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Seminar Uses Hit Film as Starting Point on Race Studies
By Liam Farrell
“Get Out” Image © Universal
While multiple Oscar nominee “Get Out” made audiences laugh, cringe and hide their eyes, Jason Nichols and Jonathan England also saw it as a way to foment discussions of American race at the University of Maryland.
This semester, the pair of lecturers in the African American Studies Department is teaching a seminar entitled “Get Out: The Sunken Place of Race in the Post-Racial Era,” and grappling with race and its societal consequences, from the commodification of black men to relations between African Americans and other communities of color.
“Sometimes you want to find a different angle (to get students’ attention),” says England. “From that, we can have a conversation about race.”
On Sunday, “Get Out” will compete for Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), Directing (Jordan Peele) and Original Screenplay (Peele). A “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” homage that refracts a story about race through layers of psychological and body horror, the film follows a young African-American man as he reluctantly travels to the countryside to meet the parents of his white girlfriend.
His unease at the prospect of a weekend full of interracial gaffes only deepens when they arrive at the home, with its plantation-style pillars and walls covered in indigenous art reminiscent of a colonial museum. And why do the only other African Americans he sees—a gardener, a housekeeper and the strangely dressed man married to an elderly white dowager—act so bizarrely when they see him?
In one recent class, the teachers and students used “Get Out” as a launching point to explore how black stereotypes have persisted throughout media history, viewing old footage of a minstrel show—to audible gasps from students—as well as more recent entertainment like the sitcom “Martin.” They also debated how public figures such as Oprah Winfrey, rapper Cardi B and boxer Floyd Mayweather either fit or resist such categorization.
“I want them to look at media critically,” Nichols says. “It causes them to actually take a pause.”
Tomi Okanlawon, a junior community health major, says the seminar has been valuable in revealing the history behind some of the racial disparities in the health system. The class also provides a forum to talk about race seriously and frankly.
“It’s hushed over a lot of times or very sensitive,” she says. “I feel like in this class, things are very brutal—which I enjoy. It’s the space to do that.”
“Get Out” also critiques the “post-racial” consensus that some believed had emerged with the election of Barack Obama—one villain memorably says he wishes he could have voted for Obama a third time. The film is an accessible starting point, England and Nichols say, for a generation raised on acceptance and diversity to see how racism survives in subtle ways.
“A lot of people equate racism with hate, and therefore you are completely absolved of racism if you have ever had a black person in your home,” Nichols says. “It is much more insidious.”
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