Tag Archives: Black Lives Matter

Get Out (2017) vs. Neoliberalism

 

Get Out: A Satirical Critique of Neo-liberalism

This weekend two seemingly unrelated events happened to me within the span of 24 hours.
First, on Friday night I went to the 10:50 pm CST showing of the movie Get Out. For those who do not know the premise of the movie is about a young interracial couple (black male and
white female) who go to visit the woman’s parents. When the boyfriend gets to the parent’s
house he notices something is different about the black people that work for the woman’s
parents. The next event occurred a little more than fifteen hours after seeing the movie, I
spoke on a panel for the American Academy of Religion Southwest regional conference. The
panel was entitled “Black Religious Lives Matter: An Exploration of Black Religiosity in the
Midst of Trauma.” The aim of the panel was to use different methods to explore the
meaning of black religion after tragedies such as Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis,
and Terrence Crutcher. Ironically, in my opinion the most interesting aspect of the
presentation came from one of the panelist who was unable to attend because of illness. I
read the panelist’s outline on what he planned to present on, namely, a pastoral care
perspective on the way that young black males have been demarcated through public
media perceptions with particular respect to cases such as Michael Brown. After the
presentation, a topic that came up for discussion involved what to make of the
simultaneous portrayal of Baylor football players for their athletic feats while also handling
the demonizing of many of the same players because of the rape scandal. Reflecting on this
discussion alongside of the movie Get Out I have concluded that a common theme for both
is the neo-liberal commodification of black bodies.

While I am almost certain that Jordan Peele did not intend for his film to be a critique of the
capitalist superstructure (maybe he did who knows?), it certainly can be viewed in that way. Contrary to the rather weak criticism by “leading left” magazine Jacobin offered that Get Out can be dismissed as black nationalism and not able to awaken people politically, I do believe there are possibilities within the film itself.

According to Marxism 101, society is composed of both a base and a superstructure. The
base is composed of the modes/ means of production and relations of production. Means of
productions include the land, labor, and resources necessary to create a product. While the
relations of productions describes the different classes that are created by access to the
means of production. The simplest division is between the capitalist class (bourgeoisie)
and the working class (proletariat). The most important thing to know about this is that
Marx says it helps to shape and maintain the superstructure, or all of our ideologies.
Ideologies include our views on politics, religion, race, culture, media, education, etc. In
essence all of society is viewed from the logic of capitalism. Marx uses commodification to
describe this term. Commodification allows for knowledge, friendship, nature, and even
people to be viewed based on their monetary value. A contemporary examination of this
phenomenon is the basis for neo-liberalism. Get Out examines, in some not so subtle ways,
the logic of capitalism in relation to black bodies.

The film begins with Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) packing to go with his girlfriend Rose (Allison
Williams) to her parent’s house upstate. It is significant that her parents live in an affluent
upper-class neighborhood. They als enjoy very successful careers in the medical field. In
other words, they are from the capitalist class. As such, they control the means of
production or commodities necessary for the capitalist system. In the film the commodity
that Rose’s parents hope to control are the black bodies that come into the neighborhood.
Chris notices early that the family seems to overly accommodate for him. At first he
believes this is because Rose’s parent do not want to seem racist or disapproving of their
daughter’s interracial relationship. Eventually Chris comes to the realization that it is
because of something far more sinister. Rose’s parents only value him because of the
physical usefulness of his body. He is only viewed as a product that can be used as a part of
their grotesque experiments. During one scene, one of the more subtle instances of humor
in the film, Rose begins to look for her next target on the internet. As Chris tries to escape
the house of horrors, Rose is seen searching for black male athletes on the search engine
Bing. This is a very clear example of the search for a black body that she views as a valued
commodity. Although Get Out should be seen as a satire, that does not mean it does not
possess universal truths. In this case, it hints at the neo-liberal commodification of black
bodies through popular culture/ media images.

However, as the presentation of one my fellow panelist alluded to, athletics are probably
the most glaring example of how popular media images commodify black athletes. To be
sure to adequately cover this topic involves a great deal of complexity. However, for the
purposes of this piece I will only sketch out the neoliberal commodification of black
athletes in relation to the Baylor rape scandal. I will also preface this by stating although
this analysis does not directly speak to the victims of the rape scandal it does acknowledge
the seriousness of the irreparable harm that has been caused to both the victims and their
families. To the point of this piece, the media depiction of these black athletes is consistent
with the neo-liberal commodification of black athletes. It has become a part of popular
culture to classify skilled black male athletes as a beast. In many instances they are
encouraged to act like a beast on the field. Some would argue that the current use to the
term beast is a throwback reference to when black males were described as buck. Both
terms connote the animalistic physical dominance of black bodies. However, beast is more
of a reference to the potential production value of the athlete. The more the athlete
produces on the field the more monetary value they have for the University. Thus, these
athletes are consistently pushed to produce great athletic feats on the field because it will
directly impact the amount of capital generated by the school from sports.

In this neoliberal capitalist system athletes are only valued only in so far as the product
that they create (wins, conference titles, individual accolades), which has a direct impact on
their portrayal in the media. They are viewed as heroes for their great accomplishments
and the revenue that they help to generate. At the same time, much like in the past, they are
viewed through the lens of their sexual and aggressive nature. According to previous
generations, the black male as a buck was a wild untamable animal that lived for sexual
prowess and domination. Society needed to be protected from him, and in particular the
white female needed protection. It is not a lost fact that the vast majority of cases in the
rape scandal involve black men and white women. It is also not lost that Baylor University
repeatedly prioritized the product created from the labor of many black bodies over the
health and safety of the victims. Capitalist interest or the superstructure took precedent
over everything else. The point here is this, the portrayal of of the black male athlete as a
beast in many of its connotations is a result of the neo-liberal commodification of black
bodies.

So what is the impact of the commodification of black bodies? Well from watching Get Out
the answer is pretty obvious. In the film , the bodies of black people are literally taken over
by white people. Their consciousness is sent to the “sunken place,” where they are able to
see what happens to them but are paralyzed from controlling their own bodies. What
happens, in more realistic depictions of commodification. Well, in the case of Baylor
football players they are viewed as either superhuman or subhuman. When the athletes
achieve great feats on the field they are recognized for their superhuman abilities.
However, when they damage the product of Baylor sports or the potential revenue
generated from sports they are viewed as subhuman. Both depictions of the beast as either
a positive reflection or as a negative reflection of the university’s culture are equally as
dehumanizing to the athletes. In short, the neo-liberal commodification of black bodies
denies these individuals of their humanity because they are only valued as products. This a
point that brings this analysis full circle. When black bodies are denied their humanity it
becomes easier to trivialize black lives. It is this devaluation/ trivialization of black life that
created the images we now know as Terrence Crutcher, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis and
many many more. It is also the reason why it is important to critically evaluate films like
Get Out and panels dedicated examining the scope of black humanity.

Watch this space for Rod’s take on Get Out (2017) and religion and its refreshing take on Black culture.

Recommended reviews on Get Out (2017)

Get Out More Than Just Apparent: Assessing Jordan Peele’s On White Liberalism and the Gender Paradigm by Dr. T. Hasan Johnson

Get the F*ck Outta Here & Get the F*ck Outta Here: The Sequel by Son of Baldwin

Also see the whole treasure trove of reviews and commentary over at Very Smart Brothas: VSB on Get Out.

(photo description: the picture is a screen shot from the movie trailer for Get Out (2017). There is a black man (the character Rod Williams) wearing glasses and sitting on a brown leather couch, on his cell phone talking to the protagonist, who is also black and male, Chris.)

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

(The following essay contains excerpts from a presentation given at this year’s Race, Ethnicity, and Place Conference in Cleveland, OH)

“Can’t we all just get along?” These are the famous words from police brutality victim Rodney King that sparked the 1992 L.A. uprisings, some call “riots.”  What exactly does it mean for two people groups “to get along” in the context of White supremacist violence and domination? In July of 1967, there was another set of uprisings in the city of Detroit, Michigan. In the aftermath of the rioting,  President Lyndon Baines Johnson commissioned a report to investigate the cause of the riot and ways to prevent it in the future. The infamous Detroit Riot of 1967 led to the federal investigation into social unrest in what would be published in the Kerner Report.

Nearly fifty years later America is still haunted by the ghosts of the Kerner Report. In particular, the major findings of the report still ring true. The continued impact of hundreds of years of systematic oppression has created a deep rift between the experiences of many black Americans and white Americans, which led to the report’s conclusion:  “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, and one white- separate and unequal.” Although this report was published in 1968, it described a reality not unlike today.

The lack of political power was a major frustration of many of the participants in the riots. The report reads: “What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens.” (NACCD, 1967)  The lack of political representation in local government only further angered the residents. The demographics of the Detroit had transformed so that African Americans were the majority by 1967. However, this change in demographic was not evident in political representation.

Minority political under representation continues to be a problem today in many places. In Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot, the overall population of the city is over sixty percent African American. However, they only make up around fifteen percent of local legislators. According to Karen Shanton, approximately 1.2 million African Americans across 175 different communities do not have proportionate representation in their cities (Shanton, 2016). She goes on to describe how groups that are not descriptively represented are less like to participate in the political process or have someone advocate for their interests. Political disengagement and inattention simply helped to perpetuate a system of mistrust between civic leaders and the community. In a country where a revolution was sparked by the words, “No taxation without representation,” it would seem as if representative democracy in this republic strictly favors the dominant culture. The vast majority of whites continue to believe that everyone receives equal opportunities in America, while minorities on the other hand see great disparities. In other words, our nation continues to “move towards two societies, one black, and one white- separate and unequal.”

 

Self-Determination.

Today marks the second day of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a seven day holiday celebrated around the world by people from the African diaspora. Ever since I was a fifth grader, I have been aware of this holiday. At that time, my family and I were attending a predominantly Black Baptist megachurch which celebrated both Christmas and Kwanzaa. As a family, we didn’t really celebrate the holiday but I grew to respect people who chose to. One of the laziest criticisms of Kwanzaa is that it is a “made-up” “fake” holiday. If we are gonna be honest, all of our holy days are socially constructed, or “made up” as they say. I would argue what matters not is the origin stories of holidays, but ultimately the values that they teach.

In his significant work, Black Theology & Black Power, James Cone quotes Kwanzaa founder Maulana Ron Karenga and his criticism of Christianity, and the need to “concern ourselves more with this life which has its own problems. For the next life across Jordan is much further away from the growl of dogs and policemen and the pains of hunger and disease” (page 33). In the era of Black Lives Matter, I find Karenga’s words timely. U.S. Christianity, specifically White evangelicalism, has sneered at visions of black liberation for decades. Rather than join the struggle versus mass incarceration and the pre-school to prison pipeline that subjugates an overwhelming number of young black boys, White Christians would prefer to continue to perpetuate antiBlack narratives and politics for the sake of maintaining their power.

White Supremacist myths that continue to oppress Black people include the slaveability and dependent nature of Black souls. In this mythology, Blacks do not like freedom, Black people are servile, they play the entertainer, the really good athlete, the nice Black soldier, the “welfare queen,” or the uncritical “uninformed” Democratic party voter all at the same time. We see these images in the white supremacist media from good liberals at ESPN to the nice establishment conservatives at the Wall Street Journal. Black intellectuals are never seen as unique thinkers, only the black versions of European greats, like Frantz Fanon as the Black Jean-Paul Satre, for example.

These racist myths exist only to justify the current status quo, and to justify the four hundred year legacy of Black enslavement without any means of reparations, justice, or reconciliation. And yet, today is what celebrants of Kwanzaa call Kujichagulia Day, a day to reflect on SELF-INITIATIVE, SELF-RESPECT, AND SELF-DETERMINATION. If our notions of the human involve racist ideas, then I suggest that unfreedom, oppression would be part of our understanding of personhood. This would explain the preferred viciously antiBlack racist anthropological gaze of the majority population here in the United States. However, if one’s understanding of our humanity is that freedom is an inextricable part of our being, then the desire for self-determination shouldn’t be considered anything to be but natural. Over the years in my experience as an educator in a special education program, I have had to re-learn and learn with teenagers with disabilities about the value of self-determination. When working with various students with disabilities, I have learned that autonomy is going to look a whole lot different from one student to the next. For example, for one student who may be higher functioning with a slight learning disability, independence could look like moving away from study helps like dictionaries to newer reading strategies. Or, for another student who may have a significant intellectual disability and motor impairment, self-initiative could look like learning how to crawl and then walk for the very first time with the help of leg braces and a gait trainer. Self-determination isn’t going to look the same for everyone.

This essay is not only a push for the Black community to being more inclusive of people with disabilities in the practice and idea of Kujichagulia, but also to make it (self-determination), the strive towards freedom more contextual and less hegemonic. Such a move would allow us to also make a break away from essentialism that we sometimes see from defenders of Black culture. What if all Black college football players decided to boycott the NCAA until they, and all other student-athletes were paid? Or imagine a world where Black writers didn’t have to be the only ones left to navel-gaze of the history of white supremacy? Hear me out, but maybe what if Black scholars started doing work independent of White theorists and started appreciating the intellectual history and labor of Black people? What if Black self-initiative looks like not needing the approval of Whites, whether they be conservative or liberal or Marxist? We cannot have any form of racial reconciliation or racial justice without first developing a self-respect for our own work in a world where there exists a preferred hierarchy of values.

 

Photo Description:  Photo is a drawing of the 7 Kwanzaa candles, from left to right, 3 green candles, 1 yellow candle, then 3 burgundy candles.  Photo was taken by Katallna-Marie Kruszewskl. found on flickr.