novotny lawrence

Iowa State's Novotny Lawrence gave a lecture on race in the film "Get Out."

Novotny Lawrence, associate professor in Iowa State's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication and English department, presents an in-depth analysis of the horror-thriller "Get Out" by Jordan Peele.

Lawrence explained how conventional filmmaking storytelling tropes are used by the director to analyze current racial politics.

As a medium for social activism, the director Peele uses cinema to help build a future in which people may be more educated, attuned to and concerned with the battle against structural racism.

Lawrence shared how the director employs traditional filmmaking storytelling tropes to examine contemporary racial politics, including “The Lost Cause Tradition” and the “Panoptic Theory."

“There are so many things going on in our country that demonstrate to us that racism is alive and well,” Lawrence said. “Racism is not like Santa Claus, you believe in him or you don’t, it exists and it is very real, and therefore this critic of racial politics in the film 'Get Out' is extremely significant.”

Peele said in an interview on Fresh Air: NPR that it was important to him to "just get the entire audience in touch in some way with the fears inherent in being Black in this country."

Lawrence broke down the transformation of slavery in Hollywood beginning with films known as reunion films — movies that tried to reunite the North and South post-Civil War.

Lawrence said the films portray a fictional relationship between white mansions, which include the people that inhabit them and their slaves, Black bodies.

“These films are usually told through a Southern perspective that encourages the audience to empathize with the South,” Lawrence said. “Which ultimately lead to The Lost Cause Tradition, a formula that offers a loose group of arguments that cast the South's experiment in nation-building as an admirable struggle against hopeless odds, played down the importance of slavery in bringing secession and the war and ascribed to Confederates constitutional high-mindedness and gallantry on the battlefield.” 

Lawrence compared a panopticon — a prison structure where inmates are only visible by the commanding tower — to a plantation.

Panoptic Theory, Lawrence said, is the surveillance of a person in which they are unaware of the actual surveillance.

“For us, the entire United States is a panopticon,” Lawrence said.

This concept was first described by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave." In his autobiography, Douglass discusses how one of his masters, Mr. Covey, induced the feeling of constant surveillance in him and other slaves.

“His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence,” Douglass wrote. “And he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us.

"He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He was always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him among ourselves, ‘the snake.’”

Lawrence said plantation owners would apply panoptic theory into their own plantations.

“We can take panoptic theory and apply it to Hollywood plantations,” Lawrence said. “In order to demonstrate how this works, I want to use the film '12 Years a Slave.' It recounts the life of Solomon Northup. He was initially a free Black man living in the North who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. The film follows Solomon as he worked on two plantations and his struggles to find his way back to his family in the North.”

Lawrence said "Get Out" is very emblematic of the panoptic theory. Chris, the main character played by Daniel Kaluuya, was staying at the home of his girlfriend’s family. Chris soon began to notice strange things throughout the house, such as segregation between the maid and groundskeeper.

“The thing that’s really interesting then, if we consider 'Get Out' or we talk about it more, or we push a little further, as 'Get Out' goes on it also becomes emblematic of the panoptic plantation.” Lawrence said. “Chris begins to get the feeling that everyone is watching him at all times, even when he goes out for a smoke late at night he looks up and sees his girlfriend's father staring directly at him.”

The movie takes a turn when Chris is hypnotized by his girlfriend's mom, a psychiatrist, late at night without his permission. She brings him back to a memory of his mother dying in a car crash when Chris was younger, causing him suffering and pain.

Chris finds out during the hypnosis he is actually being sized up by potential slave owners who operate through a type of “hypnotic control” where Lawrence explains that, “The person who buys (Chris) and becomes in control of their whole body and actions.”

In the final scene of the movie, it shows Chris straddled on top of Rose trying to help her, as she is hurt on the ground. Suddenly, a police car pulls up. Lawrence said he could feel the tension in the movie theater as he was watching, it was silent, dead silent.

“If you’ve been paying attention, and you know about the deaths of Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, we know that it doesn't matter whether you’re on a country estate, whether you’re in the city, whether you're jogging down the street, no matter what, Black bodies are always under constant surveillance,” Lawrence said.

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