Jordan Peele’s horror-comedy Get Out is breaking new ground for its blunt, satirical take on the current state of race relations. But what many fail to notice amid the stark social commentary is Peele’s parallel presentation of disability alongside institutional racism.
Disabled characters and people of color walk a similar path in Hollywood, both often boiled down to basic components meant to perpetuate Hollywood’s ideal of perfection as being white and able-bodied. Thus African-Americans become savage villains, and disabled people are child-like burdens. In several cases, like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead — a film Peele has cited as an influence — or the recent Me Before You, death is often the only “saving grace” for being non-white or disabled.
Where the two minorities are often intertwined is as a source of inspiration. You can trace the Angelic Cripple’s origins to the most famous handicapper in popular culture, Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Angelic Cripple elicits sympathy from the able-bodied audience, acting as a reminder that they should appreciate their bodies and thank God they aren’t suffering a similar fate. Often these characters are overly kind-hearted, with their sweetness and disabled status giving them a front-row seat to Heaven when they die (and they usually must die before the end credits). It’s a concept that hasn’t gone away, rehashed in countless films from the Christ-like Jake Sully in Avatar to the simple-minded Lenny in Of Mice and Men.
Conversely, there’s the Magical Negro, a black character whose sole purpose is to aid the white protagonist in achieving their goals. Examples are varied, ranging from Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance to Michael Clarke Duncan’s John Coffey in The Green Mile (which actually combines the Magical Negro trope with the Angelic Cripple) In both cases, the disabled and the African-American are utilized only so far as the white and able-bodied hero wishes them to be. Once these characters serve their purpose, they’re shuffled loose of their mortal coils or sent back to their initial conditions, happier and wiser for being “of use.” In both genres, these problems are defects and imperfections that the white, able-bodied protagonist would be lucky to avoid.
Peele’s combination is subtle. The emphasis is rightfully on white privilege and racism, but adding in the blind gallery owner, Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), compels the two minorities to duke it out for space in the narrative and reiterate that both are commodified for white consumption.
When Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Jim first meet, Peele situates it as a meeting of two men — and two filmic tropes — airing their grievances. Jim situates his blindness alongside Chris’ race, citing it as a defect of their genetics. Jim’s blindness has manifested late in his life, allowing him the privilege of both being a white man as well as someone who has enjoyed the “perks” of being able-bodied, so even a disabled person sees the fallacy of his statement. It’s easy to consider disability a defect when one has presumably lived a happy life prior to its arrival. This continues the Hollywood belief that only an able-bodied audience will respond to a person who was once “like them,” i.e., able-bodied and struck down in their prime. It doesn’t seem as if Peele is falling into stereotypes of his own, so much as calling them to the table. Ironically, this further emphasizes Peele’s exploration of race. Jim sees appropriating Chris’ culture as beneficial in two ways: to be in vogue, and to return to the able-bodied, sighted life he was denied.
Peele aligns the use of black bodies and able-bodied ability outside the dynamic between Chris and Jim. Dean (Bradley Whitford), the father of Chris’ girlfriend, explains how his own father was bested in the Olympics by Jesse Owens. Later, when Chris is outside, the groundskeeper sprints towards him — later revealed to be his girlfriend’s grandfather in a new body. In many cinematic portrayals of disability, old age becomes the “natural” route, the “we’ll all be disabled someday” concept often trotted out to disabled people. Peele shows how the able-bodied commodify bodies to avoid the self-assumed horrors of disability.
It would certainly be easier to believe in a world where disability is eradicated, but as it aligns with race it too often conjures up questions of extermination. Get Out shows the appropriation of black bodies as a means of eliminating white awkwardness and asserting control. Adding disability to the mix opens up the door to eradicating those already hobbled with one, with both methods devolving into the all-too-authentic assumption of a master race of white, able-bodied people. A world scarier than we ever could have imagined.
Kristen Lopez lives in Sacramento.