Why The Asian Character In 'Get Out' Matters So Much
Get Out, from writer-director Jordan Peele, uses the horror genre to express the very real fears and subtleties of racism against black people in America. For a majority of the film, Chris, the protagonist, is the only black character surrounded by white people when he is brought upstate to visit his girlfriend Rose's parents. However there is one exception to the black and white makeup of Get Out: an Asian man seen briefly during one of the film's more tense moments. As the only non-black person of color in the film, he certainly stands out, but I'm not sure if the Asian character's presence in Get Out is significant for the reasons Peele intended.
The Asian man only appears in two scenes and has only one line, but his presence makes a big impression. Spoilers ahead! The character — unnamed in the film but identified in the credits as Hiroki Tanaka — is one of the guests at the majority-white cocktail party thrown by Rose's parents that doubles as a modern slave auction. It's a spooky scene in which Chris is paraded around to middle-aged white people, all of whom ask him oddly pointed questions about his race. One woman reaches up to feel his bicep and asks Rose about his prowess in bed; a retired golf player inspects his build and casually mentions that he met Tiger Woods. And then there's the Asian man, who asks Chris if he thinks being African-American in America has more disadvantages or advantages.
The man speaks with a thick accent, but it's unclear whether or not he was meant to be visiting from abroad or living in the community. At first, I thought that he might be like the black people in town — another slave stuck in the sunken place. But then in the next scene, he is seen bidding on Chris in the silent auction. He is very much an enforcer of the racist ideals that the white characters in Get Out uphold, and not, as I had briefly wondered, a victim.
The man's presence in Get Out accomplishes a few things. Most notably, it widens the scope of the film to include more than just black and white America. The fact that the character is foreign points to a larger epidemic of racism, thus broadening the discussion in the film to international race relations. A comment left on an article questioning the role of the Asian man in Get Out posted on YOMYOMF alleges that Peele spoke about the man in a screening Q&A and explained that the character's presence was meant to speak to the large reach of the group organizing these abductions. Another reading of the character, as explored in an article on NextShark, supposes that the Asian man asks Chris about the black experience because he wonders if it would be better than his own as an Asian man. This would speak to the difficulty of Asians to fit into an America that tends to see race as a black and white issue. Both are valid points, and certainly present interesting ideas for why Peele chose to include an Asian character in his film.
Get Out is an extremely detailed and well-thought-out film, and the decision to have an East Asian man in the group — not a South Asian man or a Latinx, not a Middle Eastern man or a European — is a specific one. But, no matter the intent, I wonder whether or not Peele thought specifically about how American audiences would view this character. One of the biggest stereotypes faced by Asian Americans is the "Fresh Off the Boat" stereotype, the idea that all Asians are foreigners. And unfortunately, it's a stereotype that Peele perhaps unwittingly plays into with this character if he did intend for the man to represent the global reach of Rose's parents' evil network.
Not only does the Asian man contribute to the stereotype of Asians as foreigners, but he also perpetuates the myth of the model minority. Asians, particularly East Asians, are often called this label meaning that they mostly fall victim to what some might call "good" stereotypes (like being skilled at math or assimilating in white America). East Asians are sometimes seen as the minority closest to the white experience for a variety of reasons (percentage with college degrees, upward mobility, etc.) and racism against Asians and Asian Americans is either considered firmly in the past or entirely forgotten. I have no doubt that, regardless of intent, some audiences will interpret the Asian character in Get Out as a confirmation that the Asian experience is the same as white Americans. And the fact that this message is seen on film, a medium that routinely excludes Asians from their own narratives and continues to lack Asian representation, is incredibly ironic.
It's important for all non-black people to see Get Out and reflect on their contributions to systemic racism. Just because one belongs to a fellow minority group does not give one a free pass. For reminding me of that, I thank Peele for his inclusion of an Asian character. However, I also think that the inclusion of such an individual in this particular context trivializes the Asian experience. The discussion of race relations between Asians and African Americans is an important one, and it deserves more than a throwaway line and a few short scenes.