Despite the direct address in Justin Simien’s 2014 Dear White People , the film struggled in its critique of white privilege and contemporary racism in the ‘post-racial’ America lauded after the election of President Obama. While portraying cuttingly the various micro-aggressions experienced by black students on university campuses and glimpsing mildly the problematic aspect of interracial relationships, the film still allowed a lecture of a self-determined young black woman by a well-meaning, apparently understanding young white man about her identity and politics. Its portrayal of the racists at the university also fit the comfortable stereotype: crass, deliberately provocative and ignorant. For white liberals, it was easy and affirming to say ‘we’re not like that’. Writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out is rightfully not merciful in this regard. Through the horror genre, Peele uses the pernicious, enduring power of white liberal racism as the source of the film’s terror. In doing so, it’s satire works at both the level of commentary and allegory, where not every unsettling moment is caused by its employment of the now standard horror tricks and tropes. Disturbing though at times amusing, Peele’s Get Out is a well-crafted and subversive horror film that, unlike its contemporaries, has something genuinely unsettling to reveal.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer, is invited by his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet and stay with her parents in rural suburbia. Dismissing airily his concerns that she hasn’t told them he’s black and warned to look after himself by his TSA buddy Rodd (Lil Rel Howery), Chris warily enters the Armitage home. He’s greeted by overfamiliarity or thinly veiled aspersions, Rose’s father Dean (Bradley Whitford) attempting to speak slang and telling Chris, without irony, his love of ‘embracing other cultures’. Oh, and he’d vote for Obama, ‘the best president in his lifetime’ for a third time if he could. Rose’s mother Missy, a trained psychotherapist with a penchant for hypnotism, is sultry but cold and lectures Chris on smoking in front of Rose: ‘That’s my kid’ she abruptly tells him. For all their embraces, disapproval is just beneath the surface. Also disarming are the presence and personas of the black maid and groundskeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson). They are passive and overly friendly, all fixed smiles and unblinking eyes, save for their aversion to Chris’ attempts to ingratiate himself. This queasy atmosphere begins to descend into the genuinely unnerving by the growing number of inexplicably strange events and the sudden arrival of the Armitage’s white elderly friends, who are eager to show their ‘open-mindedness’ to Chris. When these proceedings take a dark turn, Chris realises that he needs to get out of suburbia. However, he discovers to his horror that it’s already far too late.
From the outset, Peele intelligently fuses his critique of white liberals into the vast array of horror tropes and set-pieces that he draws from. From Carpenter’s Halloween to Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, these references are edged with satirical commentary on the seemingly benign, casual racism of white liberals, from insensitive remarks couched in ‘politeness’ and ‘compliment’ to the deeper, more potent desire to fetishise and acquire ‘blackness’ or colour for aggrandisement. The use of hypnotism, masked abductors, lobotomies, cult-like parties and terror in the thin-trunked woods may have the hallmarks of horror fantasy but here they are pointedly allegorical for America’s history of racism and the fantasy of whiteness still pervasive in the society and culture. It also looks askance at interracial relationships, where its supposed progressiveness and safety from racist critique is inverted to become another form of racial dominance. But Peele also throws some subtler, but no less piercing depictions of racism that are not so reliant on the horror genre, such as Rose’s alarming silences and apologetics at her brother’s (Caleb Landry Jones) offensive fascination with Chris and the brief encounters with the police which leads to a chilling scene at the climax. When a police car turns up to save the day as genre convention prescribes, Peele turns this on its head for a chilling but revealing moment.
Kaluuya weathers all of this with charm, caution and later grim desperation, akin to his leading performance in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, but despite the affronting circumstances he still finds the quiet humour. It’s in his slight deadpan look and forced smile he has to adopt, though he more than lets us in to his frustration and terror. The performances are all slightly tweaked here, the cast playing both frighteningly cold and amusing.The Armitages, especially, embody these qualities with Williams being the real honey in the trap, disarming as she emulates her character Marnie from HBO’s Girls. Howery provides the more obvious hilarious moments needed to lift the atmosphere, especially his insistence on being recognised as ’T.S.A’ . Contrastingly, Gabriel, Henderson and Keith Stansfield are all impressively creepy and disconcerting, with Gabriel giving a terrific shock turn as Georgina. Combined with Michael Abel’s wickedly Hermannian score and a unnerving soundscape from sound editor Joshua Adeniji, with grating rhythmic scrapes of porcelain and blunt breaks of noise, Peele submerges us fully into a place where the insanity closes in around us and rarely lets up.
African-American writer Toni Morrison once described racism as a ‘profound neurosis’ in white people and Peele imbues this idea into Get Out, capitalising on the potential within the horror genre to take the neurotic to horrific conclusions. While Get Out might be thin on laughs and its horror tricks are mostly derivative, Peele’s innovation is in successfully revitalising the genre with topicality and real, stomach-churning terror.