Stories We Tell: Race, Hermeneutics, and Public Memory Formation in ‘Get Out’

        Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) is like jumping in a pool fin the first days of the summer: there’s nothing particularly new to the feeling, yet it still feels… fresh. There’s a feeling of unfamiliarity, of peculiarity, of curiosity. There’s something keeping the viewer from being fully comfortable. Perhaps it’s knowing the movie won’t proceed exactly how we expect it to. Perhaps it’s the hype surrounding Peele’s directorial debut. Perhaps it’s the way Get Out functions in relation to collective memories, sustained in part through genres and genre conventions. Collective memory has always been sustained through narrative, through public ritual, through the stories of us, the in-group, and the implicit (explicit?) them

        Get Out is a film that works rhetorically on its audience through at least two primary devices (1. suspense, and 2. genre expectation) in an effort to draw attention to, interpret, and critique the ways contemporary publics conceive of race, difference, and xenophobia through collective memory formation. We are exposed early on in the film to a contemporary iteration of a “classic” American narrative, iterations of which of course maintain histories written by and for entrenched power structures: black attendants serving afternoon tea to white, “respectable,” upper-middle class landowners; the racist cliche of the caricatured black athlete, represented by Rose’s father’s stories and suggestions concerning Jesse Owens and Tiger Woods; stereotypes of the fragile white imaginary represented in the characters Georgia, Logan, and Walter. The film acts rhetorically to invoke suspense in its viewer, most poignant when a white character says something that is intended as a half-hearted signal to Chris concerning some race-related overture, but actually reinforces racist notions, narratives, caricatures, and connotations, forcing Chris to simply gaze at the speaker, gasp, smile awkwardly, and say something along the lines of “okay…” The film’s suggestions, enacted through these moments of suspense, convey a sense of what it’s like to be African-American living through a narrative lifeworld that is almost entirely written by white Americans, with Chris’ moments of stunned bewilderment drawing the attention of the audience toward the narratives they have come to expect, and to live with, within genres not limited only to horror. 

        Steven Mailloux proposes in his essay Rhetorical Hermeneutics one direction in which theory might inform “a historical set of topics, arguments, tropes, ideologies, and so forth,” including those concerning race and public memory, that “determine how texts” such as Get Out “are established as meaningful through rhetorical exchanges” (629). A rhetorical hermeneutics opens the door for us to examine public memory formation concerning race and ethnicity through a closer and more-informed interpretation of the rhetorical exchanges Get Out both levies and leaves out. Here, we benefit from examining how genre functions as a rhetorical appeal in the progression of the film. Despite its label of horror, Get Out not only borrows from other genres such as drama, romance (Rose is a hero in the film’s opening scenes, then slowly displays her cunning and deceitful enactment of the “woke white girlfriend” role she’s been conning all along), coming-of-age bildungsroman (Chris’ personal history with his mother’s death, enacted again with the deer and with Georgia in the film’s conclusion), and comedy (Rod’s TSA mishaps and experiences with the police). Get Out borrows the particular and unique functions those genres enact in regards to public memory formations. For example, Rod’s experiences with the police, even as a TSA agent not unfamiliar with the training police undergo, draw upon his notions of police brutality against specifically African-American men that informs not only how he pleads his case, but also how we read any interaction with law enforcement throughout the film. Public memory, for Rod and for Chris, is heavily situated in narratives radically different from interpretations of the event of “going to the police for help” that the film’s white characters might be likely to notice. 

        Perhaps Get Out functions, as Mailloux predicts, as a therapeutic hermeneutic rather than a constructive one, though I don’t find this binary as compelling as Mailloux seems to (630). In the end, perhaps Get Out acts rhetorically on its predominantly-white mainstream audience of 2017/2018 to showcase the dangers of excluding represented groups from public memory formation, such as the racial narratives displayed in the film and the hermeneutic reactions displayed by characters, editors, audiences, and publics who interpret public memory formations and respond with public memories of their own. 

Works:

Maillioux, S. (1985). Rhetorical hermeneutics. Critical Inquiry Vol. 11, No. 4., pp. 620-641. 

Peele, J. (2017). Get out. Universal Pictures. Film.

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