Exposing racism through colors: “Get Out” does it right

By Amy Welten

This article is a short analysis of the use of colors in the Oscar winning film Get Out from 2017 directed by Jordan Peele. The deeper meaning of this film is hidden underneath a layer of colors that, when analyzed critically, work so well to expose the contemporary American racism and race relations. Political red and blue, Confederate States Army grey, and contrasting but intertwining black and white, they all help shining light on the harsh truth that try to ignore: a colorblind society is not as desirable as it seems, and we are far, far away from a so-called ‘post-racial’ society.

Although there are various recent films that tackle unequal race relations between black and white people – such as Hidden Figures (2016) and Black Panther (2018) – black characters in films are still often subordinate to, or in service of, white characters. Black characters in films are often ‘the criminal’ or ‘the victim’, such as in the Oscar winning picture Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017), in which the black characters are all victim to racist police brutality. The film does not focus on this: by police oppressed black characters are just a fact. An Oscar winning film that actually does tackle race relations in a critical way is Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out (2017).

            Get Out brings the “deep horror of racism” to the silver screen. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) visits the parents of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) who are engaged in a bizarre experiment with eugenics: racial improvement, here through transplanting the brains of (older, sick, disabled) white people to the bodies of (younger, healthy, abled) black people for physical ‘improvement’. After the brain transplantation the consciousness of the black person stays in the so-called Sunken Place, a state of hypnosis where the black person is aware of all that is happening consciously, but cannot do anything about it: the black characters are mere passengers in their own body, controlled by the brain of a white person.

            In his short analysis of Get Out, Chammie Austin describes how the (discriminating) relationship between black and white characters in a film is determined by the behavior of the white characters towards the black characters: by a subtle choice of words and actions, the white characters can display racist behavior that does not appear as, is not meant to be, or is not recognized as harmful, while it does maintain racist ideologies. In his article, Austin addresses the relation between black and white characters, but he does not look at how the race relations and racial microaggressions are depicted visually. This is something my article does focus on. Based on my bachelor thesis of 2018, this article demonstrates that in Get Out, there is a clear sense of an oppressing, dominating and objectifying relationship between the black and white characters, suggesting that the film could be seen as commentary on the contemporary Western society in which race relations are in many areas still characterized by inequality. By means of specifically looking at the use of color and the costuming, I offer insight in how the mise-en-scene in the film contributes to a visual representation of race relations.  

Meaningful colors

 “The film is about the small nuances of these characters’ subverted racism and we want to represent that through their clothes as well,” says Nadine Haders, costume designer for Get Out. On the 23rd of March 2017, Vogue published an interview with Haders in which she explains her choices for the costumes of the characters. The interview can almost be read as an analysis in itself, seeing the fact that Haders delves deep into the meanings behind the costuming. Every main character is addressed, and Haders talks about the clothes of the characters as well as the colors of the clothes, which – according to her – should represent the racism in the film. With this article and my own analysis, I argue that this is indeed the case. The most important colors in the film are camouflage colors (mainly green and brown), red, blue, grey, black and white.

            Walter (Marcus Henderson) is the groundskeeper in the film. He is dressed in mostly greens and browns to blend in with the grass and trees he so often finds himself in. Walter is dressed in a brown shirt, green jacket, green trousers and he wears a green hat (see figure 1). Considering the idea that the house of the Armitages is situated in the middle of a forest-like area, Walters colors form a palette which blends with the background. Consequently, Walter is made invisible, which could refer to a colorblind ideology: colorblindness supports and justifies the maintaining of racial inequality because it invisibilizes discourses of race and racism, which causes for the exclusion and invisibility of racial minorities. This is literally what is happening to Walter: the colors of his clothes make him disappear into the background. Throughout the entire film, he is represented as invisible.

Figure 1: Walter in the garden of the Armitages. Timecode 00:18:14. Get Out (2017).

Besides Walter’s camouflage colors, there is also a special role for the colors red and blue. These colors are aesthetic aspects that create meaning for the watcher: a system of meanings that is unique for the film Get Out. The colors red and blue are dominant colors: they appear throughout the entire film. Chris and Rose both wear blue clothes in the beginning of the film, they drive a red car, Rose carries a blue trolley, Rose and her brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) both wear blue clothes in an old family picture. Later in the film, Chris is still dressed in blue while Rose switched to a red-and-white stripy shirt. Guests on a ‘big get-together’ hosted by Rose’s parents are decorated in red details: most men wear a red pocket square, a red tie, or a red blouse; most women wear (partly) red clothing, red lipstick, or red jewelry.

Red, blue (and white) are the most important colors for the representation of everything American. A first thing these colors are associated with are the American flags: the national flag as well as the majority of the State flags, territorial flags and flags of the army and marines are colored in red, white and blue. This color combination is also used in a flag that in itself says a lot about the separation between a certain group of people from the rest: the confederate flag. This controversial flag is often regarded as symbol for racism, slavery, segregation and white supremacy. In the 1950s and 1960s, the confederate flag was still used by conservative political parties to fight desegregation and maintain a white supremacist mentality.

Figure 2: Chris with the red car. Timecode 00:10:50. Get Out (2017).

Red and blue can represent various things, but in the case of Get Out I argue that there are specific meanings connected to these colors that are unique for this film. The fact that the colors are repeatedly used in combination is relevant when the colors are associated with political color, colors that (un)officially represent American political parties. Red represents the Republican Party and conservative states while blue represents the Democratic Party and liberal states. This political opposition plays a big role in Americanrace relations: generally, the Republican Party votes against affirmative action for racial minorities and pleads for stronger border controls and severe immigration limits; the Democratic Party is generally more sympathetic towards racial minorities and pleads for an open immigration policy. The political opposition that the colors red and blue represent in Get Out is recognizable throughout the entire film. The red color of the car represents the republican ideology, while Chris’ blue clothes represents the democratic one. The red car (figure 2) is dangerous to Chris: the vehicle brings him to a place where he is no longer safe (the Armitage residence), just like how the Republican Party could be dangerous for racial minorities.

The fact that Rose also wears blue in the beginning of the film (just like she does in the picture with her brother), and that she has a blue trolley with her, does not mean that Rose represents the democratic ideology as well. Knowing that Rose is involved in the eugenics experiments (it is her role to bring black people to her parents’ house), I conclude that Rose wears blue in the beginning of the film because at that moment, she still pretends to be liberal and tolerant: the color is a subtle indicator her political preference. The color blue is too obviously present with her – she tries to come over as liberal; she plays the role of the liberal girlfriend who has the same way of thinking as Chris does: accepting towards all individuals regardless of their race. However, this is all just a cover, but to give the audience the illusion that Rose is indeed the ‘ideal white girlfriend’ for a black person, she is dressed in the same color as Chris.

            As I wrote before, Rose is dressed in a red-with-white stripy shirt in the second half of the film. Now she represents the republican ideology: she is a danger to Chris. Although her performance is still hiding behind a mask, the colors of her clothes reveal the truth. Chris is the only person still dressed in blue. This does not just strengthen Chris’ status as outsider to the rest of the group, it is also a reference to the republican side of the American society where racial minorities are systemically excluded.  

Figure 3: Chris and Rose at the ‘big get-together’. Timecode 00:43:44. Get Out (2017).

In the figure below we see Chris and Rose standing next to each other at the ‘big get-together’. With some fantasy, their direct juxtaposition forms the image of the American flag. The couple represents a literal visual personification of American race relations, the division between Democratic and Republic, between good and bad. This use of color also represents the American confederate flag, a representation that says a lot about American race relations. The connotations to the aforementioned confederate flag are applicable to Get Out: racism because the friend and family of the Armitages see Chris as ‘merchandise’, slavery because Chris is literally pawned off at an auction: the highest bidder gets his body, segregation because the entire film is about unequal race relations, and white superiority because the black characters serve as mere bodies to improve the white people physically.  

The next important color is grey: the result of blending black and white. Besides the fact that grey is a color literally between black and white and thus refers to Chris’ position as black person amongst a white company, I argue that it can also refer to the grey color of the uniform of the Confederate States Army (CSA), an army from the southern states of America. The CSA fought in the American Civil War from 1861 until 1865 at the side of the south – also the ‘Confederacy’ – of which almost 40% of the population was slave. Because many white people had to join the CSA, the workload of black people became heavier and southern states became mostly reliable on slave labor. Jefferson David (president of the Confederate States from 1861 until 1865) eventually accepted a law which said that slaves could be freed in trade for their military service, but only in case they did this voluntarily and were in the possession of release papers. In other words: black people could be freed in exchange of their service to white people.

The color grey returns multiple times in the film. Chris wears a grey vest underneath is jacket in the beginning of the film, and he wears a grey shirt underneath is blue blouse in the second half of the film. The two men whom Chris and Rose talk to at the ‘big get-together’ also wear grey jackets, Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield) has a grey strip on his hat, and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) wears a grey uniform. I argue that the grey color in Get Out is a reference to the racist practices of the CSA. The fact that Chris wears a grey vest and a grey shirt underneath his blouse could be seen as a visual warning of what is about to happen. The CSA fought in grey uniforms for the maintaining of slavery and argued that slaves could only be free in exchange if their service to a white army. This is almost exactly what the eugenics experiments of the Armitages exist for: maintaining a (modern form of) slavery by having black people serve as human cocoons for the brains of white people. That Chris is victim to these eugenics experiments is something he does not find out until the ending of the film, but the color grey could serve as a visual warning for this: it is the same color as the uniforms of the CSA, which strived for keeping slavery in practice and the serving of white people by black people.

The two men with whom Chris and Rose speak during the ‘big get-together’ also wear grey: they represent the racist CSA directly. The reason why they are on the party is because they are both candidates for the brain transplantation for their own brains to Chris’ body. Just like how the black people had to service the white CSA in exchange of their freedom, in Get Out Chris’ body is meant to serve the white people at the ‘big get-together’ by eventually functioning as a human cocoon for the brains of the white person who offers the most money. Chris is, like a slave, sold. Above I wrote that, during the American Civil War, The CSA wanted to maintain slavery: with the eugenics experiment and the pawning of black people, the Armitages (and the guests on their party) maintain a modern form of slavery just as well. The grey clothes of the men on the party are a reference to this.  

Figures 4 and 5: Two guests at the ‘big get-together.’ Timecodes 00:42:42 en 00:43:43. Get Out (2017).
Figures 6 and 7: Logan and Georgina during the ‘big get-together. Timecodes 00:45:04 en 00:51:47. Get Out (2017).

The strip around Logan’s hat (figure 6) is grey: it is a small detail, but not unimportant. If we see the eugenics experiments of the Armitages as a modern form of slavery, then Logan – as result of this experiment – is a modern form of a slave. That Logan wears a hat the entirety of the film is not random: the hat hides the scar he has from the brain transplantation. Although the scar is hidden, the grey detail on Logan’s hat reveals the true nature of the surgery: Logan is one of those slaves whose body serves the brain of an old white man. The hat adds to the masking of racist representations because the hat literally masks the scar of the brain transplantation, but simultaneously, the grey detain on the hat refers to the racist practices that actually have taken place. The same goes for Georgina: her body serves the brain of grandma Armitage. The grey color of her clothing (figure 7) refers to the CSA: Georgina is kept as a modern slave for the Armitages.

Besides the camouflage colors, the red-blue distinction and the color grey, there is also a clear contrast between dark and light colors, and not without a deeper meaning. Everywhere in the film, the contrast between black and white is visible: not just in the clash between the white characters and Chris, but also in the mise-en-scene. In the scene in which Rose and Chris are driving towards Rose’s parents’ house, Chris (a black man, dressed in predominantly dark clothes) sits together with Rose in the aforementioned red car, of which the chairs are coated in white leather. The interior of the Armitages’ residence is of lighter colors, while the house on the outside is built with dark bricks. The clothing of Rose’s parents is black in the first half of the film. The guests on the ‘big get-together’ arrive in black cars, and almost everyone at this party wears black clothes, mainly in combination with white and red details. Chris’ dark colors in the car contrast with the white leather of the car sears and again be seen as a warning: as a black person Chris is located in republican surroundings (the car is red) and the contrast between him and the inside of the car is big. The colors could be seen as ominous: Chris is located in an environment that is – literally and figuratively – completely strange to him, unknowing that the red-with-white car is bringing him to his possible final destination.

At the ‘big get-together’, most guests are dressed in black. Black is the usual color to wear at a funeral. The connection between the ‘big get-together’ and a funeral is not farfetched: after all, the guests at the party are there for Chris’ auction. They are present to buy Chris and use his body as the solution to their own physical defects by robbing him from (the control over) his body, and thereby his life. Chris’ resourcefulness saves him his life, but incase this did not happen, Chris would have died a mental death on the Armitages property. The black clothing of the guests on the ‘big get-together’ would then be totally appropriate.

The contrast between the black and white colors in the clothing of Rose’s father Dean (Bradley Whitford) and mother Missy (Catherine Keener), the cars, and the guests on the party refer, according to me, to an important theme of the film: white in black. The light colors of the interior are the inside of a house that looks dark on the outside; Dean and Missy are – just like the guests on the party – white people in black clothes; the white guests arrive at the party in black cars. That the guests all wear black-and-white clothes at the party and the fact that they are all white, is not just a visual translation of the oppositional race relations in the film: I argue that it also refers to the racist eugenic experiments that the Armitages organized. The brain of a white person is transplanted to the body of a black person. Literally: white in black. The white people take over the body of the black people: colonization of the mind, where an external source penetrates someone’s mind. The black people are the colonized, penetrated and taken over by white colonialists. This way, the black-white opposition represents not just racial tensions, but also the Armitages’ experiments and the colonial history.

Having analyzed all above aspects of the film, the hidden racism becomes visually visible. This way, the film gives subtle commentary on the contemporary (political) system in America: next to the fact that American currently has a Republican president who is not strange to racist remarks and racist-motivated actions, in many areas race relations are not based on equality and justice, but on oppression, dominance and objectification. The use of color and costuming in Get Out refer to this by representing Chris visually as Democratic and liberal, a stranger among the white, Republican, racist people who do not see Chris as a human being, but as an object, a body, a tool in service of the improvement of the white people, a remedy for achieving so-called racial improvement.

Concluding

Get Out is a film in which the problem of contemporary racism in the American society is brought to daylight. In the film, black people are exclusively defined in relation to their body. This refers to a familiar stereotype that black people are physically better than white people: black people are stronger, better at sports, and have more stamina. The black person is in this way a mere physical identity. This comes back in Get Out: the white people want Chris just for his body, not for his brains. In fact, Chris’ brains are removed and replaced by the brains of white people. This emphasizes the aforementioned stereotype, and Get Out criticizes this stereotype by representing American race relations through – amongst others – the mise-en-scene. This article has demonstrated this with various examples of the film.

            My analysis of the mise-en-scene demonstrated that the film creates a system in which the colors red, blue, grey, white and black return continuously, to which there are specific meanings connected. The use of color and costuming in Get Out represent a racial opposition (contrast between black and white, grey colors as a world in between black and white, and Walters camouflage colors) but also a political opposition (distinction between democratic blue and republican red, grey colors referring to the CSA). Chris is represented as democrat and liberal, an outsider among the white-with-red republicans who regard him as just a body. Unequal American race relations are brought to the fore through this use of color and costuming.

            This article, which is closely based on my bachelor thesis from 2018, demonstrates that visual aspects of Get Out cause for a creation of meaning of the film. This way, the film can be seen as commentary on American race relations and on the Western society: here the relation between black and white people is often still characterized by oppression, inequality, dominance, and objectification. However positive it may sound, a colorblind society is not an ambition people – in the search for tolerance – should strive for, and I believe that this is part of the message that Get Out tries to convey to its audience: the world is not colorblind, we do not live in a ‘post-racial’ society, and racism – how unnoticeable it may be sometimes – is everywhere. Like Jordan Peele himself says: “Racism [is] not being called out sufficiently enough.” With Get Out’s (visual) representations of contemporary race relations, the film sets a big step in the right direction of solving this problem.

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