The struggle to belong: Why film and TV loves a misfit

The final episode of Black Hollywood: ‘They’ve Gotta Have Us’ celebrates the new generation of talent finding success in cinema, like 2017’s Oscar-winning Get Out. While it’s ostensibly a horror film DAVE SCHILLING argues that it also tells a very familiar story about the struggle to belong.

If one had to deposit an archaic DVD or VHS copy of Get Out in a video store, its natural home would be in the horror section. Creeping dread, ominous music, and fantastical scenes of peril define the genre and are all present in Jordan Peele’s film.

Yet, it’s so much more. It’s routinely hilarious — a caustic satire of American race relations in the 21st century. It’s a family drama about a relationship between two people from different worlds. Like so many great works of cinema, it defies simple categorisation and is entirely unique. It is a singular, auteurist vision.

But what made Get Out popular enough to earn $255 million globally is that everything about it is universal and true to the human condition, regardless of your race. It’s a story about someone who wants to fit in, to get along in a world that is not made for them, and that is a theme that crosses genres.

Jordan Peele won the Best Original Screenplay award for Get Out Image Copyright: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

The horror of Get Out is not gruesome or physical, even if there’s the ever-present threat of lobotomy hanging over Chris once he realises what the Armitage family is really up to.

The true fear is the loss of identity, a slavery of the mind and the spirit. The victims of the Armitage family get to live amongst this white world, but at the cost of everything that makes them special.

One could see a similar scenario in the real-life story of OJ Simpson, as told masterfully in the documentary OJ: Made in America. That film paints Simpson’s story as one of a black man’s persistent desire to be accepted by white America, his inevitable corruption, and the grisly murder of his wife and her companion that ended his fairy tale.

Science fiction has toyed with this notion for years, as that genre has long been a home for deeply resonant allegory and social comment.

Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the villainous Borg in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a race of half-organic, half-robotic creatures that sought to assimilate other species into a digitised collective hive mind. Doctor Who’s Cybermen served a similar function — the loss of individuality through technology.

And Paul Verhoeven’s seminal 1980s action film, RoboCop, took that idea and made the cyborg the hero. He was a Christ-like figure who fights against the dehumanisation and rediscovers himself, while also finding the time to shoot dozens of people. It is an action film, after all.

Captain Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, was assimilated by the Borg in a memorable TNG arc Image Copyright: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
The Doctor has been fighting the Cybermen for over 50 years

The great benefit of science fiction for socially minded writers is that it allows them to dress up hot-button issues and questions of basic morality in latex and laser guns. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry stressed that throughout the early years of his series, making it his mission to articulate political statements in the far reaches of space.

While Get Out and the remarkable comedy Sorry to Bother You use sci-fi elements, both do away with much of the allegorical misdirection of previous generations. Our society is paradoxically both more permissive of provocative speech and less tolerant of other viewpoints. A hammer will do more than a scalpel in that environment. Not to say that Get Out isn’t artful in the delivery of its message, but there are no robot men or Klingons to be found here.

That’s not to say assimilation is always presented as a negative in American popular culture. Superman, perhaps the most American fictional character ever created, is an alien who desires to fit in with his adopted world. It’s the immigration myth that we were led to believe was a core tenet of American life, even if it clearly wasn’t true.

Sitcoms like Mork and Mindy explored this idea, also through science-fiction tropes. Robin Williams starred as Mork, an alien who looks just like us, except he hatched out of an egg-shaped spaceship in an outfit that resembles what one might imagine a doorman at Studio 54 might wear.

Robin Williams as the zany Mork.

Fish out of water stories like this are appealing because we all feel out of place sometimes. The comfort comes when that outcast character is embraced by the group. Whether or not a personal or cultural whitewashing occurs after the hugs and the rolling credits is not of interest.

Contemporary stories of this ilk no longer glorify fitting in. In the age of social media pressure encouraging us to stand out as much as possible in order to get attention, so the benefits of assimilation don’t seem nearly as appealing to the blob-like, expanding amoeba that is whatever passes for popular culture. It’s preferable to ‘live your truth’ than to fade into the background, even if, practically speaking, fading into the background is a matter of safety for targeted minority groups.

Recent film Love, Simon, about a high school student’s process of coming out as gay, made much of its marketing campaign about never denying who you are. The same message can be seen in new biopics about iconoclastic gay rock stars, the Freddie Mercury story as told in Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman about Elton John. The trailers promise stories of men who lived life on their own terms and made significant contributions to music history. They didn’t settle or blend in, despite dealing with unspeakable prejudice.

Tales of triumph of the human spirit tend to play better with a broad audience, hence their persistent presence in the cinemas.

Even as bleak as much of Get Out was, Jordan Peele ended up reshooting the ending to the film — subbing out a downer scene of Chris being arrested and accepting his fate as another African-American prison statistic for a crowd-pleasing resolution where Chris’ friend Rod saves the day and runs over the villain in an airport police car.

Hollywood gives audiences what they want to see, the things they’d like to believe are true about the world. More often than not, the system wears you down, but not in the movies.

As long as there are motion pictures, plucky underdogs will throw wrenches into the massive gears of the establishment. Whether or not that translates into reality is up to you.

Lil Rel Howery starred as Rod in Get Out. Image Copyright: BBC / AFL Films / Simon Frederick
Black Hollywood: ‘They’ve Gotta Have Us’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
First Published 26.10.18:

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