It is the film’s most iconic image. Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is sitting in a chair, staring into space as his eyes fill with water. With one glance, the audience knows Get Out is offering something that is atypical. Writer/Director Jordan Peele took risks that are paying off to the tune of $85 million and counting. Significantly, this terrifying image of Chris marks his first trip to the “sunken place”. All signs suggest that black America knows it well.
Here’s what we know about the sunken place:
1) Getting There Happens Quickly and Without You Even Noticing
In the scene featuring the tear-filled image, a foe (Missy Armitage) has truly gotten into his Chris’ head. She is able to do so quickly and without Chris even noticing. Missy’s ability to hypnotize is a skill developed over a period of years. Racism and white supremacy have a similar skill, honed throughout the history of our country. If you’re not paying attention, they can quickly enter your head and mess with it.
2) The Key to Entry is Focusing on Your Perceived Failures
The key to entering the sunken place was redirecting Chris’ focus to his perceived failures. He didn’t help his mom when she needed him. Black America is often asked to focus on its perceived failures. Government statistics and images from news organizations and the entertainment industry paint pictures of criminality, broken families, and other ills.
“Perceived” seems like the right word. Chris blames himself but how could a little boy be expected to save an adult’s life? Instead of going there, he should simply be proud of himself for successfully overcoming a difficult childhood. Sometimes black Americans unreasonably ashamed of the results of structural and other forms of racism. Meanwhile, as a group, we have survived the unimaginable and contributed various forms of excellence to the world.
3) The Sunken Place Paralyzes You, Stealing Your Sense of Agency
This is the most terrifying part. After entering the sunken place, Chris was paralyzed. He felt unable to escape the situation. Oppression sometimes does that to people. For some black folks, a life of financial hardship and/or incarceration can feel like inescapable destiny.
4) Some Visitors Try to Rationalize their Uneasiness
Chris was only in the “sunken place” for a brief period of time. After reemerging, he had an unshakable feeling something was very wrong. He needed to “get out”—but he didn’t. He wanted to believe that everything was okay, that he was safe. In doing so, he rationalized abnormal behavior.
This thought pattern should be familiar to black audiences. We call it “respectability politics” when someone explains away the shooting of an unarmed black person by blaming the victim’s clothes or attitude towards the officer. Perhaps even more common is the black person who feels something is not quite right in their workplace or neighborhood. They don’t typically want to find a new job or move. Rationalizing away the feeling and believing everything is going to be okay is easier. They need to get out—but don’t.
5) Some Are Permanently Lost to the Sunken Place
Chris was fortunate. His visit to the sunken place was short. Walter and Georgina, the Armitage house staff, were permanently lost there. Their headspace was altered by surgery. Some black folks are permanently lost. Those who are public figures tend to make the news when they refer to enslaved Africans as immigrants or declare that other black people are racist for pointing out racism. Don’t put their mangled bodies in your car or waste time trying to educate them through social media. They’re mentally lost and not coming back.
6) Being Cut Off from Your Family Could Make You Vulnerable
There is an open question about how the Armitages chose their victims. Chris didn’t have a relationship with his father and his mother died when he was a boy. Did the Armitages choose him because he had no family? Enslaved people were brutally disconnected from their family lines, perhaps leaving them more vulnerable to the sunken place. If you don’t fully know who you are, it may be harder to reject efforts to paint your people as failures and other negatives.
For black America, the saving grace has been community and the historic ability to form new families with non-non-blood relatives. Chris received desperately needed support and help from Rod—his friend, his brother.
7) It Robs You of the Opportunity to Live Your Best Life
Viewers don’t fully know what it’s like to be trapped in the sunken place. However, “sunken” literally means settling at a lower level. In Oprah terms, being caught in the racism mind trap leaves one unable to live his/her best life.
Chris avoided this trap by outsmarting his foes. In the end, viewers are able to celebrate his excellence rather than his destruction. Black audiences are clearly hungry for this version of our story (the hopeful one). Tapping into that feeling is one way to break the box office.
(Originally Posted on Huffingtonpost.com on March 9, 2017)