Just what kind of photographer is “Get Out’s” Chris Washington?

Critic Rupert Jenkins sorts out the movie's protagonist from the real world of guys who can "handle" a lens

Chris’s iPhone, in “Get Out” (Jordan Peele, 2017)

SPOILER ALERT! – This review gives the entire plot away. If you haven’t seen “Get Out” but still plan to, stop reading now!

Get Out has rightly been acclaimed as a smart, funny, and brilliantly written horror/comedy about white liberal racism. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), is an African-American photographer who unwittingly puts his life at risk when he visits his white girlfriend’s parents for a family weekend; by chance and by design, his photographic instincts help save him from a very nasty end.

Beyond Chris’s occupation, surprisingly few reviewers have noted the significance of photography to the film’s plot and characters, and the way this particular protagonist falls into — and then blows up — cinematic cliches.

Chris sees Logan for the first time, in “Get Out”(Jordan Peele, 2017)

To begin with, what kind of photographer is Chris? We are introduced to him by a tracking shot of B&W social documentary images displayed on the walls of his loft apartment. In keeping with most movie photographers, his work is nothing special, but it is enough to show that Chris is a man with a keen eye and a social conscience.

This suggestion of an affluent lifestyle is perhaps the film’s only clanger. If Chris had been portrayed as a hip fashion photographer-cum-social documentarian in the mode of David Hemmings in Blow Up, his fancy Brooklyn pad would make more sense. But maybe he does weddings on the side; maybe that’s how he met his rich, white, entitled, milk-sucking girlfriend who persuades him to take the weekend off to meet her liberal, Obama-loving parents.

David Hemmings in “Blow Up” (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)

If in action movies an actor needs to be able to “handle a gun,” the same is true of actors handling a camera, and only a few of them ever meet that challenge successfully. Given the synaptic relationship of cameras to guns, Chris could be described as a new breed of action photographer – a young professional who handles his DSLR awkwardly but is completely at home with his go-to camera, his iPhone.

Director Jordan Peele has cited Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and The Stepford Wives as among his influences; photographically, I would add Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window as another obvious reference. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, Chris uses his DSLR more for observation than for picture taking. During the garden party sequence that forms the film’s centerpiece, for instance, it dawns on Chris that he is a target in some sort of danger; in response, he retreats behind his telephoto lens to observe the guests who are, with artless intention, creeping him out.

James Stewart in “Rear Window” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

As Richard Brody observed in his New Yorker review: “That telephoto lens on his camera wasn’t just an obvious (and black) phallic symbol he was poking into [his hosts’] world—it was a penetrating gaze that helped him expose the nefarious goings-on.”* (Of course, all camera phalluses are black – they are manufactured that way – so Brody may be racializing Chris’s telephoto lens unnecessarily.)

In another allusion to Rear Window, Chris sneaks a shot of a zombie-like African-American man he thinks he recognizes. In doing so he inadvertently uses his iPhone’s camera flash to free his subject from the terrifying “Sunken Place,” a suspended world he himself is already unknowingly tethered to. (In fairness to racialized photo equipment, I should point out that camera flashes are a blinding white, evoking the color of his oppressors’ skin, as well as the spirit realm Chris connects to.)

In one of the film’s ironies, Chris’s DSLR is all but useless – he hardly takes a single frame – and his iPhone is more effective as a camera than as a phone. He can barely get a call out but he does manage to message the photo he took to his friend in Brooklyn, thus putting into motion a series of events that will eventually save his life.

Unlike Blow Up and most other pre-digital movies about photography, there is no darkroom in Get Out. But there is an incongruous and mysteriously tempting cache of snapshots, left in a closet for Chris to find. Flipping through the pile of images that expose his girlfriend as the duplicitous liar she is, Chris’s situation is akin to that of Wendy Torrance in The Shining, reading sheet upon sheet of “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy” with the quickening realization that her husband is a murderous fool, and that her one response should be to escape.

Chris meets Logan, in “Get Out” (Jordan Peele, 2017)

As Get Out’s finale unfolds, things get bloody and all sorts of weapons are deployed – bocce balls, deer antlers, guns, karate holds, knives, hypnotism, and a lot of adrenaline. But Chris’s most important weapon is his iPhone flash, and he uses it to effect his escape. The ending, once again, is an echo of Rear Window, when archaic flash bulbs, and the timely arrival of the San Francisco police, save James Stewart from his homicidal neighbor.

Beyond plot device – instrument of surveillance, communication, weapon, and picture taking – photography lies at the core of Chris’s character, and his photographic “eye” is the reason he is so desired by Jim Hudson, a blind (white) art dealer who knows of Chris’s work and seeks to inhabit his seeing body. “I want your eyes, man,” he tells Chris in a Bladerunner moment, “I want those things you see through.”**

Perhaps most important, however, is that Chris is an African-American photographer. After decades of prissy White Hollywood photographers, Get Out delivers to us a young black photographer who is just a regular guy caught up in a whole world of shit – not so different from the many young men like him killed on American streets every week. Against all odds, though, Chris survives. As a resourceful and observant Young Black Artist he may be the most unusual, and the most rewarding, photographic role model Hollywood has ever produced.

Get Out is now playing atUA Denver Pavilions and AMC Cherry Creek. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is playing for one day only at the Esquire cinema Wednesday, May 17.

* Get Out: Jordan Peele’s Radical Cinematic Vision of the World Through a Black Man’s Eyes, by Richard Brody. New Yorker online, March 2, 2017. **Lenika Cruz expands upon this and also the significance of photography in the film in her Atlantic essay “In ‘Get Out,’ the Eyes Have It” (March 3, 2017).

Rupert Jenkins is a writer and curator based in Denver. His company, Durrington Edits, specializes in arts-related editorial projects, exhibition planning, and consulting, with an emphasis on photography and the photo-related arts. rupertjenkins.com.

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