In Get Out, the Eyes Have It

Jordan Peele’s fantastic film relies heavily on the sense of sight to amplify its racial horror.

Daniel Kaluuya, in a scene from the movie "Get Out."
Universal Pictures

This post includes spoilers for the entirety of Get Out.

One of the most popular promotional images of the new horror-comedy film Get Out is that of a young black man staring straight at the camera. Little details stand out about him if you look long enough—he’s wearing a gray hoodie and T-shirt, there’s a slight crease on his forehead—but these are otherwise hard to really notice because of his eyes, which are wide and wet and red and give the unmistakable impression of a person frozen in pure, cold fear.

As the protagonist of Get Out, Chris Washington tells a great deal of the story using only his eyes. This is of course a testament to the excellent work of the actor, Daniel Kaluuya, who plays him. But it’s also evidence of the film’s subtle obsession with ways of seeing—whether through cameras or through (literally) different pairs of eyes. Part racial satire, Get Out follows Chris as he meets his girlfriend’s parents for the first time at their secluded home far from the city. The girlfriend, Rose Armitage (played perfectly by Allison Williams), is white, and Chris is a little nervous about how her family will react despite her reassurances to him (“They’re not racists. I would have told you”). Throughout the film, the director Jordan Peele uses the sense of sight to amplify imbalances of power and control—imbalances often drawn along racial lines.

Notably, Chris is a photographer, and apparently a very good and respected one. Get Out introduces viewers to him through his art: Before we even see Chris, we’re shown black-and-white prints of his work on the walls of his Brooklyn apartment in a sequence set to Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” (“Now don’t you close your eyes …”). It’s the kind of collection that could be reasonably described as “raw” and “honest”—unpretentious snapshots of New York streets and the diverse range of people who spend time there. The main plot quickly spins into motion as Chris and Rose set out on their trip, but in its first minutes Get Out has already established that Chris’s profession—he is basically a trained observer—will be crucial to the rest of the story. What he notices, and doesn’t notice, will take on a life-or-death importance.

Chris’s job is an excuse for him to bring his trusty DSLR with him to the Armitage residence. Constantly slung around his neck, the camera functions as a kind of protective shield between Chris and the odd behavior he encounters—namely from the family’s large group of white friends and neighbors, and their two black house servants, Walter and Georgina. The camera simultaneously creates distance and closeness between Chris and his subjects; it’s a way to both observe and to escape. It’s through this lens that Chris manages to spot another black person (Lakeith Stanfield) at one of the Armitages’ gatherings—but when Chris goes to introduce himself, the other man turns around with a glassy, far-off stare and introduces himself as Logan. From his eyes, it’s immediately obvious something’s wrong.

The trailer for Get Out hinted at one major way cameras might matter in the film. In one pivotal scene, Chris tries to take a photo of the oddly dressed Logan to send to his friend, who’s worried for Chris’s safety. But when the flash goes off it triggers a bizarre transformation: Logan’s expression turns to fear, his nose begins to bleed, and he launches at Chris, screaming, “Get out!” It seems like an act of aggression, but Chris senses it’s something else—it isn’t until later that he understands Logan was trying to save him. It was hard not to watch that scene without thinking of how important camera phones and video recordings have been for many African Americans experiencing police violence—especially in light of an earlier scene in which Chris is the apparent target of racial profiling by an officer. Cameras, Get Out suggests somewhat plainly, have the power to reveal. It’s no coincidence that photographic evidence later provides Chris with his biggest clues as he tries to uncover the Armitage family’s secrets.

In many ways, Chris’s camera is a mechanical extension of his own eyes. During the Armitages’ big party, he wanders off with his camera and meets Jim Hudson, a white art dealer who is blind but who speaks glowingly of Chris’s work. At that point in Get Out, the encounter offers relief: Jim doesn’t seem quite like the other white people at the party, and Chris relaxes visibly in his presence after being ogled at and appraised by the Armitages’ friends. His relative comfort comes in part from Jim’s demeanor but also from Jim’s inability to actually see Chris; as a result, the once-heightened difference of his race is diminished, if not fully erased. But like almost every moment of calm in the film, the scene is later revealed to be a big lie.

In the final harrowing act of Get Out, Chris has been hypnotized and strapped to a chair in the Armitages’ basement. An old TV before him flickers on, and who else is there but Jim Hudson, lying in what looks like an operating room. Jim tells Chris the true nature of the mysterious process the Armitages are subjecting him to: transplantation. Tears fall from Chris’s eyes as he realizes what must have been done to Logan, Georgina, and Walter, and what will soon be done to him—Jim’s brain will be transplanted into his head, and Jim will take full control of his body, while Chris looks on from a corner of his consciousness. When Chris asks, “Why us? Why black people?” Jim scoffs, saying he couldn’t care less what race Chris is. He has loftier, artistic reasons. “I want your eyes, man,” Jim growls, in one of the film’s creepier lines. “I want those things you see through.”

It’s a terrifying, revealing exchange in a film rife with terrifying, revealing exchanges. It is also of a piece with Get Out’s broader social commentary, particularly its clear takedown of well-meaning white liberals and those who believe in a postracial America. So, of course the man who wants to steal Chris’s body from him is not only blind, but also “color-blind.” He comes off as the kind of person who’d say he doesn’t “see race” while caring very little about the well-being of black Americans.

But Jim wants something much more existentially fraught than Chris’s artistic sensibility: He wants to possess the particular way that Chris views the world. I want those things you see through. In other words, I want to look at the world through your eyes. He wants to inhabit Chris’s body for what he sees as its superior physical abilities. But it’s hard to believe that Jim wants, or even fully grasps, any of the specific challenges or complexities that come with actually being black. To people like Jim, as Steven Thrasher noted in Esquire, “‘black muscle’ can be useful if separated from its black mind, emotions, and politics.” And indeed, Get Out is broadly concerned with race and body politics, as others have thoughtfully written about.

Still, over the other bodily senses, vision has long been the most intuitive metaphor for discussing subjective experience. Just as the sense of touch is often evoked to discuss compassion or empathy (“I feel you”), vision is closely linked to a person’s unique way of knowing the world. Peele himself has used the language of sight when discussing how he wanted Get Out to be an inclusive film: “You can ask a white person to see the world through the eyes of a black person for an hour and a half.” It would seem a casual word choice if not for how literally Get Out uses vision—via eyes or camera lens—to underscore Chris’s very justified paranoia, discomfort, and fear in response to the story’s white characters. Writing for The New Yorker, Richard Brody argued that, in radically portraying a world seen through a black man’s eyes, Get Out also “contains some of the most piercing, painful point-of-view shots in the recent cinema.”

There’s much more to say about how Get Out continues or subverts the horror genre’s tradition of weaponizing voyeurism and surveillance (Cabin in the Woods, Saw, Scream, Psycho, and many others) or its preoccupation with cameras (the entire found-footage canon). But Get Out cleverly takes these tropes and uses them to unique, thought-provoking ends: to probe the very real anxieties produced by racism. Though the film is readily appreciated without deep analysis of its sight-related references, their effects are undeniably powerful—from the eerie stares of the Armitages’ black victims to the hungry glare of Jim’s eyes after he informs Chris of his fate. Get Out works perfectly well as a wildly entertaining scare-fest. But, thanks to Peele’s ingenuity, it’s also much, much more.