The problem with happy endings

Lots of broken patterns this time. This week’s post comes “early”: I’ve fallen into a Saturday posting rhythm, but it’s only Thursday, and I’m back at it. And the content isn’t some dusty old conference paper unearthed from back in the day, but a (Zoom) talk I gave just yesterday (so the digital ink is still wet on this one).

Last year, Wendy was kind enough to invite me to talk about To Kill a Mockingbird, and I had some hard words to say about it. Saying those hard words was pretty easy for me because it was a film that I didn’t like very much. Get Out is a much better film. And it has much better politics. I have a lot of good feelings about it. Enough so that I feel a little guilty for some of the hard things I am about to say.

But only a little. One can love something, and still see its flaws. One can have high praise for something, and still wish that it had been better. If I were assigning a letter grade, I’d probably give Get Out a B+. High enough to show it some genuine love. But just low enough to say that I wanted more.

I originally saw Get Out shortly after it was released. I really did love it. I thought it was clever, sharp, biting, funny, and well-made. But, even then, there was something about it — something I couldn’t quite put my finger on — that seemed to be slightly off.

At the time, I attributed this feeling to the fact that, a week or two before, I had seen I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary built around the words of James Baldwin. Peck’s film is a searing indictment of racism in America, which weaves together the past and the present in compelling and forceful ways. It pulls absolutely no punches. And so I initially thought that whatever felt off to me about Jordan Peele’s film was a side effect of me comparing it unfairly to Peck’s.

There’s some truth to that. I Am Not Your Negro is a very tough act to follow. Even for Peck. (His next project — a four part documentary for HBO called Exterminate All the Brutes — was a bold continuation and expansion of some of the arguments in Negro, but it also tried a bit too hard to be “artsy” and clever, and so it sometimes took its eyes off the prize of making a sharp political critique.) Still, ultimately, the main problem with Get Out isn’t really about its “failure” to be I Am Not Your Negro.

Peele has said that he wanted Get Out to be a critique of the sort of “post-racial” complacency that had come into fashion during Obama’s presidency. The landmark election (and re-election) of our first black president notwithstanding, racism was still everywhere around us, and it was still cruel and exploitative and deadly, but it was also all too often hidden behind the mask of “good” liberal white folks. The ones who would have voted for Obama a third time if they could. Peele wanted to call that shit out for what it was, and Get Out was his vehicle for doing so. It is no accident that the film’s villains are poster children for the neoliberal version of the American Dream: a politically moderate, professional, upper middle class, heteronormative nuclear family of white people.

Arguably, there are only two “good” ways to end the kind of critique Peele is trying to make. There’s the happy ending that reassures us that justice will prevail in the end. And there’s the tragic ending that offers no such reassurances but that, potentially, motivates audiences to do the work necessary for justice to really prevail someday. The film’s official release gave us the first kind of ending. The happy ending. And this, I want to suggest, is the story’s major flaw. Because Peele could have given us a better ending. A more honest and politically astute ending.

I don’t say this hypothetically. The ending that y’all saw last night is not the film’s original ending: it’s the ending that Peele wrote and filmed after the original ending failed with test audiences, and after Trump was elected. You can find this ending on YouTube, but I will share it with you here.

Let me be clear. The ending that Peele actually used in the film is not a bad ending. But it is a fantasy ending. It’s an ending that lets audiences go away feeling satisfied that the hero has won, the villains have all been defeated, and that the world will be a better place tomorrow. Such an ending has the benefit of being cathartic. Hopeful. Uplifting. Telling stories filled with racism and systemic injustice can be a very depressing thing to do. A happy ending avoids further traumatizing the audience.

Meanwhile, tragic endings can be disabling, depressing, and demoralizing. If they’re delivered poorly, they can teach people that it’s pointless to struggle, to resist, or to revolt because it’s impossible to win. So there’s something to be said for happy endings.

And yet . . . happy endings can also be a source of false hope. A way of pretending that the real-world problems at stake are much easier to fix than they actually are. Or, worse, of pretending that those problems are not really so bad. And tragic endings often have the benefit of being honest. Realistic. Accurate. There is a great deal of value to be found — aesthetically, socially, culturally, politically — in helping people face the true scope of a problem like structural racism. After all, it’s almost impossible to fight effectively against an enemy if you drastically underestimate its real size and strength.

In a world where Trump had become President, the film’s actual ending could be seen as a kind of desperately needed form of escape. The racists were winning in the streets and at the ballot box, so please please please don’t let us go to the movies and find that they’re winning there too . . .

. . . except, of course, that the whole point of the film is to remind us (or inform us, as the case may be) that the racists were winning all along, that they’d never really stopped winning, and that the horror of it is that they were doing so in plain sight under the guise of friendly bourgeois tolerance and civility. Peele’s happy ending doesn’t completely change that aspect of the film’s message, but it does undermine it.

Here’s where I want to invoke the ending of a different film that also makes a villain out of systemic racism. It’s arguably even more of a fantasy than Get Out, and it also comes with a happy ending that undercuts the film’s larger political critique. But, unlike Get Out, it offers an extended on-screen moment that openly acknowledges the problem with the happy ending it’s about to deliver. I’m talking about Django Unchained, and the moment I’m referring to is the speech that Stephen, the head house slave and the real brains behind the Candyland plantation, makes right before he dies. Stephen knows that he’s about to die. But he’s still cocky and confident, because he also knows that Django’s victory is likely to be short-lived. “You done fucked up,” he bellows at Django, “This Candyland, [***]! You can’t destroy Candyland! We been here — they’s always gonna be a Candyland! . . . Can’t no [black] gunfighter kill all the white folks in the world!” And while we can — and should — hope that Stephen is wrong when he says that there will always be a Candyland, if we’re honest with ourselves, we also know that he’s right about the rest. One person can’t singlehandedly bring down a brutal, violent, exploitative, oppressive system that’s baked deep into the culture and that shapes virtually every facet of everyday life. That’s nothing but a fantasy.

The original ending for Get Out comes closer to this kind of honesty than the happy ending does. Mind you, it is still arguably a fantasy of sorts. Two white cops roll up on a black man choking a white woman to death. The black man also has a rifle visibly within his reach. In the real world, the odds that the black man in question would have survived that encounter are slim to none. The fact that Chris lives long enough to be put in handcuffs (much less to find himself in prison) is nothing less than a miracle.

Still. That alternate ending is the more honest one. It’s the politically stronger one. It’s the one that tells us that even a righteous victory (such as the one that Chris has) will be rewarded with fresh injustice, and that our collective work is not done. Or even close to done.

Now one can make a case that one of the main purposes of fiction is that it allows us to feel justice and hope in a world where such things are rarer than they should be. And that we need such fictions to help keep us going, especially if we ever want to see those things become commonplace instead of rare. At the same time, however, I think we also need to be wary of such fictions. Because they can be addicting in their own way. They can betray us into feeling more hopeful than we should and lead us to believe that some kind of “happily ever after” world really is just around the corner. In spite of the vast mountains of evidence to the contrary. Admittedly, I don’t know what the perfect balance here would be. To be fair to Peele, he had to negotiate at least three major conundrums that simply cannot be resolved perfectly, and so whatever he did was going to be subject to legitimate criticism.

Conundrum #1 is what we might think of as a problem of expectations. Many folks, after all, will argue that one of the other major purposes of fiction is escapism. The real world is already serious and depressing and political enough, and people look to things like movies to get away from all that pain, even if only for a moment. And if we follow this line of thought far enough, we get to a place where some people actively reject the notion that anyone should make films that contain political statements or offer social critiques of any sort.

Insofar as people really do make choices about where to direct their attention, and they often deliberately opt for “entertainment” instead of “politics,” there’s a grain of truth to be found here. At the same time, this line of thought is ultimately rooted in the belief that these two things are mutually exclusive: i.e., you can have entertainment, or you can deliver a message, but that you can’t do both at the same time. And it shouldn’t take a lot of thought to recognize that this assumption is clearly false. After all, the vast majority of our “entertainment” comes with obvious messages about morality and ethics. We are constantly told stories — from cradle to grave, from fairy tales to action films — that are driven by conflicts between “good” and “evil.” The difference between a “happy ending” and a “tragic ending,” after all, is almost always about whether the “good” people or the “evil” people get what they want in the end. And it’s almost impossible for a story to do that without also delivering lots of messages about what kinds of people are supposedly “good” and what kinds are supposedly “evil.”

Here’s where I want to briefly bring I Am Not Your Negro back into the mix. As a documentary, Peck’s film wasn’t under any obligation to be entertaining. To be sure, if Peck wanted people to stick with the film to the end, he couldn’t make it boring. But the genre he was working in didn’t come with any expectation that he needed to give audiences a happy ending. On the contrary, his genre’s dominant expectations are that he tell the truth, even if it’s not a pretty truth. Maybe even especially if it’s not a pretty truth. Peele, on the other hand, was not quite so free. He was trying to make a film that could work simultaenously as a thrilling horror film and as a sharp political critique. To his credit, he manages to make both these things work well for almost the entire film. That’s not an easy feat to pull off. And it’s even more difficult, given that the political message in question was one that a large part of the nation was not ready (or willing) to hear. And so that makes it even more impressive that he manages this balancing act for as long as he does . . . until we get to the film’s ending, where I think he loses his political nerve, and leans too far into the “need” to deliver a happy ending.

Conundrum #2 is what we might think of as a problem of scale. Racism is a deep, pervasive, complicated, structural problem with a very long and ugly history. It has persisted and mutated and reinvented itself in order to survive for more than 600 years. Meanwhile, the typical Hollywood film lasts for about 2 hours. A story that short — no matter how smart or artful or creative — cannot pretend to do justice to portraying more than six centuries of pain and brutality and trauma. It certainly cannot pretend to resolve such trauma satisfactorily in so little time. And yet this is what the narrative form of the Hollywood film routinely demands: i.e., some kind of closure that allows audiences to leave feeling satisfied with what they have just witnessed.

And so part of the problem Peele faced is that he was telling a story about the horrors of systemic racism that needed a satisfying ending, but since systemic racism in the real world has not shown any signs of coming to an end, Peele was caught in a trap. He could give us his original ending — the one that test audiences hated so much — and wind up with a film that failed at the box office. Or he could give us the happy ending — the one y’all saw last night — and wind up with a film that pretends that, somehow, centuries of unspeakable injustice are supposed to be fixed in less time than it takes to smoke a small rack of ribs, and that this can be done by one man with a couple of tufts of cotton in his ears and a camera flash in his hand.

Conundrum #3 is what we might think of as a problem of audience. Or, more precisely, audiences. Peele needed to tell a story that would work equally well for two very different segments of the population. The first consisted of people who were already “woke”: i.e., people who knew that the US had not become a post-racial utopia simply because Obama and Michelle had spent eight years in power. This audience didn’t need Peele (or anyone) to clue them in that racism hadn’t died off — or even been wounded very seriously — in 2008. The second audience (which was almost certainly the larger of the two) consisted of people whom Peele wanted to wake up. And this audience — the sleepers who somehow believed that racism was a problem that we’d already solved — is the one that most needed to hear Peele’s political message, whether they wanted to or not. After all, in the real world, if we’re ever actually going to end racism for good, it’s only going to happen if enough of that second audience — the sleepers — finally wake up and join the first audience.

And so when Peele changed the film’s ending, he let that second audience off the hook. He gave them a story that wasn’t likely to disturb their sleep, because all the racist demons and horrors of the film’s first ninety-eight minutes could be dismissed with three minutes of a happy ending. To be sure, Peele undoubtedly did so with the best of intentions. He wanted that first audience, the “woke” audience, to be able to walk away with the taste of victory in their mouths. And I can appreciate the value in that, seeing as how, in the real world, those kinds of victories are (tragically) few and far between.

Still. We really do need a lot of sleepers to wake the fuck up already. Especially given how long most of them have been sleeping, and how little their naive, post-racial dreams have been disturbed by an endless parade of real life horrors. The Scottsboro Boys. Emmett Till. The 16th Street Baptist Church. Medgar Evers. Rodney King. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Michael Brown. Freddie Gray. Philando Castile. Breanna Taylor. George Floyd. Tyre Nichols.

To be sure, it’s not fair to expect a single film — no matter how smartly written or cleverly made it is — to magically wake up an entire nation of sleepers all by itself. And Get Out really is smartly written and cleverly made. At the same time, however, it would have been even better if Peele had seen his critique of “post-racial” complacency through to its logical end. Even if Get Out really wasn’t likely to wake up an entire nation, it could at least have made it a little bit harder for so many people to continue to sleep quite so peacefully.

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