries. Laughter through tears is a familiar technique of sentimental theatre and film, as for example in the play-cum-film Steel Magnolias (1988), where one character exclaims enthusiastically, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”[9] And, it is not uncommon for popular horror films such as Psycho (1960), Carrie (1976), and Scream (1996) to highlight the juxtaposition of horror and humor to accentuate the parallels between screaming and laughter, or what William Paul categorizes as the “complementary dystopian-utopian visions” of the genre.[10] What Gabriel does here is altogether different from either the familiar sentimental expression or the calculated juxtaposition of horror and comedy. As she attempts to reassure Chris with language, Georgina’s seemingly involuntary response—that is, her tears—betray the double reality of the film’s ultimate meaning. As Chris (and the audience) will eventually discover, his visit to the Armitage family estate is part of a carefully planned process by which young African-American men and women are either lured or kidnapped to the estate to be auctioned off to wealthy white people. This modern-day slave auction is conducted in silence using bingo cards and includes a strange twist. Instead of purchasing black bodies for the outsourcing of labor, this slave trade auctions off black bodies for direct appropriation and inhabitation by whites. Using a medical technique perfected by Rose’s grandfather and practiced by her neurosurgeon father (Bradley Whitford), the brain of an aging white person can be implanted into a younger black body, thus extending life or granting new abilities. The grandfather, for example, envied greater footspeed after losing a race to Jesse Owens. His consciousness now resides in the body of the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), who has become a kind of puppet animated by the patriarch. To reinforce this point, we occasionally encounter Walter running at full speed for no apparent reason. A talented photographer, Chris eventually learns that he has been purchased by a blind art dealer who wants the young man’s healthy and aesthetically astute eyes.[11] As presented to Chris on the eve of his own operation, a limited amount of his own brain will remain to preserve the function of the central nervous system. Jim, the man who will inhabit Chris’s body as a “vessel,” explains: “You won't be gone. Well not completely. You’ll still be in there somewhere; limited consciousness of course; you’ll still be able to see and hear but your existence will be as a passenger . . . an audience.”

Within these revelations comes our understanding that the Armitage matriarch inhabits Georgina, prompting viewers to reflect back and understand the earlier scene anew. According to the logic of the scene, Georgina is literally two people at once. While her motor functions and speech are controlled by the Armitage grandmother, the more fundamental central nervous system remains that of Georgina herself. Thus, the tears signify the physical and emotional reaction of a silent, invisible, and displaced self—a passenger or audience—trapped in a body that is otherwise manipulated against her will. That Gabriel can convincingly portray both the grandmother’s smile in her spoken affirmations of the family’s goodness, and Georgina's suffocated pain, is a moment of superior acting in the film (to my mind, the most impressive piece of film acting in recent memory). The film demands dual performances of nearly all its black actors. In addition to the groundskeeper, an earlier abductee, Andrew Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), has been captured previously and is now inhabited by a wealthy friend of the family.[12] Stanfield and Henderson reveal the reality of their situation through physical awkwardness in which specific movements and voices at times appear disconnected from the characters’ bodies. As the film unfolds, we gradually come to understand their stilted speech and gestures as products of an imperfect ventriloquism of the white brains that control and manipulate the black bodies on screen.[13] What distinguishes Gabriel’s performance, however, is that her duality is demonstrated not through the physical and social awkwardness demonstrated by the two men, but through the fluid and simultaneous depiction of two contradictory and opposed emotional expressions: laughter and tears. To appreciate fully the effectiveness and meaning of this moment requires an historical understanding of acting and its reliance on emerging media forms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, specifically the work of German playwright, director, and theorist Bertolt Brecht, and the African-American film actor, Hattie McDaniel.

Modernist Acting: Brecht and McDaniel

Although not often considered together, Bertolt Brecht and Hattie McDaniel exhibited similar techniques almost simultaneously in the 1930s. Speaking to very different audiences, their respective works staged dualities designed to convey simultaneous yet contradictory realities to their audiences. In both Brecht’s productions and McDaniel’s film career, we find techniques of avant-garde performance used to convey contradictory realities that also sought to undermine dominant political attitudes. Both Brecht’s and McDaniel’s techniques of avant-garde acting responded to their respective political contexts, demonstrating what James Harding has elsewhere identified as a key element of avant-garde performance and its potential to invert an apparent ideology. In his analysis of Peter Brooks’s Mahabarata, Harding argues that “[t]he Brechtian context created by these techniques—specifically by the techniques of estrangement and interruption—radically inverts what critics have presumed to be the piece’s implicit regressive politics.”[14] Certainly, in the histories of avant-garde, Marxist, and generally leftist performance, Brecht’s legacy looms large. Quite the opposite has been true of McDaniel, who confronted limited performance options throughout her career. Nevertheless, Harding’s reading of Brooks’s work is even more apt in describing McDaniel’s acting technique, which invited receptions of her performances that read against the grain of their racist content.

Brecht’s argument for epic acting relied on the concept of Verfremsdungeffekt, literally defamiliarization, or as it became known in most English translations, the “alienation” effect. In this style of acting, Brecht encouraged actors to play themselves at the same time as they conveyed their characters on stage. A performance that exemplified this approach was Helene Weigel’s iconic performance as Mother Courage in Brecht’s 1949 production of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children) at the newly formed Berliner Ensemble. In Brecht’s reflections on that performance, he described Weigel’s acting as a kind of palimpsest on her character: “Weigel’s way of playing Mother Courage was hard and angry, that is, her Mother Courage was not angry; she herself, the actress, was angry.”[15] Elsewhere in his remarks (Anmerkungen) on the play, Brecht described her work in terms of its revelation of different, simultaneous layers. “Weigel’s achievement,” he wrote, “was to get to them [the audience] to see and hear more than just her. For she demonstrated not just one art, but many.”[16] Strikingly, Brecht locates the effect of Weigel’s performance most effectively in her on-stage tears. In his essay, “The Third Night,” Brecht writes, “There were nights when even Weigel burst into tears at certain points, quite against her will and by no means to the advantage of the performance . . . She was weeping not as the peasant woman, but as an actress, and for the peasant woman” (Brecht on Performance, 70; emphasis added). This description of Weigel’s achievement in epic acting describes a performance in which both the actor and character are visible simultaneously through the articulation of conflicting emotional responses. Brecht here contradicts dominant acting styles of the period, including Konstantin Stanislavsky’s “system” and the American director Lee Strasberg’s Method, an approach that would become widely known in both theatre and cinema as “Method Acting.”[17] For Strasberg in particular, the goal of the actor was to find the emotional truth of the character in one’s own personal life and experience and to bring that feeling to the visible surface of the body, such that the emotion experienced by the character and the actor were unified and indistinguishable from each other. The goal for a Method actor was to disappear completely in the character. (In its most extreme version, performers such as Daniel Day Lewis reportedly never stop or “break character” in the presence of their collaborators.) Brecht pokes fun at this approach in his essay, “A Short Organum for the Theatre” (1948), where he writes, “The verdict: ‘he didn’t act Lear, he was Lear’ would be an annihilating blow” to the epic actor.[18] Through what he called a “radical separation of elements,” Brecht’s approach to acting sought to preserve the presence of the actor on stage as a figure who would show the audience the emotions and experiences of the character rather than submit wholly to the experience of them and disappear behind the veil of the character. Importantly, the actor in this context is also visible as a worker, one whose labor is not subsumed within the fiction of the character on stage, but remains visible precisely through the emotional struggle and personal vulnerability that Brecht describes in Weigel’s performance, her tears in response to Mother Courage rather than as Mother Courage.

Brecht drew inspiration for his technique from the emerging media of the day, especially photography, radio, and film. He saw the influence of media in his contemporary culture as inescapable, arguing that,

For the old forms of communication are not unaffected by the development of new ones, nor do they survive alongside them. The filmgoer develops a different way of reading stories. But the man who writes the stories is a filmgoer too. The mechanization of literary production cannot be thrown into reverse. (Brecht on Theatre, 47)

Brecht repeatedly turned to media as sources from which to create a new kind of theatre that would connect with and motivate audiences. For example, his theories of epic acting align with superimposition, a photographic and cinematic technique for creating and manipulating multiple image exposures. Surrealist filmmakers, such as Man Ray in L’Etoile de Mer (Starfish, 1928) and others frequently used superimposition, as did more popular filmmakers, such as Charlie Chaplin in Gold Rush (1925). By the time of Weigel’s performance in 1949, superimposition had become a popular technique in Hollywood as well, appearing in Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and William Berke’s aptly named Double Exposure (1944).

André Bazin’s 1946 essay “The Life and Death of Superimposition” articulated the technique as an essential site of what he saw as cinema’s fundamental conflict between documentary and fantasy. Often used to create magic effects, as in early cinema by Georges Méliès, multiple exposures also lent the appearance of reality to supernatural figures such as ghosts and spirits. Bazin saw these effects as, by 1946, woefully inadequate to what he described as the ontology of film itself:

Superimposition can, in all logic, only suggest the fantastic in a conventional way; it lacks the ability actually to evoke the supernatural. The Swedish cinema probably couldn’t get the same results today as it did twenty years ago. Its superimpositions wouldn’t convince anybody anymore.[19]

Prioritizing cinematic realism, Bazin viewed the duality and falseness of the double exposure trick as unconvincing and dated: “If a director does want to employ special effects, he can use devices that are much more sophisticated and elaborate than the tricks handed down to us by Méliès” (“Life and Death,” 74).  Whereas Bazin rejected what he saw as the obvious fakery of the double exposure, Brecht seized on its potential to reveal a dialectical relationship between the actor and her character, that was the essence of modern theatre. Gabriel’s performance incorporates both Bazin’s and Brecht’s ideas within this key moment of the film. Set within a wholly realist cinematic context, she nevertheless exemplifies Brecht’s technique as her simultaneous laughter and tears reveal the enslaved mind of Georgina, as she both follows and resists the controlling will of the Armitage matriarch in her own body. Similar to Brecht’s descriptions of Weigel’s performances, we see Georgina’s (and perhaps also Gabriel’s) despair even as she enacts the outwardly reassuring gestures and words of the Armitage grandmother.

This critical moment in Peele’s film also falls within a history of African-American acting in which the convincing portrayal of doubleness was an essential strategy of resistance against the limited and stereotypical roles available to black actors for most of American film history. This history of acting is particularly salient in the unique career of Hattie McDaniel, best known for her award-winning performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939).[20] Not unlike Brecht’s Mother Courage, George Cuckor’s film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 famous wartime epic pits the survival of its central female character against the violence of historical change and the moral compromises necessary for survival. Although it may seem odd to compare a quintessential southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara, with Mother Courage, both women proclaim their willingness to do anything to survive. Compare O’Hara’s famous line “With God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” with Courage’s “My aim in life is to get through, me and my children and my wagon.”[21] Strikingly, Ralph Manheim’s influential translation of the play’s final song also includes the line, “Tomorrow is another day!”—a phrase O’Hara repeats throughout the film and one that provides its final line and image (Brecht, Bertolt Brecht Collected Plays, 210).[22] Comparisons also can be made between the titled Mother Courage and “Mammy,” the maternal character McDaniel portrayed as the combination of a sensible family matriarch who contests O’Hara’s “silliness,” and an enslaved woman whose body does not fully belong to herself. Both figures are tragically ironic: Courage is a mother whose actions to preserve herself and her family ultimately cost her all three of her children, and Mammy is a maternal figure without access or rights to her own biological children. The figure of McDaniel as Mammy has continued to haunt American cinema, a fact which Get Out does not hesitate to recall by presenting Georgina as perpetual servant, often carrying trays or seen in the kitchen. The use of white, contrasting collars in nearly all of Georgina’s costumes also recalls McDaniel’s neckerchief, a staple of her costumes and an enduring element in the mammy stereotype, more broadly.

Georgina in the Armitage kitchen in Get Out.
Fig. 2. Georgina in the Armitage kitchen in Get Out.
Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
Fig. 3. Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

McDaniel earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 1940, but her work on the film was largely dismissed by the African-American press of the time and continued to be criticized amid the burgeoning US civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. Cast almost exclusively in the caricature of the mammy stereotype, McDaniel’s accomplishments as an actor were discredited for displaying and perpetuating stereotypes of black women.[23] Later film critics, however, have read more complexity within McDaniel’s performances, noting the ways in which her performances on and off screen worked to resist and revise her typecasting as “Mammy,” beginning with her Oscar acceptance speech in 1940 and continuing in a personal appearance tour that year. Victoria Sturtevant argues that McDaniel’s choice of song lyrics performed on tour demonstrate her “sophisticated understanding both of her position as the nation’s Mammy—the extent to which the role was deeply bound up in the individual—and of how that elision of identity gives her a certain power over the stereotype itself.”[24] Similarly, Rebecca Wanzo argues that performers such as McDaniel used the stereotyped characters they were offered to simultaneously contest and critique those stereotypes:

Familiar with the stereotypes about black female identity, they [Hattie McDaniel, Whoopie Goldberg, and Halle Berry] have attempted to reconfigure themselves as the central agents of a particular project and then see themselves as making themselves objects in relationship to this racist history on their own terms. Their successes are indeed “subjective”; they become subjects of their work but are still subject to interpretations that overdetermine their relationship to the despised object.[25]

This concept of duality in performance is consonant with W. E. B. DuBois’s concept of double consciousness and the veil articulated in Souls of Black Folk (1903), which Sturtevant cites in her opening paragraphs. “It is a peculiar sensation,” DuBois wrote,

this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.[26]

Looking back even farther, we find doubleness to be essential to African-American performance throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars such as Sandra L. Richards have documented the doubleness inherent within the history of racialized performance, particularly in the work of vaudeville performer Egbert (Bert) A. Williams.[27] As Williams himself wrote in 1921, his performances in blackface were shaped by white expectations: “I shuffle onto the stage, not as myself . . . The real Bert Williams is crouched deep down inside the coon who sings and tells stories.”[28] As with Williams, McDaniel’s performance as Mammy and the inescapable tension required to perform it recall DuBois’s descriptions of the compulsory and dualistic performances of a black person in America. We can recognize the allusion to DuBois both in the “warring ideals” of Georgina’s enslavement and in her struggle with “dogged strength” to assert agency over her otherwise colonized body. Her performance of a contemporary black servant recalls DuBois, Williams, and McDaniel, thus reinforcing the film’s central idea that despite the election of a black president, racism of the past continues unabated, although changed. The film depicts the evolution of exploitation from enslaved labor to the compelled performances of black bodies controlled and coopted by white desires and white fears.

McDaniel’s double performance also finds a formal analogy in the dissociations of film acting more broadly. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin cites Luigi Pirandello’s reflections on the oddity of seeing oneself on screen:

With a vague sense of discomfort [the film actor] feels inexplicable emptiness: his body loses its corporality, it evaporates, it is deprived of reality, life, voice, and the noises caused by his moving about, in order to be changed into a mute image, flickering an instant on the screen, then vanishing into silence.[29]

Benjamin is most disturbed by the lack of control or agency that the performer has over her own screen image. Absent the aura of physical embodiment, the reproduction of the actor on film is created solely by the cinematic apparatus, and thus as an image circulates independently of the person. The result, for Benjamin, is that the actor ceases to function as an artist (or worker), but becomes instead a puppet or prop (“The Work of Art,” 230). Within the context of DuBois, Pirandello, Benjamin, and Brecht, McDaniel’s performance in Gone with the Wind can be effectively read retrospectively as a negotiation among these multiple and contradictory depictions. Her work is not reducible to complicit stereotype, but exhibits subtle resistance to the text and world she must inhabit. McDaniel uses her voice and fleeting silent glances of disdain not only to convey her character’s criticism of O’Hara as pampered woman, but also, like Weigel, to critique the very role she inhabits. McDaniel both plays the character and attempts to make visible the actual, laboring artist beneath the limitations of the role itself.

Media History in the Duality of Get Out

Of course, Gabriel’s performance of Georgina is itself a naturalistic portrayal within the diegesis of the film. The tension in her portrayal of doubleness is not between an author’s racist characterization and an actor’s subtle undermining of her role; her work, however accomplished, remains faithful to the role as written. Peele scripts the division within the performance by writing two characters for a single actor to portray simultaneously. Gabriel is herself not a Brechtian actor, but her character exhibits Brecht’s and Weigel’s approach to political acting. Although Peele does not overtly refer to either Brecht or McDaniel within the film, his central concept relies on their shared understanding of acting as political resistance: that the audience can see and understand two simultaneous and contradictory realities within the same performance. For the film to make sense, we must understand that black bodies have been coopted as vessels for white power, and thus that at the Armitage home, all black people are two people at once, or rather two consciousnesses residing within in a single body. As a critique of cultural appropriation, it’s not a terribly difficult metaphor to grasp. However, Peele’s frequent references to media within the film suggest that he is invested in a longer history behind Gabriel’s performance of double consciousness and, intentionally or not, invites a reading of the film that extends his critique beyond the narrative of the film itself to the consumption of popular media writ large.[30] Watching Get Out with an eye toward the history of acting reveals that the social dynamics of the film are deeply rooted in various performances that include both theatre and media. It’s no coincidence that Washington is a photographer who documents the world around him with a discerning eye for both beauty and threat. For Peele, art-making, especially photography becomes the means to trace contemporary demands back to their historical and historically corrupted sources.

“The Sunken Place” in Get Out.
Fig. 4. “The Sunken Place” in Get Out.

Indeed, the message of white power in the film is consistently conveyed either through media technologies or as media itself. For example, when Washington is hypnotized against his will and sent to “the sunken place” by Rose’s mother, he (and we in the audience who share his point of view) falls into a vast darkness in which the image of the mother becomes framed and flattened as if on a movie screen. The sunken place, a terrifying space where Washington cannot be heard, resembles the darkened movie theater in which Peele’s audiences sit—where, like Chris, we exist powerless to affect what we see on screen. (Note the low angle of the camera behind Chris casting our gaze up at the screen as a double vision. We look up at the screen on screen, along with Chris.) Moreover, the key moment that triggers his hypnosis and descent into the sunken place is also marked by media. In a memory prompted by the Armitage mother’s hypnosis, we see Washington as a little boy sit fixedly watching his television while his mother (unbeknownst to him at the time) has been hit by a car and is slowly dying on the side of the road. In this scene, his guilt over the death of his mother is projected figuratively and literally onto the television screen. By his account, it was the television that prevented his awareness of his mother’s distress and indirectly killed her.

Chris’s childhood memory under hypnosis, Get Out.
Fig. 5. Chris’s childhood memory under hypnosis, Get Out.

Chris’s immovable gaze at the TV as cause of his filial failure refers to another domestic horror movie where the television also served as a proxy for evil and loss: Tobe Hooper, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Grais’s Poltergeist (1982). In that film, a little girl, Carole Ann (Heather O'Rourke), encounters and perhaps even invites destructive ghosts into her family home through the portal of the television. In an iconic moment that introduces the chaos to come, Carol Ann touches her hand to a television and announces, “They’re here!”  In both films, a child is held in thrall to a television screen that immobilizes, corrupts, and transports them. Similar to contemporary concern about the effects of social media and violent videogames on children, popular opinion in the early 1980s worried that TV posed a threat to children and the integrity of the family.[31] It is worth remembering, too, that the cause of the family’s ghost problem in Poltergeist was their move into a suburban housing development that had disrupted and displaced a Native American burial site, another form of violent cooption by white people of non-white spaces. The “playful ghosts” of that film had a recognizable message to the white colonizing, suburban family: get out. Near the end of Get Out, the full story about the removal of Washington’s own brain (to be replaced by that of the blind art dealer) is played for him on a 1950s-era cabinet, a style that presented the television as an innocuous piece of furniture.[32] Peele sets the scene in the family’s basement, decorated in aggressively retro décor. A stuffed deer head hangs above the television opposite Chris, reminding us again of the parallel between the wounded deer from the beginning of the film and his mother. As in the earlier scene from his childhood, Chris is again immobilized in front of a television. Tied to a chair, he watches the screen and is unable to act, at least temporarily. It is now that Jim delivers his ultimate warning, via the television, that Chris will be reduced to the role of “audience” in his own life.

Carol Anne communicates with the ghosts through her television in Poltergeist.
Fig. 6. Carol Anne communicates with the ghosts through her television in Poltergeist.

Much has been made of the film’s references to prior horror and science-fiction films, including “Easter eggs” connecting Get Out to the work of Stanley Kubrick, among others.[33] Less has been said about the diegetic entertainment that fills the Armitage home. Peele’s film explicitly mentions radio productions such as “Amos ‘n Andy” (1928–1943) and films like The Jazz Singer (1927) as evidence of white America’s long-standing desire to both mock and perform as African-Americans, and he draws a clear trajectory from the appropriating acts of the early twentieth-century to the so-called “post-racial” present. In this context, acting and impersonation in media become the mechanisms by which horrors of the past are continuously (re)performed in our contemporary moment and imminent future. In contrast to the range of passive and debilitating media forms throughout the film, the smartphone camera is portrayed as a liberatory technology. When Chris aims his cell phone at Andre, the latter temporarily regains awareness and power over his own body. Finally able to communicate with Chris, Andre’s words form the film’s central imperative: “get out.”

The television in the basement of the Armitage home, Get Out.
Fig. 7. The television in the basement of the Armitage home, Get Out.

Media in Performance Histories

Scholars have demonstrated how comparative studies between modernism and performance studies, with particular attention to the media influences in both, can productively challenge our understanding of contemporary phenomena. Jessica Pressman, for example, has studied new media literature as remixes of literary modernism, in what she calls a “strategy of renovating modernist aesthetic practices, principles, and texts into new media” that result in “digital modernism.”[34] Through close readings of electronic literature, Pressman demonstrates the ways in which contemporary work often cycles back to earlier forms, even as it draws uniquely from new technologies. In her analysis of Mark Danielewski’s novel Only Revolutions, Pressman notes that the novel could only have been written with the internet and digital databases. And yet, the material book itself engages the reader in a physically animated reading practice that echoes the past: “In its narrative, form, and format, Only Revolutions presents the idea that literary revolution happens by looping back, by returning to the past in order to move forward” (Pressman, Digital Modernism, 174).

This effect is even more pronounced in theatre and performance history. Theatre historians such as Christopher Grobe and Jacob Gallagher-Ross have traced the presence of recording and communication technologies on stage and behind the scenes in analyses of media’s effects on the history of acting and its reception in popular culture. Focusing on the telephone in the theater, Grobe charts a trajectory of influence from the emergence of the stage telephone to its impact on acting in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century theatre. Looking closely at documentation from the period, he finds that attention to the emergence of the device shaped not only how actors performed on stage, but also how their outward gestures and inner thoughts and emotions were understood by their audiences. “Far from demystifying stage presence or unsettling the ideal of coherent character,” he argues, “the telephone played a crucial role in mystifying these things in the first place.”[35] In “Mediating the Method,” Gallagher-Ross focuses on the function of the tape recorder and its influence on Lee Strasberg’s development of mid-century method acting. Considering this history, he argues, transforms our understanding of contemporary realist acting and its roots in modernist technologies:

Once we are attuned to the significance of recording for Strasberg, technological metaphors seem to be everywhere in his writing . . . . Strasberg’s working vocabulary contains many words with connotations redolent of recording and transmission—media words that jar in the context of the [actor] studio’s supposedly hermetic freedom from the bustling, noisy, commerce-minded world outside, a world that, as Strasberg is careful to note, most certainly includes the mass media of the culture industry.[36]

Such studies demonstrate how thoroughly modernist acting, media, and behavior were mutually imbricated. Whether intentionally or not, Peele pulls on the multiple threads of this history in Get Out, which weaves together the effects of acting, technology, and a history of racial doubleness in American history. Like Strasberg’s theories of acting, Peele’s film is saturated with the literal and figurative history of media. By drawing on a dense and layered history of media and acting, he reminds us that acting, in particular the specific bodies who act and are acted upon, function as another kind of recording technology, enveloped within larger media and performance discourses.

Peele’s use of casting here is also revelatory. Many of his film’s major roles are cast with actors who became familiar through television. Allison Williams, for instance, was well-known both for her role on the HBO series Girls (2012–2017) and as the daughter of television news anchor Brian Williams. Daniel Kaluuya’s earlier career included appearances on the TV series “Comedy Lab” (2010) and a prominent role on Black Mirror (“Fifteen Million Merits,” 2011) as a man who attempts to undermine a popular but exploitative television network, only to be coopted as a performer. The casting of Bradley Whitford as Dean Armitage, Rose’s father, is also significant. One of Whitford’s longest-running performances was as Josh Lyman, a member of the liberal White House staff on the television show The West Wing (1999–2006). As in the other examples of doubleness, Peele’s savvy casting here encourages audiences to project a longer history onto the character of Dean, one which plays upon our potential familiarity with Whitford as Lyman to reinforce his presentation as an enlightened white liberal. And, of course, prior to Get Out Peele himself was best known as the co-creator with Keegan-Michael Key of the Emmy-winning series Key and Peele (2012–2016), which included the popular recurring character of Luther, “Barak Obama’s Anger Translator,” another exploration of duality in performance.[37] In his 2003 book, The Haunted Stage, Marvin Carlson described this phenomenon in acting as “ghosting.” Acknowledging the fact that all literary texts play on memory, Carlson argued that, “There clearly seems to be something in the nature of dramatic presentation that makes it a particularly attractive repository for the storage and mechanism for the continued recirculation of cultural memory.”[38] For Carlson, bodies on stage carry a haunted history in which every performance serves as a palimpsest of all the previous performances by that actor across roles and by various actors in those roles. Viewed more widely and in greater distribution, screen acting produces even more pronounced effects.

Peele’s attention to acting technique, media history, and allusive casting situate his film as a kind of cultural memory in which multiple dimensions of film and television history, racist appropriation, and the horror genre are synthesized. It is especially indebted to modernism through references to DuBois, Brecht, Williams, and McDaniel, and through nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century media: radio and cinema, and their progeny, television. A reading of Peele’s film through the lens of performance reveals these techniques as both tools of cultural memory and contemporary critique. Gabriel’s performance as Georgina, though brief, synthesizes these threads in one culminating moment. As simultaneously the family maid and matriarch, she is akin to McDaniel’s Mammy; her simultaneous crying and laughing embodies the contradictory expressions as political challenge that Brecht’s acting theories espoused. The shot’s off-center angle reminds us of the film’s presence as a constructed and uncanny creation, while the subject of the cell phone and the family’s good intentions in the dialogue reminds us of the political power that such media have always had in society. Within such a reading, the allegory of stealing black bodies and destroying black minds is no longer confined only to political culture, but refers more broadly to all contemporary media culture. Most potently, its perpetrators are ultimately not those on screen or in elected office; they are in the audience. The film implicates us when it says simply, “get out.”


Notes

[1] William Butler Yeats, Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000), 165.

[2] Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele (2017; Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures). Interestingly, despite drawing on numerous conventions of horror films, the film was nominated for the Golden Globe for best film in the comedy/musical category. Subsequent lines are transcribed from DVD release (2018) unless otherwise noted.

[3] Manohla Dargis, “Review: In ‘Get Out,’ Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Bad Idea!),” New York Times, February 23, 2017.

[4] For example, see “Get Out Explained: Symbols, Satire and Social Horror,” ScreenPrism, May 2017; “Jordan Peele Breaks Down ‘Get Out’ Fan Theories from Reddit,” Vanity Fair, December 2017.

[5] Michael Jarvis, “Anger Translator: Jordan Peele’s Get Out,” Science Fiction Film and Television 11, no. 1 (2018): 101–02.

[6] The canted, or oblique angle has been a favorite of film directors to convey unease. It was first used by German expressionist filmmakers and became a favorite of Carol Reed (The Third Man, 1949) and Alfred Hitchcock.

[7] In an interview with the web magazine, The Credits, Oliver explains the use of zoom lenses and camera placement in this key scene. See Kelle Long, “Get Out’s Cinematographer Reveals Methods Behind Jordan Peele's Brilliant Madness,” The Credits, March 29, 2017.

[8] Jordan Peele, Get Out: Screenplay (Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 2017), 61.  

[9] Robert Harling, Steel Magnolias (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1988), 69.

[10] William Paul, Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 68.

[11] The film repeatedly emphasizes Chris’s eyes, both in close-ups and juxtaposed counter-shots with first a wounded deer and later a stuffed deer hunting trophy. His role as photographer also recalls The Stepford Wives’s Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross), whose interest in photography (instead of exclusive attention to her family) convinces her seemingly supportive husband to have her replaced with an obedient robot. And, of course, photographers in films have a long history of serving as proxies for their filmmakers, further suggesting an affinity among Peele, black artists, and his protagonist.

[12] Stanfield performs a similar vocal duality in the film Sorry to Bother You (2018), directed by Boots Riley. In Riley’s film, Stanfield works as a telephone sales rep whose ability to converse in a “white” voice elevates him within the company hierarchy. Vocal duality and racial performance are also the subjects of Spike Lee’s Blackklansman (2018), a film based on the true story of a black detective who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by talking “white” on the phone.

[13] Popular theories on the film have compared Get Out to Spike Jonze’s film Being John Malkovich (1999), another satire in which bodies become puppets for another. The casting of Catherine Keener in both films encouraged the comparison, although Peele himself denies a link.

[14] James M. Harding, The Ghosts of the Avant-Garde(s): Exorcising Experimental Theater and Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015), 119.

[15] Bertolt Brecht et al., Werke (Ln), Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, 30 Bde. in 32 Tl.-Bdn. u. Beil., Sonderausgabe (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1988), 388; quoted by Peter Thomson and Viv Gardner in Brecht: Mother Courage and Her Children (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 70.

[16] Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Performance: Messingkauf and Modelbooks (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 73.

[17] Lee Strasberg, A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method (New York: Penguin, 1988).

[18] Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 47.

[19] André Bazin, “The Life and Death of Superimposition,” in Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties, ed. Bert Cardullo, trans. Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo, (London: Routledge, 1997): 73–76, 76. Bazin’s essay first appeared in Écran Français in 1946, then in “Ontologie et langage,” Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Vol. 1 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1958–62): 27–30.

[20] Fleming et al., Gone with the Wind, directed by Victor Fleming (1939; Santa Monica, CA: MGM). Quotations transcribed from DVD (2009).

[21] Bertolt Brecht, Bertolt Brecht Collected Plays, Vol. 5, ed. Ralph Manheim and John Willett, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Vintage, 1972), 183.

[22] It may be that Manheim takes his translation from Cuckor’s film since the precise line he includes does not appear in the original German. Although the dark optimism is evident in Courage’s final song, there is no specific reference to “tomorrow.” As published in the 1960 edition, edited by H. F. Brookes and C. E. Fraenkel for Heinemann Books, the final song reads:

Mit seinem Glück, seiner Gefahre

Der Krieg, er zieht sich etwas hin.

Der Krief, er dauert hundert Jahre

Der g'meine Mann hat kein'n Gewinn.

Ein Dreck sein Fraß, sein Rock ein Plunder!

Sein halben Sold stiehlts Regiment

Jedoch vielleicht geshehn noch Wunder:

Der Feldzug ist noch night zu End!

Das Frühjar kommt! Wach auf, du Christ!

Der Schnee schmilzt weg! Der Toten ruhn!

Das macht sichauf die Socken nun.

Compare this with Mannheim’s translation:

            With all the killing and recruiting

            The war will worry on a while.

            In ninety years they’ll still be shooting.

            It’s hardest on the rank-and-file.

            Our food is swill, our pants all patches

            The higher-ups steal half our pay

            And still we dream of God-sent riches.

            Tomorrow is another day!

                        The spring is come! Christian, revive!

                        The snowdrifts melt, the dead lie dead!

                        And if by chance you’re still alive

                        It’s time to rise and shake a leg. (Brecht, Bertolt Brecht Collected Plays, 210).

[23] See James F. Tracy, “Revisiting a Polysemic Text: The African American Press's Reception of Gone With the Wind,” Mass Communication and Society 4, no. 4 (2001): 419–36.

[24] Victoria Sturtevant, “‘But Things Is Changin’ Nowadays an’ Mammy’s Getting’ Bored’: Hattie McDaniel and the Culture of Dissemblance,” Velvet Light Trap 44 (1999): 68–79, 73.

[25] Rebecca Wanzo, “Beyond a ‘Just’ Syntax: Black Actresses, Hollywood and Complex Personhood,” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 16, no. 1 (2006): 135–52, 138.  

[26] W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. David W. Blight and Robert Gooding-Williams (New York: St. Martin's, 1997), 38.

[27] Sandra L. Richards, “Bert Williams: The Man and the Mask,” Mime, Mask and Marionette Magazine 1 (1978): 7–24.

[28] Unidentified clipping, “Bert Williams A Real Optimist,” February 6, 1921 from the Bert Williams File, Harvard Theatre Collection (cited in David Krasner, Resistance, Parody and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre, 1895–1910 [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998], 10).

[29] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 229.

[30] Space prevents a fuller exploration here, but there are numerous parallels between Peele’s critique of media history and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000). Lee’s film directly attacked racist media representation and their perpetuation beyond the familiar minstrel tropes of early cinema. In his fictional recreation of a television minstrel show, Lee proposed that contemporary media was simply an updated version of past entertainment and he ended the film with an extended montage of racist representations in popular culture. Striking, too, was his casting of Damon Wayans in the lead as a television executive who creates the show as an attack, only to see it become successful (to his dismay). Prior to Bamboozled, Wayans had performed with “Saturday Night Live” (1985–1986), written for “In Living Color” (1990–1992), and created the 1998 series Damon.

[31] At the risk of belaboring this point, Poltergeist begins with a conflict surrounding the television. Anxious to show off his new TV set for the football game, Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) gets into a fight with his neighbor whose remote control keeps changing the channel from football to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. As a domestic technology, the television is positioned as a source of social and domestic conflict from the very beginning. It is also a culturally haunted technology. In the Freeling parents’ bedroom, the television displays the time of 2:37, a reference to the haunted hotel room in Kubrick’s The Shining.

[32] See Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[33] There are numerous and quite good YouTube videos detailing many of these connections—for example, an announcement made by Peele himself about “flight 237” in the background of a shot.

[34] Jessica Pressman, Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 2.

[35] Christopher Grobe, “Why It’s ‘Easier to Act with a Telephone than a Man,’” Theatre Survey 57, no. 2 (2016): 175–99, 178.

[36] Jacob Gallagher-Ross, “Mediating the Method,” Theatre Survey 56, no. 3 (2015): 291–313, 301.

[37] For a good example, see Key and Peele, “Obama's Anger Translator—Victory,” Comedy Central, November 6, 2012. The sketch created shortly after President Obama’s reelection in 2012 includes a particularly relevant moment at the end when Peele continues his deadpan impersonation of the implacable Obama, while simultaneously performing MC Hammer's signature dance move from his “U Can't Touch This” (1990).

[38] Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 8.