“Get Out” is one of the smartest films about race I have seen in a long time. By dealing with implicit racism and “positive” stereotyping (you know, like all black men being good at sports or having large penises) rather than the easy material of explicit, KKK-type racism,the film captures the more prevalent racism embedded into the national psyche. It’s easy for affluent, bourgeois white liberals to scoff at the rednecks and alt-right racists who speak out against Black Lives Matter and think every unarmed black man gunned down by police had it coming. It’s another for them to look inward and think about their own racial prejudices, benign as they may seem when left unexamined. Much like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives” were satirical horror films (both based on novels by the same author, Ira Levin) about upper class society not quite accepting feminism, “Get Out” is about upper class white society’s role in the perpetuation of racism against men and women of color.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a photographer with a white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). They’re about to visit Rose’s family for the weekend, and Chris is worried that her family might not be as understanding of their daughter dating a black man as she seems to think they’ll be. Rose assures him that her parents are not racist, and in fact her father would have voted for a third term of Obama if he could have. “I voted for Obama” seems to have replaced “I have black friends” as the go-to white evidence that someone is not racist, and writer/director Jordan Peele knows it. On the way up, their car hits a deer. They called the cops to report it, and the cop wants to see Chris’s ID even though Rose was the one driving. Chris, living as a black man in the United States, is used to having to cater to white authorities despite having done nothing wrong, but Rose stands up to the cop, and that is that. This is the first of a few ways the film shows the audience, particularly the white audience, that living as a black man in America contains certain hurdles that white people don’t necessarily experience. If both Rose AND Chris had been white, it’s unlikely the cop would have asked to see the passenger’s ID for a simple our-car-hit-a-deer call.
All of this is going to set up something this film is doing to turn the horror genre on its head. Normally in a horror film the protagonist is a young (white) female, as that person has traditionally been seen as the most vulnerable person in our society. “Get Out” presents a number of racial-specific dangers to basically present its black male protagonist as specifically vulnerable under the circumstances, as a way of showing us how, in real life, black men are vulnerable in ways that other (white) people have the luxury of not being vulnerable in. If I, a white guy, get pulled over by the cops, I’m mostly worried about getting a ticket. If a black man is pulled over by the cops, these days he probably has to worry about getting murdered, or at the very least harassed to an extent that I, as a white man, would not be. Remember the ending of the original “Night of the Living Dead” from 1960? In that film the black male protagonist, after surviving zombies, ends up shot to death by the cops because they mistake him for a zombie. In “Get Out”, we are constantly worried that Chris might face the same fate because he’s black, and there might be a misunderstanding as to who is the victim and who is the villain.
When Chris and Rose arrive at her family’s place, things seem a bit…unsettling. Her father, Dean (the great Bradley Whitford) keeps using “hip” phrases like “my man”, as if he saw on TV that phrases like that are the sort of “cool” language you’re supposed to use around black folks. He also goes on and on the importance of learning from other cultures, about Jesse Owens showing up those damn Nazis at the Berlin Olympics and, yes, even Obama. he basically just stops short of saying “I am so very cool with you blacks.” The mother, Missy (Catherine Keener) is a therapist who wants to use hypnosis to make Chris quit smoking, and keeps making unsettling sounds with her spoon and a blue & white tea cup. The family also seems to have two black servants: a maid/housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and a groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson). They seems like they stepped out of “Song of the South”, embodying the stereotype of the “happy negro” much like Uncle Remus did in that racist Disney film. There’s something…off…about them, and Chris picks up on it. They smile, but they speak in stilted, 1950s language, and seem a little dead behind the eyes.
Then there’s a family and friends get together on Rose’s family’s estate. All of these rich, bourgeois whites who don’t have much interaction with black people on a daily (or even yearly) basis keep trying to flatter Chris when, in actuality, they are being offensive. There’s the old guy who used to be a golfer and wants Chris to know that he’s met Tiger Woods and is “the best”. There’s the other old guy who says black people are “in” as the new cool thing (whatever that means). And then there’s the older woman who squeezes Chris’s bicep muscle, looks at Chris’s crotch in an unsubtle fashion, and has the audacity to ask Rose, in front of Chris, if “it’s true”, obviously referring to the black-men-have-large-dicks stereotype. That sort of fetishization of black men is rampant in American pornography aimed at white people, both the men who see a white woman being with a black man as degrading and to white women who view having sex with a black man as “taboo” or “exotic”. It’s a subject you don’t see confronted in mainstream film that often, and this one scene brings it to light.
At this same party, Chris runs in to Logan (Keith Stanfield), who looks dressed out of the 1950s and has the same odd, old fashioned cadence that the housekeeper and the landscaper have. Chris thinks he recognizes Logan, but there’s no way he could have known someone like this. Their interaction is odd, and then Chris takes Logan’s picture while his camera’s flash is on. Logan begins to bleed from the nose, shake, and tries to attack Chris after screaming “Get out!” By this point, Chris is sure that it’s not just these people are weird and implicitly racist, but that something abnormally sinister is going on here.
We get some comic relief from Chris’s TSA friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who basically tells Chris that these people are clearly insane and probably brainwashing black people to be their sex slaves. Chris shrugs that off, but agrees he should get out of there as soon as possible.
What turns out happening is that Rose’s family, going to back to her grandfather, came up with a medical procedure to implant people’s consciousness into the bodies of others. The person implanted would have control, and the original inhabitant of the body would be able to see and hear everything going on, but would no longer be in control. Think John Cusack at the end of “Being John Malkovich”. So, this bourgeois white community has been using Rose to lure black men (and the occasional black woman) to this neighborhood, and the affluent white citizens have bid on these black men, in much the same manner as a slave auction, to be implanted into their black bodies. Why? Positive stereotypes. Maybe they want to be a black man so they can be a better athlete, or a better lover for their wives, or just because being black is “cool”. These people aren’t kidnapping blacks because they think they’re inferior, like the white supremacists do. They are kidnapping them because they think blacks, in some genetic and societal aspects, are SUPERIOR. That’s a helluva thing to base a film around. The fact that white people, despite being racist in the exact opposite way as your traditional racist, are still bidding on black people like chattel and reducing black people to empty vessels or property, is a searing indictment of how delusional and unperceptive some people in real life can be regarding their own prejudices. While “Get Out” is largely concerned with race, the class element is here too. Because this town is full of rich white people, whose wealth allows them to live in a place which geographically and economically isolates them from many black people, their perception of black people is skewed by lack of first hand knowledge, allowing them to objectify and idolize black people. This is a pretty “woke” film, as traditional films about racism, good or bad, don’t usually explore this particular razor’s edge of white attitudes toward people of color.
I also want to point out the excellent sound design and terrific score of this film. Some of the score is traditional horror movie stuff, but other parts, such as the opening theme, evoke the scores of 70s horror films from musicians like Goblin. The sound design, which pays close attention to making sounds that wouldn’t ordinarily be unnerving, like a spoon on a teacup for squeezing one’s fingers on an old leather chair, really add to the unease the audience feels while watching this film. While I wouldn’t call “Get Out” scary, it is certainly unnerving. The film makes you uncomfortable while you watch it (probably more so if you’re a black person watching it, I’d imagine). Discomfort is a feeling you don’t often feel at the movies, and as such it almost feels more powerful than if the film were more traditionally scary.
“Get Out” is incredibly intelligent and nuanced, but not so nuanced that an audience won’t get what the film is trying to say. Some horror film audiences might not be as astute (the kind of horror audiences who would rather see “Rings”, for example), but otherwise this is a really superb film using the horror genre as a vehicle to discuss areas of race relations not normally covered in film…or hell, anywhere really. Well done, Jordan Peele. Well done. A-