watchmen-get-out-black-representation

The Cyclops and the Sunken Place: Narrative Control in ‘Watchmen’ and ‘Get Out’

Hollywood is increasing Black representation but Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen and Jordan Peele’s Get Out challenge audiences to question the authenticity of this system.

“This a Celly, That’s a Tool”: Taking Control of the Narrative

The metaphorical ladder out of the Sunken Place for Chris comes from the light of another screen: his cell phone. The garden party scene halfway through Get Out represents the point at which the audience gets undeniable proof that something sinister is going on with the Armitages, before Chris himself becomes aware. In this scene, we see Andre King (Lakeith Stanfield)—the Black man kidnapped in the opening scene of the film—for a second time. This time, however, he goes by Logan; and though we don’t yet know why, we can sense that he is significantly different. Upon meeting Logan/Andre, who lacks certain social cues upon meeting “another brother”, Chris also senses that something is off.

Later, when Chris is put on the spot to answer the absurd question, “Do you find that being African American has more advantages or disadvantages in the modern world?” he expertly tosses the ball to the suspicious Logan, who answers that “I find that the African American experience for me has been for the most part very good.” It’s at this point that Chris is sure something isn’t right with Andre, and decides to snap a picture, not realizing that his flash is on. What would normally be an embarrassing mistake becomes the most horrifying scene in the film, when Andre is freed from the Sunken Place and gets put back into the driver’s seat of his body.

As Andre breaks down in tears and warns Chris to “get out”, the audience learns what the true “African American experience” has been for him, which is no different than much of the African American experience throughout American history: imprisonment. Chris’s cell phone becomes, to quote Childish Gambino, “a tool“. Just as, in the real world, cell phones have increasingly become the most important means to document and expose reified moments of systemic racism, Chris’s phone both exposes Andre’s oppressed and repressed state and gives him back his voice (at least temporarily).

For Will Reeves, the same flashing light that threatens his race becomes the very tool to destroy the Cyclops. After he finds the factory that the Cyclops is using to mass-produce their mesmerizing projectors, Will kills the Cyclops members inside and sets fire to the factory. As he’s leaving, however, he grabs one of the projectors and carries it back to his apartment. What becomes of this projector will answer one of the most pressing questions of the season: How did a 105-year-old man in a wheelchair hang Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), the chief of the Tulsa Police, without any help?

As we find out in the final scene of the episode, the blinding flashlight Will has in his hand when Angela (Regina King) finds him is actually a portable projector with the very same technology that the Cyclops used to mesmerize the Black audience in Harlem. Will has reverse-engineered it so that it now mesmerizes white people, and he uses it to make Crawford—who is, in fact, the leader of the Cyclops—hang himself. As Angela pulls up to the tree at the end of the first episode, the mise-en-scène of Will sitting below the hanged police chief is exactly what Ishmael Reed’s Bo Shmo calls for: a landscape in which the oppressor hangs from a tree, created by Will and the same technology that once threatened to destroy his race.

However, Lindelof’s response to the threat of white-dominated screens is not invested only in showing the oppressor hanging—it is also about replacing that oppressor with positive representations of the oppressed. The very first scene of Episode One, for example, is from a fictional film titled Trust in the Law, about Bass Reeves (played by Jamal Akakpo), the Black Marshal of Oklahoma. In the film, Bass Reeves is praised by the white citizens of a small town after he arrests the town’s white sheriff, who has stolen their cattle. Whereas “American Hero Story” whitewashes the real history of Hooded Justice, Trust in the Law is about a real historical figure who was born into slavery, escaped during the Civil War, and eventually became the first Black deputy U.S. marshal in the American West.

Furthermore, contra Cyclops’ mesmerizing movie, which turned its Black audience against one another, Trust in the Law presents a positive image of a Black man; and this image inspires Will to become a police officer, and even provides the inspiration for the name he will adopt after his parents are murdered. Significantly, Will does not take Bass’s name, but instead the name of his historical slave master, William S. Reeves, replacing the oppressor with the spiritual successor of his liberated slave.

Stay Woke

One last metaphor: In the Armitages’ basement, when Chris asks Hudson why Black people are the sole targets of the Coagula, Hudson is at a loss, but assures him that he “could give a shit what color” he is. As the blind art dealer then states, “What I want is deeper. I want your eye, man. I want those things you see through.” The irony here, of course, is that what makes Chris a great photographer is his skin color and experiences as a Black man in America.

During the opening credits, as Gambino’s “Redbone” plays, we see some examples of Chris’s photography, which include a Black man struggling to keep hold of white balloons; just as in another photograph, a Black man struggles to control his white pit bull. Perhaps the most relevant to Chris’s life and experiences is the photograph of a pregnant Black woman’s belly, in which a Black man is in the background, out of focus, walking away. As Chris mentions later in the film, his father was not really a part of his childhood, and the film’s theme of imprisonment emphasizes the absence of Black fathers due to mass incarceration. Hudson’s covetous desire to be as talented a photographer as Chris is impossible; no matter how long he lives in Chris’s body, he could never truly understand “the African American experience”.

Hudson’s longing for Chris’s Black body to make him a great photographer is a perfect metaphor for a Hollywood system that increases diversity on the screen, yet still populates its writers’ rooms with white writers. In addition, “American Hero Story” exposes the tendency for Hollywood to whitewash history and sensationalize narratives. The ground-breaking success of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) and Lee Daniels’ Empire (2015-2020) has proven to Hollywood that Black films and series sell, which could be the reason for the rise in representation on the screen.

But, as apparatus theory teaches us, we must focus not merely on the individual movies and series, but also (and especially) on the systems in which these texts are created. Elizabeth Davis has argued that “the cultural politics of wokeness suggests we are in a historical moment in which black lives mattering is being conflated with black lives mattering on the face of things,” which translates in Hollywood to representing Black skin color without the authenticity of Black stories.

Fortunately, filmmakers are laying bare the lack of representation behind the screen. Peele, for example, created his own production company, Monkeypaw, which gives him executive control over what kinds of films and series are being produced. Lindelof ensured that two-thirds of Watchmen‘s writers were Black. As he explains in the second episode of The Official Watchmen Podcast, this meant that if he wrote anything that would be potentially harmful, the writers’ room could keep him in check.

Michael B. Jordan and Spike Lee are calling for diversity in those “lofty positions of the gatekeepers,” meaning those executives who are responsible for sending scripts and greenlighting projects. And Black writers are seizing on the current cultural moment to change the demographics of Hollywood’s writers’ rooms, pointing out that “when companies and studios claim to champion diversity but refuse to prioritize hiring Black writers for a writers’ room or contribute to Black narratives, you are perpetuating a system that either exploits or excludes Black experience and perspective.”

Even more important, however, are the daily actions Black individuals are performing in order to take control of their narratives, whether that be capturing police brutality on their cell phones or documenting history in real time through photography. In an era when representation on the screen is just one of the steps forward for diversity in Hollywood, filmmakers like Peele, Lindelof and Jefferson, and Spike Lee give their audiences the tools necessary to deconstruct the ideological apparatuses of entertainment and dismantle systemic racism, both on and off the screen. After all, as James Baldwin writes, “it is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see. The language of the camera is the language of our dreams.”

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Works Cited

Adalian, Josef. “Empire Is a Massive Hit Is a Massive Hit. Here’s What Its Success Could Mean for the TV Business”. Vulture. 28 January 2015.

Baldwin, James. The Devil Finds Work: An Essay. Dial Press. 1976.

Barthes, Roland. “Leaving the Movie Theater”. The Rustle of Language. University of California Press, 1989.

Beresford, Trilby. “Black Writers Challenge Studios to Commit to Change: ‘Hollywood, What You Do Next is Paramount’. The Hollywood Reporter. 12 June 2020.

Burwick, Kevin. “Michael B. Jordan, Spike Lee Detail Ways Hollywood Should Help Black Filmmakers”. MovieWeb. 8 June 2020.

Comolli, Jean-Luc and Jean Paul Narboni. “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”. Film Theory and CriticismCriticism. eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford University Press. 2009.

Davis, Elizabeth. “Beside(s) Love and Hate: The Politics of Consuming Black Culture”. Theory & Event& Event. vol. 22, no. 3, 2019, pp. 576–594.

Peele, Jorden, writer, director, and producer. “Director’s Commentary”. Get Out. Universal City, CA: Universal Studios. 2017.

Poll, Ryan. “Spike Lee’s ‘Da 5 Bloods‘ and Pedagogical Filmmaking in the Movement for Black Lives”. PopMatters. 17 June 2020.

Reiff, Michael C. “Peril, Imprisonment, and the Power of Place in Jordan Peele’s Get Out”. Dark Forces at Work: Essays on Social Dynamics and Cinematic Horrors, edited by Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper. Lanham, MD. Lexington Books. 2019.

Sims, David. “The Game-Changing Success of Black Panther“. The Atlantic. 20 February 2018.

Villamizar, Laura Beltrán. “As Black Photographers Document Protests, They Tell Their ‘Own History In Real Time'”. NPR. 13 June 2020.

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