Both Get Out and The Shape of Water are great films about outsiders, made by people from non-white backgrounds. But, Get Out is a lot less comforting, which is probably why it didn’t win Best Picture last night.
There’s safety in distance. That’s one of the things you realize when surveying creative work that touches on prejudice in American society. Recent Oscar-nominated films about the black experience like Malcolm X, 12 Years a Slave, or Selma have all had the buffer of decades or centuries. They still hold up a mirror that reflects a history of institutionalized racism but there’s a thick layer of dust covering the reflected image, letting viewers say “That only kinda looks like us; things have gotten better.”
The Shape of Water has that same dust on it. The period-piece stylings in Guillermo del Toro’s movie are meant to invoke the timeframe when B-movie monster features were all the rage. That element also ties in neatly to the fact that blatant racism and sexism ran rampant during the Cold War era. Nothing about the movie’s lush romanticism or softly lit happy ending makes the viewer think about the plight of society’s outsiders in the present day.
Because it’s in the here-and-now, Get Out doesn’t offer the easy dodge of distance. Its central plot mechanic calls on a history of exploitation and injustice that’s continuing to happen. Lured in by white people he thought he could trust, Chris gets treated like a resource: a body to be hollowed out and a soul to be discarded. Niceties are said about his talent but doors aren’t opened; instead, the bidders at the Armitages’ backyard auction want to possess Chris’ skills for themselves rather than have him create his own successes.
Look, I’m glad that Get Out and The Shape of Water won their respective awards last night. It’s not insignificant that The Shape of Water is the first genre movie to win Best Picture since 2004, but Peele’s win for Best Original Screenplay feels like a safe consolation prize, something big enough to be meaningful but not heavy with the ultimate weight of Best Picture. When you factor in some of the attitudes and dismissiveness that preceded Sunday night’s envelope-opening, it’s not hard to see that this another case of Hollywood expecting a pat on the back for a half-measure.