By: Daniel Reynolds
As the tension in Get Out, the debut film from writer/director Jordan Peele, gradually mounts, my mind couldn’t help but recall the horror of America’s most recent election night. As the votes were counted and Donald Trump’s victory assured, notable Twitter user Myles Brown said of the result: “You scared? Don’t know who to trust? Feel like you’re surrounded? Congrats. You’ve been a minority for like an hour.” The tweet took off, but we should not be surprised by its viral potency. It contains a sentiment shared among those deemed “other” by the people now in power. For as much as some Americans fear an attack from outside the country’s borders, minorities understand a more basic and frightening truth: the threat is coming from inside the house.
Get Out‘s setup is simple — at first glance. For a weekend trip, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) will accompany his girlfriend of five months, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams, as textbook white girl), to her family’s house in the country. It’s time they all got a chance to meet. What complicates the film’s surface is, well, its surface — Rose is white and Chris is black. When he asks if her parents know this fact she’s quick to deflect. Rose’s parents could never be racist, she says, they’re tolerant people, her dad would have voted a third time for Obama if he could have(!). That last bit is a laugh/groan line exactly because of how easily it is deployed in knee-jerk defense. Obama was a two-term president of the United States, ergo racism must be solved, right? Look around you: wrong.
Peele, one half of the sketch comedy team responsible for Key and Peele, knows this. His show ran through the latter half of the Obama administration and was built in part around the interplay of white and black, and the inherent complications of identity. Up until this point, he’s mined this vein for laughs, but Get Out is exhibit one that the ideas Peele plays with can easily curdle into horror. His film opens with a prologue right out of the classics: a person walking alone at night has an unfortunate encounter with a scary stranger. The blank description of this is yawn-inducing; it’s typical horror movie language. But in practice the effect is different. The person is a black man (Lakeith Stanfield), the neighbourhood an affluent (white) suburb. It’s hair-raising to consider the possibilities of that reversal.
So then, without diving into spoilers, you can guess where this is going. Chris and Rose make it to the Armitage’s estate and an immediate note of discord hangs in the air. The parents Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, both in “peak caucasity” mode) seem normal — he makes the expected pro-Obama declaration, she is welcoming and curious — but something feels off. This is to say nothing of the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), or the maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who both go about their work with a rictus grin. They’re the only other black people around, so maybe they’re just doing their best to fit in. In fact, maybe Chris is just reading too much into things, like when Rose’ brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) shows up and gets playfully aggressive with him at dinner. Is Chris being paranoid? Are we?
Peele’s grip on all of this — the subject matter, the emotions at play, the camera — goes far beyond what you’d expect from a first time filmmaker. He’s no novice in the creation of cultural critique or satire, but the terrifying sharpness of the work here, and the places Get Out is willing to go feel brand new. There are elements of the “old” Peele comedic touch, however, coming in the form of Chris’ friend — and audience stand-in — Rod Williams (a delightful LilRel Howery), but the film largely plays it straight. As it opens wider, introducing more white people, including Stephen Root as a blind art dealer, the sense of dread only grows. We find ourselves thinking: what are these people planning? The wicked answer to that question gives a whole new meaning to the word “appropriation,” and goes even further in providing a new definition of slavery that is indeed terrifying. The film’s bite comes in this stark visualization. Much like the whites in the era of slavery, or those now in the White House, the villains in this movie have no real moral authority — only (white) power, and the will to use it.
To digress and bluntly paraphrase a famous comedian: if the outpouring of support for Trump was eye-opening, you might be a white person. The election results should not have surprised us. We want to believe we’ve solved racism, that we’re better than that. But we’d also rather not acknowledge the rich undercurrent of racial tension and unease that courses underneath our society. (It’s there in Canada too, folks.) So often then, we discount the experiences of minorities, of the marginalized, of, more specifically, black people. We simply don’t believe what we’re being told. How could the situation be that bad? There’s a modest police presence in Get Out, one which serves up the film’s ultimate punchline. We see it coming before it happens; we do know. In that exact moment, as in beats throughout the film, it’s hard to know who to trust. Peele’s greatest trick is getting you, and everyone who sees Get Out, in that same mindset. Congrats. You’ve been a minority for like two hours.