Synopsis: A black man goes to visit his white girlfriend’s family for a weekend getaway, but they offer more than he bargained for. Universal Pictures; Rated R; 103 minutes.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: The set-up, the racial minority reluctantly going to meet the family of his/her white significant other, is one that we’ve become accustomed to across media, particularly in film. Played for romance, laughs, and drama, the racial tension created amongst interracial couples has become one of American storytelling’s great stage acts. But none of these racially-loaded meet and greets have been downright horrific. Sure, there have been some uncomfortable moments, but it’s always broken up by a reassurance that America is ultimately a safe-space and that any discomfort with miscegenation stems from a misunderstanding that can be played up as a chance for healing or laughs. There’s plenty of humor in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but there’s never comfort, or a sense of safety. Get Out feels constantly dangerous, a film that exists on the edge in terms of humor and horror.
We’re made aware of this edge, the moment that we see photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend, Rose (Alison Williams) together. It’s not that their relationship itself is edgy, it’s actually quite cute in its simple normalcy, but it feels delicately balanced on America’s racial tensions and audience expectations for a relationship that’s still a bit of uncharted territory in popular culture. Neither partner comes across as entirely comfortable with the impending trip to meet Rose’s parents. Chris’s discomfort stems from a fear of being rejected and treated as an outsider, and Rose’s out of fear that her family will come across as racist to Chris, though she assures him that they are definitely not racist. Her father would have voted for Obama a third term, she says. Neither character can quite share the other’s discomfort, they can only feel their way towards empathy with a kind of staggering blindness. Chris’s skepticism and Rose’s naiveté that her family will approve of her dating a black man feels honest on both counts, and Peele subtly plays up the humor and eventual horror of this situation by never removing the film’s point of view away from the black experience, and our well-earned skepticism. Make no mistake, Peele provides considered characterization for Rose, though he doesn’t hesitate from sly moments of humor embedded in the all-time catch-all for inexplicable behavior, “white people.” But Get Out is firmly rooted on the side of Chris, and the film’s most frightening aspects are grounded in the black perspective.
Eyes of the Beholder: Peele directs with such assuredness that it would be impossible to guess that Get Out was a debut feature if that knowledge wasn’t shared beforehand. He positions the camera uncomfortably close to the actor’s faces, capturing a register of emotions that can’t be narrowed down into a singular form. When we meet Rose’s parents (played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and her brother (Caleb Landry Jones), Peele captures them in such a way that makes us want to like them, trust them, but lingers on their faces for just a moment too long, revealing something unsettling, though not immediately recognizably sinister underneath. Peele holds on the masks these characters wear, masks of liberal affability, and gives us a quick peek at what’s squirming underneath before moving his eye unto something else. Nearly every character in the film is given a figurative mask, Rose’s family, their friends, and the black help, which fulfills both the horror trope and the notion of hidden bigotry that existed in Obama’s America. Kaluuya, whose masterful control of facial expression made him one of the breakout performers in Black Mirror, is the film’s only mask-less player. He takes on everything the script demands of Chris, making him easy to read, and easy to identify with. Chris becomes our guide to the kind of racism that may not end or begin with the word “nigger” but is no less destructive in its power, perhaps even more so.
Midway through the film, Chris finds himself at a party hosted by Rose’s parents for their affluent friends. His discomfort in being the only black face in a sea of whiteness is so immediately apparent, so recognizable to those of us who have experienced this situation, that we can’t help but recognize this as a horror just as intense an experience as a chase through a dark corridor or an encounter with a ghostly presence in a secluded house. As a he makes his way through introduction after introduction of old white folks who make every racist statement imaginable, under the guise of civil decency, we come to understand that this is the film’s equivalent of being chased by masked monsters, the film’s equivalent of encountering the haunting residual presence of something thought dead and buried by way of the great lie of a post-racial America.
Black Supremacy: Peele has discussed how he wanted Get Out to work in terms of both horror and comedy, succeeding where many horror-comedies haven’t by making the humor actually funny and the horror actually scary. He succeeds on both counts. Much of the humor stems from Chris’s friend, Rod (Lil Rel Howery) whose phone conversations provide a source of both meta-commentary on the absurdity Chris finds himself in, and a detox from the sometimes overwhelming discomfort. It should come as no surprise that Peele handles this well, given his comedic background, and while these scenes may seem a bit self-indulgent, they help create a tonal balance and sleight of hand that prevents some of the twistier horror elements from being revealed too early.
It’s the horror of the final act that’s the most surprising display of Peele’s craft. He manages to tie historical racism and modern racism together in a way that utilizes some of the horror tropes we expect and also the importance of racial perspective in film. There’s something so fresh about this take and Peele’s artful delivery that it feels electric, as if someone held smelling salts under our collective noses and woke up all our synapses with the excitement of something new being brought to horror.
We’re going to enter spoiler territory here, so if you’ve yet to see this film, skip this next part:
The film’s take on racism, is one that stems from a white love of black culture. It’s a complex hatred of the people, but an admiration for their genetics, skills, and talents. Early in the film we learn that Rose’s grandfather was an Olympic athlete who was beaten at the 1936 Olympics by Jesse Owens. It isn’t until the film’s climax we learn that because of this, he, and his heirs, developed a secret society that auctions off black bodies so that white brains can be transferred into them. Chris has been auctioned off to the recently blind, failed photographer Jim Hudson, who tells Chris that he doesn’t care about his skin, claiming, “I want your eyes.” But Chris’s eyes are attuned to the black experience, and it’s this that has made him a successful photographer, one who has been able to capture something more successful than Hudson’s unsellable wilderness photographs. It’s his black experience that’s on sale.
During the opening credits we see Chris’s photographs of ghettos, a pregnant black woman, a chained pit bull—a “melancholy” black experience that is owned. But black ownership matters little in a society of white power, and we see this in every black character whose exists as a vessel for a white mind. Black athleticism (as evidenced by the groundskeeper who exhibits impressive strength and speed), black hair (as evidenced by the maid, who continually fixes and plays with her hair), black sex organs (as evidenced by the black party guest), and black melancholy are all something to be taken and used to benefit the white experience.
From the personal standpoint of a black man, there are few things more horrifying than being faced with the possibility that my black identity, my black struggle is seen as currency that devalues the life attached to them. Yet, one doesn’t have to reach far to see that this horror is very much a familiar realm of existence for every black person who has encountered someone who loves black music but fears black people, someone who treats interracial sex as a conquest to be bragged about in its aftermath, someone who sees black people as tokens through which to display their own liberal open-mindedness. Get Out displays a horror of being faced with people who want so much to be like us, but hate us in return, and it’s just one step over the edge of a reality we’ve sadly, horrifically become accustomed to.
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Overall: Jordan Peele doesn’t simply provide a great new voice to the genre, he delivers one that feels essential in its experience. If Get Out is how he handles the horror of hidden racism that existed in Obama’s America, we’re practically guaranteed for an even stronger dose of palm-sweating, synapse-firing terror once he takes on the overt racism of Trumpland in his next horror film.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures