Literature and Movies Tackling the Exploitation of the African American Body

In the movie Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele, the racist history of medical experimentation in the United States is transformed into an iatrophobic individual’s nightmare. The horror film is about an African American man named Chris who visits his white girlfriend’s family for the weekend. Chris eventually notices that the other African Americans around him at this family residence are disturbed and he concludes that they have been brainwashed by Rose’s mother, who is a psychotherapist. The situation ends up being much worse than he imagined. The father of Rose is a neurosurgeon and he has completed successful surgeries that made the grandparents immortal by transferring their brains into healthy African American bodies. The foundational racism that created the horrors of medical experimentation on African Americans to be exacted is shown through racist myths about the African American body, of which is made obvious in the film. The racism within this film is obvious, but how racism is examined in Octavia Butler’s novel Clay’s Ark was not as obvious to me until I compared two important scenes in both mediums. 

In watching the film, the events in the film reminded me of a scene in Octavia Butler’s novel, Clay’s Ark. The particular scene that I thought was eerily like the scene in the novel was when Chris is trapped in the house of Rose’s parents. In Clay’s Ark, a similar scenario happens where individuals are held hostage in a home, and, in both the movie and the novel, this entrapment is the impetus to the violence and the deaths that ensues. The entrapped individuals in each case is a member of a minority group. In Clay’s Ark, the people who are taken hostage are Blake and his two daughters. Blake and his girls are infected with an extraterrestrial disease that has only infected a miniscule amount of people. Additionally, Blake’s daughters are biracial. Chris in the movie Get Out is an African American man, and his race is central to the conflict that he endures and must overcome in the film. 

Another similarity between these two scenes, is outside communication. In both scenes, the trapped individuals were able to communicate with their own people to keep them informed of their situation. In the film, Chris was able to stay in contact for some time with his friend, Rod, by phone conversations or text messaging.  In the novel, Keira speaks aloud while being held captive to speak to Eli, and this ends up being a successful mode of communication because Eli’s infection with the disease gave him super-hearing powers (Butler 581). The supposed perks that come with being infected are similar to myths about the African American body. The myths about the biological difference of the African American body is best shown in the movie Get Out during the party scene at Rose’s parents’ residence. Mingling among the guest with Chris beside her, the predominantly white party guests are highly attentive of Chris’s presence. Many white guests approach Rose and Chris to comment, either directly or indirectly, on his race. Most if not all of these comments are infused with racial myths; particularly, these racist myths held by the guest are about the African American body being biologically different from white bodies. One lady at the party, unashamedly, goes up to Chris and, without warning, she grabs his upper arm into her hands to check his athletic muscular build. (Integrate the medical apartheid body on display) The action of this white woman is mirrored by others through their outright, flagrant remarks. One older man comments that “black is in fashion,” while another partygoer asks Chris to presume the form of a golfer’s stance. All of these interactions alarm Chris, especially because he knows how racist these people are and their ignorance is beyond measure. Later in the movie, it is revealed that Chris’s body was being auctioned off to the winning bidder at the party, a party that was arranged to revolve around this hidden scheme and was to be kept secret from Chris.  The underlying connection between all the interactions Chris has with the partygoers is the shared myth held by the white guests, which is that there is a biological basis to race and that this is supported by the logic of supposing an African American to be more naturally athletic than whites. 

The myth that African Americans are superior athletes to whites is racist, and it would have been supported by eugenicists who were on a futile mission to make African Americans out to be inferior to whites. In the PBS documentary episode “The Difference Between Us,” from the series Race: The Power of an Illusion, the racist myths about African American athleticism is addressed candidly. The documentary explains how the racist myth formed from the eugenic principles that African Americans resemble the primitive human species biologically. Eugenicists aimed to biologically define race, which was a means to keep the racial hierarchy intact and undisturbed. Therefore, the necessity to explain the athleticism of African Americans became of utmost importance, hence the adoption and spread of myth on African American athleticism. 

The United States history of African Americans being experimented on is undertaken in the work of Harriet A. Washington’s book, “Medical Apartheid”. In her chapter, “Circus Africanus” Washington confronts the past displays of African American bodies and the racist purpose of these inhumane displays. One particular person she speaks on is Ota Benga. Benga was taken as a slave and was sold to William T. Horndady who caged Benga in a zoo with monkeys, of who he believed was more biologically similar to than of his own being. The magazine of Scientific America had the same racist consensus as Hornaday, for they expressed that “the congo pygmies…exhibit many ape-like features in their bodies” (Washington 76). Exhibits like the one Benga was entrapped in were founded to rally support for the eugenic, creationism defense that African Americans are biologically inferior to whites. In the novel and the movie, the entrapment of the specific characters in the stories are symbolic of the eugenics creationist defense. Chris is taken hostage for the white bidder’s selfish and criminal motives, who sees Chris as a dispensable human being. 

The first time I watched Get Out was over the summer, and I most certainly did not understand that there was a historical basis for the medical exploitation that was central to the film. My second screening of the film was over the Thanksgiving break. Giving that this semester is coming to a close, I had the secondary material from this class in my head, which I was able to apply to the historical underpinnings of the film that lead to its creation. As more mediums of communication address racism, a wider audience is bound to take notice and learn more about the history of racism that is and was in our country. The entrapment scenes in both the mediums addressed above reflect a main point of criticism; that medical experimentation on African Americans is just another form of enslaving the African American body. Freedom of the African American body within the context of medical experimentations is unrealizable. 

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