Lead Into Gold: On The Alchemy of “Get Out”

by Ashley Naftule

Spoiler warning: This blog goes into detail about the plot of “Get Out”. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, stop reading immediately and hit the backspace. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) first gets to the home of his girlfriend’s parents, her father Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) takes him on a tour. Strolling through a tastefully decorated house that seems to have been frozen in time, they come across a picture of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Dean tells Chris about how his father, the senior Armitage, had come in second to Owens. Armitage rhapsodizes about the glory of Owens’ victory, how it thumbed its nose at Hitler’s dreams of showing off the “superiority” of the Aryan body. Chris, who’s probably heard this kind of sentiment by well-meaning white liberals on dozens of prior occasions, nods half-heartedly and observes that perhaps Armitage’s father wasn’t thrilled about missing out on first place. Nobody likes to lose, after all- even if it serves the greater good. That implication of that potential resentment is left to hang in the air, ignored by Dean as he continues the tour. But it hangs over the rest of the movie like a dark cloud.

If “Get Out” was a lazier movie, it would have been set in the South. What makes it an effective horror movie and piece of social commentary is that it’s a Blue State nightmare. The secret cabal that is hijacking black bodies to their own ends isn’t a group of “Long Live the Confederacy!” good ol’ boys- it’s genteel, upper crust, monied white liberals. The evil specter animating them isn’t the conventional racism of separate drinking fountains, burning crosses, and the lynching tree- it’s white guilt taken to a dark extreme.

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Consider the party scene, out on the lawn. The rotund couple, talking sincerely about how “black is in”. The way people paw admiringly at Chris’s body. The golfer, crowing about how much he likes Tiger Woods. The Japanese man, asking if Chris considers being African-American to be an advantage. Through all these cringe-inducing interactions (I cringe because as a “well-meaning white person”, I can recognize that I’ve been a couple of these idiots in the past), there is a condescending paternalistic racism at work, the base condescension of clueless people trying to show how understanding and “with it” they are.

There’s something else at work, too: that black cloud of resentment. These people are full of envy and desire. They want what Chris and people like Chris have, things that they all covet and lack – youth, strength, athletic prowess, “coolness”, even creative vision. After all, the person who “wins” him at the bingo game is Stephen Root’s blind art dealer, who wants Chris (a photographer) for his eye (in more ways than one- not just to be able to see, period, but to have Chris’s talents). Root’s a man who lacks vision in every sense of the word, and gets it the way privileged people have since time immemorial: by stealing it from someone else.

This is what makes “Get Out” a fiendishly clever movie: this secret society isn’t motivated by racist delusions of white supremacy, but by something else- a kind of racist inferiority complex. These are people who want to steal and live in black bodies because they think they’re better. They aren’t lying at the party when they talk Chris up; they want to be him.

Look at the name of their body-jacking surgical procedure: Coagula. It’s an alchemical term, derived from “Solve et Coagula”: “Separate and Join Together” (in some translations, “solve” can also mean “dissolve”). The phrase refers to the alchemical process of breaking a substance down into its components, separating out the most desirable elements, and synthesizing them into a new substance. Think of the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone- breaking apart lead and refining it through alchemical processes, transmutating it into gold. It also applies to a psychological form of alchemy, where “solve” refers to the dissolving of negative states of body and mind, where you separate yourself from your own hardened positions, biases, and trauma. “Coagula” then refers to recombining those elements into a new integrated whole, creating a new self out of that synthesis.

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Now consider the alchemy of the operation in the movie. What’s lead and what’s gold? You’ve got this secret society that’s separating themselves from their old, white flesh to join together with younger, black bodies. Lead into gold. It’s a not perfect process- a part of the original host remains after the swap. But they do create a new synthesis, of two minds in one body. A different kind of slavery (one mind trapped in its own body, forced to do the bidding of another), a slavery that’s all the more insidious because the people perpetuating it are too “enlightened” to see it as such. Or they’re just so eager to have a new body to play with that they don’t care, one way or the other.

We’ve seen this kind of cultural synthesis play out, time and time again. Consider the history of rock music as “solve et coagula” at work- black music hijacked by white performers and synthesized to create a new form. And much like the body thieves in “Get Out”, many of the hijackers in the music world didn’t spare much thought about the fate of the people they were robbing (think of all the blues musicians that died broke and unheralded while Led Zeppelin got paid and laid playing their songs).

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Looking back at “Get Out,” that’s what I find most thought-provoking about it. The debt it owes to paranoid thrillers like “The Stepford Wives” is obvious, but how it twists that narrative is fascinating. Imagine a “Stepford Wives” where the men envied the woman and wanted to become them, so they did- THAT’S what “Get Out” is. It’s “the grass is greener on the other side” as a horror movie. It illustrates the rock and a hard place that “minorities” (already a misnomer, considering how demographic numbers are trending across the globe) have to deal with: on the one hand, you’ve got raving bigots who want to end your life; on the other, you’ve got patronizing allies that want to take your life, your story, your talents, for themselves.

If that’s not a true horror story, I don’t know what is.

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