Revisiting the ‘Sunken Place’: Jordan Peele, W. E. B. Du Bois, and ‘Double Consciousness’

In one of recent cinema’s most disturbing scenes, a young man sits down for a casual chat with his new girlfriend’s mother, only to realise that she is slowly hypnotising him. Chris, (brilliantly played by British actor Daniel Kaluuya), can only watch in horror as he is dragged away from his own eye sockets, and left to float in the darkness of his own mind. He has entered the ‘Sunken Place’: a harrowing creation of Jordan Peele’s in which a person becomes trapped inside their own head. Chris is able to observe everything that is happening to him, but he is completely powerless to act, and entirely unable to ‘get out’ again.

The ‘Sunken Place’ is a fresh and pointed visual, allowing Peele to deliver a powerful jolt straight into the mind of his audience. Much of the scene’s strength lies in the fact that the viewer is held hostage alongside Chris. As he sinks into his own mind, we sink with him: the visual frame of the screen becoming shrouded in darkness, leaving space only for the newly sinister face of Chris’s hypnotist, Missy (Catherine Keener), to peer into the eyes of her unwilling captives. It is unnerving viewing, even for veteran watchers of the film.

The ‘Sunken Place’ is not, however, a wholly new invention. Peele’s imagery clearly echoes the idea of ‘double consciousness’, a concept first written about by W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 work, ‘The Souls of Black Folk’:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others […] One ever feels his twoness,-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (Chicago: A. G. McClurg, 1903).

Put simply, Du Bois is referring here to the damaging effects of racial stereotyping. Double consciousness is the awareness that the view you hold of your own self does not align with the view that others hold of you. The impossibility of reconciling these two points of view places an immeasurable strain upon the African Americans who have to endure this type of racial discrimination for centuries.

This is what Du Bois refers to when he describes the ‘sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’, and it is this aspect of ‘double consciousness’ that Jordan Peele picks up on in his illustration of the ‘Sunken Place’. It is not hard to see the similarities between the two concepts: the ‘Sunken Place’ is simply a physical manifestation of ‘double consciousness’, trapping Chris within a state in which he is acutely aware of his own reflection in the ‘eyes of others’, and feeling that he can’t fully inhabit his own identity because of this.

Further parallels between ‘Get Out’ and ‘double consciousness’ abound as the film draws to its horrifying conclusion. As it turns out, Chris’s new girlfriend, Rose, has lured Chris back to her white hometown so that he can be lobotomised. He will have the mind of a white person implanted into his body, whilst he is relegated to the ‘Sunken Place’ forever, powerless to halt the forces that put him there. 

Why do these white townsfolk feel compelled to transplant their minds into the bodies of African Americans? Simply put, because of racial stereotyping: a white photographer in the town has chosen Chris as his new ‘host’, because he thinks that, as an African American, Chris has a more creative and artistic eye than his own (Chris is a successful photographer). Rose’s grandfather, Roman, was an Olympic runner, beaten in the 1936 Olympics by none other than Jesse Owens. He is apparently so disturbed by this fact that he implants his own mind into the body of another African American, ‘Walter’, and spends the rest of his life frantically exercising in the hopes of redeeming himself from this thwarted victory. 

The parallels between this horrific plot and Du Bois’s ‘double consciousness’ are, again, all too clear; especially when you consider this particular claim: ‘One ever feels his twoness,-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body’. What Peele has done in ‘Get Out’ is to place the white ‘American’ quite literally inside the body of the black African American, and the struggle between these ‘two warring ideals’ serves as the film’s most unsettling illustration of racial tension in America today.

Peele here points to the uncomfortable reality of ‘post-racial’ America: the townspeople at the heart of ‘Get Out’ are people who are ostensibly educated and liberal, people who think that they’re being complimentary when they claim that African Americans are more creative, or better at sport than they are. You wouldn’t have to look too hard to find a similar type of person in society right now, (albeit without the evil and deranged lobotomising scheme). These are people who probably don’t realise that they are contributing to the oppressive culture of racial discrimination which still shapes the lives of African Americans today; in fact, they probably would have ‘voted for Obama a third time if they could’, but this complacency can be dangerous if left to fester. Having outdated and unfounded stereotypes constantly imposed upon you is not a comfortable experience, as Peele here takes pains to demonstrate. This is the critical and timely message of ‘Get Out’, in all of its surreal and terrifying glory.

(Read about the cultural legacy of the ‘Sunken Place’ here: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/mar/17/trapped-in-the-sunken-place-how-get-outs-purgatory-engulfed-pop-culture).

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