It matters that Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) tells Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) that he would have voted for Obama for a third term. Yeah, it’s also a funny bit of dialogue, throwing back to an earlier scene in which Rose (Allison Williams), Dean’s daughter and Chris’s girlfriend, warned Chris that he would end up having this conversation with her totally-not-racist father. Obviously, it’s an awkward exchange. That’s where the joke comes from. But Jordan Peele, the former MADtv and Key & Peele writer and star making his directorial debut with Get Out, has crafted a film of easy superficial delight but one that also requires us to examine what makes its funny parts funny if we are to understand what makes its scary parts realistically scary.
Everything matters on an elemental level in Get Out. From production design to musical score to angles to dialogue. From what is said to what is not said to where the things that are said are said to when the things that aren’t said aren’t said. If that is confusing, that is because Get Out is as precise a movie as one can expect from horror or any genre. It matters that the Armitage house is decorated in artifacts “brought back” from other countries and it matters that Dean admits to this with a vocal shrug, numb to his own habit of appropriating culture to build his excessively comfortable life on a sprawling plantation-like estate.
It matters that Dean has two people of color serving as his groundskeeper and maid, but his decision to employ them is described as a battle between his own feelings of sympathy and his concern for “how it looks” to others. Dean, in his own open and unsolicited explanation, centralizes his own need to be doing the right thing in his understanding of two human beings. He wants the black people in the situation to see him as the good guy but he does not want those outside of the situation to see him as the bad guy, two cognitive pathways that only prevent one’s being called racist, not one’s operating as a racist.
The way that Chris’ mom dies matters—left suffering, cold, and alone on the side of the road from a hit-and-run incident, her life rendered unworthy of assistance, inspection, or accountability in terms of her killer. It also matters that our first insight into this incident are provided when Chris and Rose hit a deer with their car and the animal cries out from the woods. Then, when Dean is over-reaching to establish a rapport with “my man” Chris, it matters that Dean reacts to hearing about the accident with a strangely impassioned speech about how it’s good that the deer died, how deer are beautiful creatures, but now there are too many of them and their population needs to be trimmed.
In his most desperate moment, Chris is tied to a chair in front of a trophy deer that is mounted on the wall in the Armitage basement. It matters that Chris and the deer are perfectly positioned so, one in front of the other, the quarter deer carcass hanging over Chris’s full body, which his captors intend to steal in a much more brutal and dehumanizing manner than the one used to take the life of the deer.
And it’s not just the heavy handed metaphorical material that matters. A short montage segment which at first seems like comedic breathing room in the middle of a paranoid thriller sees the Armitage family’s white, wealthy friends corner Chris and Rose with cringeworthy questions of apparent benevolence. It matters that all of the attendees at the social event are in their golden years, at least over fifty. While their manner is that of friendly banter, their expressions and interest wholly without malice, there’s a contemporarily recognized subtler racism in their chosen words and curiosity, contemporarily recognized because it should be very familiar to most young Americans, white or black. Even when later developments expose the more insidious intent to these exchanges, the conversations themselves, in a vacuum, are still very familiar. We have seen it unfold in our offices and family get-togethers, read it on Facebook from our facepalm-inspiring aunts and uncles, and probably many of us have excused it due to the offenders “being from another era.”
It matters that Chris is never called a racial slur.
On that same note, it definitely matters that Chris’ last name is Washington, given the most likely explanation for why persons of color often carry the same last names as our white forefathers.
Jordan Peele has made a movie about right now, and how right now is defined by the inescapable structures of oppression and hateful division institutionally and historically cemented. Did you notice, as you were laughing along, that the three cops who laugh Chris’ friend Rod (LilRel Howery) out of the police station, even as he brings evidence that could solve an on-the-books and still-open missing black person’s case, are all persons of color? That matters. You should notice that.
Because that’s right now.
It matters greatly that Jordan Peele has made a movie whose first act dialogue unhesitantly pins its specific historical placement forever. Because of the conjuring of a third Obama term, this movie will never be timeless. It will always take place in 2017.
It matters more than anything that Get Out is the first film openly weaponized against American racism in the current year, and yet a film which is not concerned, in fact doesn’t even mention, Trump or his supporters.
It mentions Obama though.
Of all of the injustices invented or heightened in the transition from Obama’s America to Trump’s, perhaps the most invisible (and, so, in some ways most dangerously toxic) is the unexamined exoneration of the well-intended white centrist-liberal. The upper-to-middle class detached left-leaner who slaps the right bumper sticker on the car, who makes tax write-off donations to the right org via phone calls, and refuses to acknowledge the rants of racist relatives on Facebook. The ones who (like me) still assert their love for Obama as a sort of badge. The ones who do enough to comfortably call themselves the good guys, even after an election that proved, among other things, too many white Americans are also too comfortable protest voting with high stakes, that too many of us failed to understand that refusing to vote for what one deems the “lesser of two evils” indicates a safety and freedom from the oppressive force of the greater potential evil. There may not have been enough to swing the election without help from dozens of other factors, but there were enough to be noticed, and no signs yet of a lesson learned.
There are many people who like to point out the diminishing statistics of the last election. If roughly half of registered voters showed up to vote and just under half of those voted for Trump (he lost the popular vote, don’t you know?), then only ~25% of Americans voted for Trump’s racist policies. Many times, you’ll notice that those most hurriedly want to clarify this distinction will also be quick to assert their belief in the undeniable truth that racism in America is structured through institutionalization and social programming, that it’s built into our society. But one quarter of America does not have the muscle to hold these structures in place, so if Trump voters aren’t structuring the permanency, then who is?
When Rose and Chris have their accident, a local cop (whose badge doesn’t identify the story’s locale, which matters), shows up on the scene. It’s passed over with veteran filmmaking reserve that Chris doesn’t drive because of his mother’s tragedy, but it is one of the more finely tuned metaphors of Peele’s story that Chris never has control of his own direction. The officer still asks to see Chris’ driver’s license, because “he has the right.” We have seen this way too often over the last few years.
But, Rose recognizes the implication, and she is having none of it. She steps forward and aggressively defends her boyfriend against the attempt at profiling. She plants her feet and spews insults at the cop until he backs down.
When Rose’s characterization takes a dramatic shift in the third act of the film, it was only then that I realized that I had read this scene wrong. You see, I saw this as an illustration of her being one of the good guys. I thought Rose sympathized with her boyfriend in that moment, empathetic to the black experience and willing to protect him from injustice. I thought she was a strong ally. That read is wrong. And it’s not just misdirection for the sake of a twisty thriller narrative.
You see, there are actually two scenes happening at once here, and I wholly missed the scene that exists from Chris’ perspective, hidden behind his quiet, accommodating easiness. In Chris’ version of the scene, he’s a black man with a mouthy girlfriend pulled over on a desolate forested highway by a police officer. Chris’ version of this scene is a terrifying one, a situation in which he’s using cooperation to keep the fire of epidemic policy brutality away from the gasoline of his instigating companion. It matters that we stretch this point out a bit, because Kaluuya’s performance is one of the best lead performances I have ever seen in a horror film. That is not hyperbole. Chris has to play three different versions of himself for this entire film to work as a story and as a social essay, and he has to do it right to keep each reading from interrupting the other. He does.
Act one sees Chris as a smiling survivalist, a man of color who has been conditioned to get through white social events without incident. While it becomes patternistic that Rose always explodes just after a racist encounter, removing herself from the actual racists before advertising her displeasure, Chris is happy just to have made it through, guided by a principle that sometimes “not making a big deal out of it” is a lot safer an option when confronted with these situations. Of course, the second act sees Kulaaya move Chris into the necessary paranoid victim, but he has caught on a lot later than most of his white audience; to Chris, there’s nothing abnormal about his treatment even as it lands discomforting upon white viewers. And the third act sees the intersection of both of these former Chris characters, as he becomes a literal, fighting survivor.
I’m somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t see Rose’s version of the police encounter for what it was when it happened. Where Chris saw danger, Rose saw virtuous opportunity. On the final leg of their trip to Rose’s parents’ estate, the massive property of the famed neurosurgeon and hypno-psychiatrist, it seems unlikely that the officer did not recognize the Armitage name on Rose’s license. There was never a danger for her, only the chance to signal her goodness, to build an anecdote as precious as an Obama vote.
Later in the movie, there’s a spine-chilling scene in which the invitees of the party disguise an auction of human life as a game of BINGO. The bidding is done silently, with interested buyers raising their BINGO card as the auctioneer holds up a price with his fingers. In this sequence, the camera casually catches multiple BINGO cards. Again, there is no BINGO Game, but each card has five squares already marked in a row. In this type of BINGO, all of the white party goers are winning from the very beginning. It is a perfect metaphor for the kind of white privilege that prevented me from seeing Rose’s interpretation of the police encounter clearly. Jordan Peele isn’t combating the rebel flag-touting, hate crime-perpetuating brand of racism. He’s highlighting something much more prominent, and, on the whole, perhaps equally dangerous. Because, with the empowered skinheads and KKK leaders and Nazis marching with new licensure at the back of Trump’s voting bloc, all you have to do to avoid critical assessment is not be a racist of the neon confederate or Swastika sort. Out of necessity, everyone else is going to go unchecked by most artistic and political voices, but not by Jordan Peele.
That’s the real magic of Peele’s brilliant horror film: it is as much about the pre-existing racism of America as it is about the ingeniously anticipated embedded racism of the white audience’s reaction to the movie.
You see it all over. Appended points to nearly glowing reviews given hesitation by the racial messaging. You see general audiences confusing the Armitage’s “appropriation” with “admiration.” A headline in The Washington Post reads “A horror movie that makes racism terrifying,” as if it weren’t already. As if white America needed a movie’s help in understanding that racism is scary.
After my friend and colleague Richard Newby wrote his terrific review about the film and its treatment of the black experience, I talked to him about the movie and learned that a white guy sitting near him kept monitoring his reaction to the film, and, on his way out, the white guy said to an accompanying party that he had no idea what was going on in that movie. Probably a nice enough, guy, I’m sure. But Richard’s personal experience with this stranger made me realize that I should go back and reassess this movie in terms of my white experience.
You know what matters in Get Out? The black lives. The white characters (who I’ve seen described as wooden and stiff in a few positive reviews, because how dare they) and the comfortable artifice of their affluent lives are all symbolic–they are devices, they are the targets used for practice before the weapon is pointed at the audiences. It’s a bit of a gleeful and much-needed psychological stick-up. Maybe that’s why the critical community clinged so fiercely to that 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating that persisted through the opening weekend of Peele’s film. Even the best films draw their fruitful (if contrarian) contenders; consensus in any other circumstance would be considered stifling to the subsequent discourse, but who among you out there in the overwhelmingly white critical community has the guts to withstand what that attention means?
And maybe it’s also why so many were eager to steer the conversation toward Peele’s astounding aesthetic construction. Yeah, the film takes its influence from Polanksi’s best work, but shouldn’t we be talking about its sociological statements and working backward. Is that not what we do in other films which present satirical or symbolic monsters?
I mean, we can discuss it however we would like, right? We’re the good guys. We supported Obama. We all liked Get Out. And if the past years have taught us anything, they have taught us that when a black man points out a white monster, we as good white people are under no obligation to accept the accusation. We don’t even have to listen.
Because we’re the monsters here. We don’t have to do anything…
Featured Image: Universal Pictures