There are movies about racism, and then there are movies about racism. It’s rare that you can italicise Hollywood’s approach to race. You’ve seen a well-known white actor lash a lesser-known black actor, and been told you’re watching a critique of America’s – and, really, the world’s – long and sordid history with varying levels of melanin. But does acknowledgement equate to critique? Does a Confederate Flag draped on the front porch, or Ku Klux Klan hoods stuffed in the closet, make a movie about racism? Get Out doesn’t think so. It doesn’t mine it’s social commentary from the myriad cruelties inflicted throughout history on people of colour; doesn’t target the flagrantly prejudiced rural Neanderthals that you’d expect it to. This is a movie that manages to find the terror in a middle-class liberal American explaining to his daughter’s African-American boyfriend that he would definitely have voted for Obama’s third term if he could.
This shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. Jordan Peele, who wrote, produced and directed Get Out, is most well-known for his long-running sketch show, Key & Peele, in which he and his fellow MadTV alumnus, Keegan-Michael Key, reliably managed to locate what was both funny about race and tragic about racism. Get Out lives in a similar space. It latches onto that insidious strain of do-gooder prejudice; the people who insist that to be black is to be cool, or fashionable, or athletic, without realising that to pay that kind of lip-service is still to reduce a person’s whole identity to the colour of their skin. What’s genius about Get Out is that it eventually literalises the implications of even well-meaning white ignorance. The villains in this movie – and almost every character is a villain, by one definition or another – believe that being cool, or fashionable, or athletic, is attainable simply by being black. It commodifies black life, black culture, black biology. And what’s truly terrifying is that when it eventually gets where it’s going, it doesn’t seem like you’ve arrived at a particularly outlandish place.
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All the best horror does this. It understands that a fear of darkness is not a fear of light’s absence, but of what might live in that space your eyes can’t adjust to. Horror puts the monster there. It justifies your paranoia. Get Out takes the genre’s prism and filters through it an unapologetically black perspective. The fear is of white people; not as a whole, not on the basis of their being white, but of the fact that a distressingly significant percentage of white people see non-white people as fundamentally different. The bravery of the movie is that it uses the familiar discomfort and paranoia surrounding racial tension as the darkness that envelopes the monster. The irony of it is that audiences are still afraid of the dark.
British actor Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a smart African-American photography enthusiast whose girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), has invited him to meet her parents for the first time. “Do they know I’m black?” he asks; “Should they?” she replies. The neurosurgeon patriarch of the family, Dean (Bradley Whitford), is quick to share with Chris his appreciation of other cultures, his open-minded politics, his favourite athletes and musicians. As they tour the sprawling rural home, he’s blushingly apologetic of his hired help: the black groundsman, Walter (Marcus Henderson); the black housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel). He knows how it looks, he says. “White family, black servants, total cliché.” That these characters totter around the estate with glassy-eyed disinterest and pained smiles isn’t remarked upon by anyone but the audience, and, later, by Chris, who confides in his conspiracy-theorist best friend, Rod (Lil Rey Howery), that something isn’t quite right with the Armitages.
Of course, it isn’t – there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise. Peele could have settled for painting his feelings onto a feature-length canvas, secure in the knowledge that in this industry, and this genre particularly, the novelty of his viewpoint would have been noteworthy enough. But his intention was clearly to have Get Out really work as a serious thriller, and to use racism as it’s boogeyman more than superficially. The movie’s reveals are deftly-handled, but they’re also bold, literal interpretations of white privilege; the subtext becomes text. The revelations, inevitably, lack the thematic heft of Get Out’s first two acts, as each scene peels away another layer of the genteel façade. But that’s another thing that Peele understands – that despite the catharsis of the finale’s spectacle, the reality is never more frightening than what your imagination might conjure. Get Out is wonderfully suggestive. Rose’s mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), insists she can cure Chris’s smoking habit with a single bout of hypnotherapy, and as her teaspoon chimes against her cup, you realise she might be right. Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), Rose’s brother, insists Chris would have the perfect frame (and biological advantages) for mixed martial arts, and you worry where that thread might lead. The most profoundly uncomfortable diversion is an upmarket midpoint soiree, during which the Armitage’s extended family prod and probe Chris about the tasteful modernity of his black skin.
The reason all of this enriching critique can work is because Get Out, on a technical filmmaking and storytelling level, would work without it. This is a decidedly well-executed thriller, and Peele knows how to stage an arresting set-piece as well as write a sharp line of satirical dialogue. By the time the implausibilities mount up, the movie has begun playing for the crowd. The bloodletting feels earned. Get Out’s pace and energy turn away distractions at the door, and Michael Abel’s score, which provides a deceptively complex guide through the movie’s landscape, proves that you don’t need a silver spoon and bone china for a picture to become hypnotic.