What does it look like for black people, often robbed of power, to reclaim it?
That’s the bold question that Jordan Peele — half of the sketch-comedy pair who gave us Key & Peele in 2012 — dissects in his directorial debut, Get Out. The movie follows Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer, over the course of a long weekend spent with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) at her sprawling family home.
Before we even meet Chris, the opener depicts a black man — revealed later in the movie to be an acquaintance, Logan (Lakeith Stanfield) — walking down a suburban street one night when a car suddenly starts tailing him. Here, Peele displays his talent for layering horror and humor. “Not today,” Logan mutters to himself, matter-of-factly, turning around to put distance between himself and the car. Clever, and funny, though this move still isn’t enough to keep him out of harm’s way. A stranger in a mask abruptly attacks Logan from behind and stuffs him into the trunk. From the first minute, Peele sets a menacing mood for the rest of his social thriller, and he puts viewers on notice: At all times, black bodies are in danger.
What Peele does so brilliantly in Get Out is to create a scenario that blacks know well — having to navigate white spaces, often while having to hide any discomfort or paranoia — and then offer a vision of escape.
When Chris is anxiously packing for the weekend getaway, he finds out that Rose’s parents — whom he’s about to meet for the first time — don’t know that he’s black. “Should they?” Rose asks Chris, reassuring him that her parents aren’t racist. (You see, Rose quips for good measure, her father would have even voted for Barack Obama a third time, if he could have.) From there, Get Out only ratchets up its awkward and uneasy atmosphere, before exploding into full horror. Rose’s father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), insists on using racialized slang (such as “my man”), while her mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), wants to hypnotize Chris, and her brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), is inexplicably aggressive.
The only black people on the estate are the maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), both of them at once oddly aloof yet overly friendly. In time, viewers learn that the Armitages use some cockamamie science that I’ll just say gives new meaning to the monstrosity of appropriation — of bodily and cultural theft.
Yet what makes Get Out so very novel — especially within the horror canon — is the agency of its black characters. While Chris unearths the Armitages’ scheme too late to avoid the family’s plot entirely, he isn’t saved by any of the movie’s white limousine liberals, at least in part because the story is a cautionary tale about what can happen when a black person places too much faith in even the most apparently well-intentioned white person. Rather, Chris’ greatest hope for surviving the Armitages’ weird white world is to lean on black minds and black bodies, including his own.
For instance, Chris’ best friend Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent, appears, at first glance, to have no purpose in the movie other than gallows humor and comic relief — think the requisite black sidekick — in a narrative increasingly wrapped in terror and thrills. But it’s also important that Rod represents basically the only source of common sense. When Chris goes off the grid while visiting the Armitages, Rod is the one who connects the dots and investigates. And, in Get Out’s wrenching concluding act, Rod serves as the one-man cavalry that ultimately comes to Chris’ rescue.
Viewers see this theme of black heroism in ways both subtle and overt — from Chris’ cleverness in battling his way out of the Armitages’ basement to Walter’s last-ditch attempt to help Chris after he snaps out of his hypnosis — though I don’t want to give away all the surprises. The takeaway is that Peele’s movie depends not on white saviors, but on black heroism, and it adds texture in a way black people are only rarely afforded in film.
Get Out accomplishes a lot in under two hours. As Peele said to the New York Times, the movie, in addition to nodding to the issue of police violence, takes aim at white liberals: “The liberal elite who communicate that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else.” Later in the same interview, Peele emphasized that the power of telling his story in the horror genre is that “you can ask a white person to see the world through the eyes of a black person for an hour and a half.”
Indeed, what Peele does so brilliantly in Get Out is to create a scenario that blacks know well — having to navigate white spaces, often while having to hide any discomfort or paranoia — and then offer a vision of escape. At the showing I attended, some of the movie’s most cathartic and rapturous moments had the audience applauding and cheering.
On the heels of the Oscars, it’s perhaps impossible to see Get Out without also thinking of the words of James Baldwin, particularly his volume of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work. In it, he warns of the siren call of cinematic escape and identification, of “surrendering to the corroboration of one’s fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen.” The problem, as Baldwin states it, is that Hollywood’s escapist fantasies almost always telegraph white racial superiority. He drives this point home: “No one, I read somewhere, a long time ago, makes his escape personality black.”
In Get Out, it feels as though Peele has responded to Baldwin’s searing critique of Hollywood: Here, black people are our own heroes.