Rewriting Othello in Get Out

*WARNING: post contains major spoilers to both Othello and Get Out*

When we think of western literature’s preoccupation with the interracial couple, Othello is the looming monument that overshadows all succeeding media representations. It feels more than a little trite comparing Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out to Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, but it was my first gut reaction. Yes, both scripts revolve around a relationship between a white woman and a Black man, but I promise my connections between the two are a little more nuanced than that obvious similarity.

In an interview with NPR, Jordan Peele explains that Get Outis about the African-American experience. It’s about the feelings of being an outsider, of being the other that we confront.” Chris, like Othello, is thrusted into a world of whiteness, in which his Blackness is marked as hypermasculine, hypersexual, and a spectacle for his girlfriend Rose’s family, the Armitage’s, and their friends who attend their annual party. Rose’s brother, Jeremy, claims that with Chris’s “genetic makeup” he could be a “beast” if he put effort into physical training. Likewise, several of the family’s friends, namely the women, do not hesitate when touching Chris without consent, with one of them asking if rumors of Black men’s sexual prowess are true. Othello, likewise, is the focus of Venetian rumors of Black men’s hypermasculinity and hypersexuality, with Iago describing him as “an old black ram” who “is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.94-95) and “making the beast with two backs” (127). Othello and Chris, similarly, are both the focus of white desire to perform Blackness, both through the materialization of race through blackface on the early modern stage and through Get Out’s surgical procedure that transplants the consciousness of elderly white people in young Black bodies because Black is “in fashion.”

The reoccuring deer motif in the movie paradoxically evokes and resists the threatening

deer
Kate Clark’s Little Girl

bestial imagery that both Chris and Othello’s bodies are reduced to. Rose and Chris hit a deer on the way to her family’s house, an act that almost tips Chris into a state of paralysis. When Rose’s father, Dean, finds out about the pair hitting a deer, he has a positive reaction, claiming one dead deer is a good thing as deer, in his opinion, are vermin and threats to the ecosystem. We find out later that Chris’s mother was killed in a hit-and-run, resembling the deer from earlier in the movie. Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric, features a sculpture by artist Kate Clark called Little Girl- a hybrid deer-human creature, complete with a Black girl’s face. While Black bodies have been historically animalized in western representations, deer are different from beasts and black rams. Deer are innocent and elicit sympathy (think Bambi). Unlike beasts, deer usually don’t pose a physical threat. Deer are hunted, a fact that drives the climax of the movie in which Chris is being hunted by Rose, who is armed with a hunting rifle. And, of course, we cannot overlook that Chris subversively weaponizes Dean’s hatred of deer by impaling Dean with the antlers of a mounted buck head during his escape. As some of you may know, “buck” or “black buck” is also a racial slur leveled at Black men, particularly African-American men during the Post-Reconstruction era who were seen as dangerous, impulsive, and lecherous towards white women.

One of my bigger pet peeves as a scholar of early modern literature is the common portrayal of Othello as impulsive. A popular comic strip titled “Shakespeare Switcheroos” compares Hamlet and Othello, suggesting that if Hamlet were in Othello’s place, he would not have fallen for Iago’s trickery. Othello, likewise, would be impulsive enough to have killed Claudius “literally two seconds later” if he were in Hamlet’s shoes.  While humorous, the strip only works if we ignore Othello’s last speech, in which he implores “speak of me as I am…speak/ Of one that loved not wisely but too well;/ Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought/ Perplex’d in the extreme” (5.2.402-06). Othello was not an impulsive man, nor “easily jealous,” but someone who was “wrought” through the calculated manipulations of Iago. Get Out’s hero Chris, likewise, is goaded into jealousy by Rose, using herself and the imagined affairs with other men to provoke him.

If Chris is Othello, Rose functions as a Desdemona/Iago hybrid. She finesses the role of a color-blind white liberal, and even uses her family’s casual racism as a foil to gain Chris’s trust and manipulate him.  Chris and Rose’s more intimate scenes most often take place in a bedroom or on a bed, subverting Desdemona’s infamous death in her marriage bed. In the last scene of the movie, we see a wounded and bloodied Chris crawl on top of a mortally-wounded Rose who is laying on the ground of her family home’s driveway. He proceeds to choke her- an image that bears a striking resemblance to Othello’s murder of Desdemona. Rose’s expression transforms from one of pain and horror to a sick grin, almost relishing Chris’s slip into aggression (a behavior that her brother tries to provoke from Chris in an earlier scene).

The moment Chris’s hands slipped away from Rose’s neck, it felt like a phantom tension snapped a long-existing chain. From Othello, to Richard Wright’s Native Son, Chester Himes’s The End of a Primitive, and hell even horror movie classic Candyman, the death of a white woman at the hands of a Black man seemed to mark an often-fatal transgression. Unlike the killing of the rest of the Armitage family in self-defense, strangling the already fatally-wounded Rose was an affective response to the trauma Chris had to endure during his “visit.”  Chris did not spare her out of lingering love; his reluctance in killing Rose was wrought from the same self-preservation that caused him to fight for his life in the first place. Chris is not Othello, and he was never meant to share Othello’s fate. However, Kinitra Brooks wrote a solid piece in which she reads this scene as part of the movie’s inability to punish complicit white women.

When the flash of police lights and the howl of sirens invaded the scene, my stomach dropped. Fellow audience members loudly voiced their own terror for Chris in that moment. After all, he was surrounded by slaughtered bodies and a half-dead white woman begging for help; the odds did not bode well. Suddenly, Rod, Chris’s cousin and confidant, emerges from the police car (a plot twist that caused my fellow theatre-mates to roar in applause). In an interview with the BuzzFeed podcast Another Round, Jordan Peele describes writing multiple alternate endings to his movie, stating that in one such ending featuring Chris getting confronted by the police, “he gets locked up and taken away for slaughtering an entire family of white people, and you know he’s never getting out, if he doesn’t get shot there on the spot.” This almost-ending is bleak in its reality, an ending that the audience almost expects until the last few moments.

In a Key and Peele sketch “Black Theatre,” Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key play two Black Elizabethans who go to the theatre to see Othello. During the intermission, they profess their love for the play, with Peele’s character proclaiming that “things are looking up for people of the darker hue” now that a Black man in a position of power graced the early modern stage. Of course, the punch line is that the two Black audience members do not foresee Othello’s tragic fate, a fact that carries us into the skit’s cut to the end of the play, in which Key and Peele’s characters leave the theatre disgruntled. Upon running into Shakespeare, the two Black audience members corner him, demanding he write a play with a Black lead who does not die. Shakespeare never wrote that play, but Peele’s ending to Get Out, in which our hero Chris is taken home, away from the insidious racism that sought to destroy him, that succeeded in destroying Othello, is that radical reimagining we desperately need.

*All quotations of Shakespeare’s Othello from Othello: Texts and Context, ed. Kim Hall (Bedford, 2006).