This past weekend, I saw Get Out, the new horror movie/thriller from writer-director Jordan Peele, in a packed theater. I'm normally too nervous to see scary movies, but my boyfriend convinced me that it would be fun to see it in a group, with a big Saturday night audience. And it was — the collective gasps, laughs, and exasperated yells were a huge part of the experience. Toward the end of the movie, when villainous characters start getting killed in satisfyingly bloody ways, the audience erupted over and over in applause.
A few weeks ago, I saw I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary that matches the words of James Baldwin with a variety of photos and film footage. A lot of it consists of clips of old movies, most of them showing how black people were depicted in pop culture during the classic Hollywood era. Near the end of the film, there's a clip of bright, happy Doris Day singing, which slowly dissolves into a stark photo of a lynching. The director lingers on that image; as we all sat confronted with it, someone near the back of the theater burst out with an emphatic solo round of applause.
It's been a few months now since I saw Moonlight, the film that just won the Oscar for Best Picture. Because its win happened in such a surprising, awkward, bait-and-switch way, I've seen people lament the fact that not enough attention has been given to how remarkable and worthy of celebration it is. Moonlight is a movie about black people in a roughly contemporary setting (not during the time of slavery or the civil rights movement); among other things, it prominently features a drug dealer who is a loving, accepting, and fully rounded character. It's a movie about gay people who are poor and nonwhite, that is achingly sad but not tragic. And it's a low-budget indie by a black director and screenwriter. For it to win just a year after the wildly entertaining and successful Creed was snubbed is legitimately exciting.
Midway through Moonlight, there's a scene in which the main character, Chiron, strides into his school and slams a chair into the boy who's been cruelly bullying him. Just before this, we've seen the bully goad Kevin, with whom Chiron has shared a surprising moment of intimacy, into beating up Chiron outside the school. The violent outburst is a release. But it's also scary, and it looks like it does some permanent damage; though the film jumps ahead in time immediately after that scene, we can assume that the boy was seriously injured. I watched it with anxiety and even horror, but some people I follow on Twitter commented that when they saw it with mostly black audiences, many viewers cheered.
On Sunday, as movie fans, critics, and industry professionals celebrated the Oscars and Get Out's successful box office opening, many of them paused on social media to acknowledge the five-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin's murder. Trayvon was killed in central Florida; Moonlight is set in Miami. The opening scene of Get Out, in which a young black man is stalked while walking in a residential neighborhood at night, is unquestionably meant to evoke the way George Zimmerman followed, attacked, and shot 17-year-old Trayvon.
Trayvon Martin's death is generally considered to have been the beginning of the Movement for Black Lives; the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was first used widely in reaction to Zimmerman's acquittal in 2013. Reading about that the morning after seeing Get Out, I thought about Black Lives Matter's success in raising awareness of the ongoing deadly threat of racism. The violent antagonism and discrimination spotlighted by the movement becomes, in Get Out, a visual and narrative shorthand for the dangers the characters face. An early roadside encounter with a cop is charged with tension, and when, during the climax, a siren sounds and the flashing red and blue lights appear, the entire theater gasped and groaned and cried, "Noooo!"
The fact that Get Out could contain these references while succeeding as a totally mainstream film was, I thought, a sign of progress. I still think that's true to an extent, but I realized that it was based on my assumption that white people are the movie's primary audience. That wasn't the case when I saw it: More than half of the people packing the sold-out show were black, many of them in high school or college. As we walked out of the theater after the show, I heard a girl say something like, "Now I'm getting scared every time I see a white person." Though the movie has a social message, it's meant to be commiserative fun for black viewers as much as it is a squirm-inducing lesson for white people.
So much of Get Out is about Daniel Kaluuya's main character being looked at by white people, being stared up and down, on display. But it's also about him looking back at them, and at the movie's other black characters — through the lens of his camera, and through his phone's camera, which becomes a kind of secret weapon in crucial moments. So much of Moonlight is about tender or knowing looks between black people: between Juan and Little, between Kevin and Chiron, between Kevin and Black.
The name of the play that Moonlight is based on, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," President Obama said.
Watching Get Out, Moonlight, Creed, and I Am Not Your Negro, I'm forced to think about how I'm being asked to see the black people onscreen, and whether I'm the intended audience at all. It makes me realize how often I don't have to consider any of that, don't have to feel the separation between my own gaze and the gaze that the movie is inviting. It demonstrates the value of hiring and funding creators who are used to society looking at them in a certain way, and giving them the chance to share a different way of looking. I'm happy, too, to have experienced all of these movies in the theater, among people who look like me and people who don't.