Is the Director commenting on society's racial fears, or his own?
Jordan Peele, director, and writer of the acclaimed horror-satire Get Out (released on DVD on May 23, 2017), is a black man. And Peele has been quite open about his views on race relations, once telling the Los Angeles Times, “Little Haley Joel Osment in ‘The Sixth Sense’ can see dead people. Well, I can see racist people.”
With Get Out — Peele’s first major release — the young screenwriter’s goal was to illuminate racism in everyday American society, stating in that same interview, “I believe Barack Obama when he says progress isn’t a straight line. We just have to mitigate the potential damage and get through this together. I think art is going to play a huge part in that.”
Get Out begins with a young black man strolling along in the dead-of-night in what appears to be an affluent neighborhood. The man is talking on his cell phone, shoulders hunched, head down, nervously commenting that the neighborhood is predominantly white. A car creeps up behind the young man, and he attempts to run off, only to be caught in a headlock by a masked assailant, choked until he becomes limp, and thrown into the back of the sedan. Blackout.
The scene shifts, and we find ourselves watching New York City photographer Chris Washington, who is black, nervously accompany his white girlfriend Rose Armitage upstate to meet her parents. Compounding his discomfort is the fact that his girlfriend has not told her parents she is in an interracial relationship. Rose tries to settle Chris’s nerves by saying, “My dad would vote for Obama for a third term if he could.”
At long last, the couple pulls into the driveway of the Armitage residence — a beautiful brick suburban dream — where the elder Armitages wait for their arrival. The two white, wealthy progressives assault Chris with an overwhelming amount of kindness, often babbling about Obama.
That weekend, the Armitages host a party, providing an additional supply of rich white people who radiate inauthenticity. The white folks act bizarre towards Chris, probing him physically and verbally, and making classic “I’m not racist” chit-chat with comments such as, “Black is in fashion!”
(SPOILERS from here on out. Read at your own risk.)
Throughout the film, Chris reaches out in solidarity to the two black servants of the Armitages. However, he is met with strange, trance-like behavior from them. The abducted man from the beginning of the film reappears during the party, but his personality has shifted. In stark contrast to the man lurking about a suburb in the dead-of-night, he is now poised and sharply dressed, with an elderly white woman on his arm. He snaps out of his new personality for a brief moment when the flash from the camera on Chris’s phone goes off, at which point he stumbles forward and screams “Get out!” to Chris, which accelerates our protagonist’s paranoia towards Rose’s family.
Chris does the typical snooping around that all heroes do in mystery-thrillers, and soon learns that the Armitages and their party guests are all in fact members of a secret society that harvests the bodies of healthy black people to use as vessels for the brains of ill and weak members.
And it is the Armitages’ daughter that is the bait for this trap. Rose has a stunning ability to be an adorable and thoughtful girlfriend, carefully selecting muffins and snuggling with dogs, only to morph into a dissociated psychopath when Chris discovers her family’s plot. At the beginning of the film, she remarked to Chris that he was the first black man she had ever dated. Later, during Chris’s sleuthing, he stumbles upon a creepy side room off of her bedroom, and discovers a slew of photographs of her with black men — her “ex-boyfriends.”
One can’t help but notice that the Armitages were only able to succeed in luring so many victims due to their daughter’s ability to attract them, which is perhaps a comment on the preference, or at least willingness, of some black men to seek white romantic partners. A 2011 study from the University of California-Berkeley of online dating preferences showed that black men were more likely to initiate cross-race conversation than any other group.
Peele himself married a white woman (though he didn’t meet her until after he had written the screenplay). When watching Get Out, I got the sense that Peele was attempting to show there was some danger involved with interracial relationships. In the January 2017 edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a study that monitored brain activity while engagement photos of different couples played showed that “Interracial couples elicit a neural disgust response among observers.”
While many people claim acceptance of such relationships, clearly there are still obstacles and prejudices to be overcome, for which brain transplanting cultists may be a highly exaggerated (and highly entertaining) metaphor.
Whatever Peele’s view on interracial relationships, horror films have had a great tradition of including social commentary. The survival of Ben in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was cut short when a mob of white men sporting plaid and double-barrels mistook the black hero for a zombie, and shot him through a window. While the recently deceased Romero stated shortly after the movie’s creation that he “never intended” for the film to have racial commentary, audiences certainly saw it that way. In 1968, when the film was released, the United States was in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement; four years prior, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on sex, race, and color.
Similarly, in Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, the protagonist’s husband sells Rosemary’s womb to a satanic cult that promised him fame and fortune. Rosemary grew more and more paranoid throughout the movie, questioning the people around her, in a similar fashion to Chris questioning Rose and her family in Get Out. Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968, a time when attitudes towards motherhood, abortion, birth control, and family were changing; for instance, the first oral contraceptive was approved by the FDA in 1960.
Romero and Polanski’s films were viewed retroactively as reflecting deep social currents by their audiences. Peele, on the other hand, deliberately injects commentary into his film on today’s race relations and politics.
And unlike those other films, Peele adds a comedic aspect to his work. From 2012 to 2015, he made up one-half of the comedy show Key and Peele. In Get Out, the most compelling piece of humor is displayed by Chris’s best friend, Rod the TSA Agent, who relieves intense moments with cathartic profanities. Racial issues have the tendency of making people feel uncomfortable. Adding humor provides sugar to the medicine.
Reviews of Get Out have been overwhelmingly (and suspiciously) positive — the Rotten Tomatoes score is at a 99 percent from critics. Scrolling through the reviews of the top critics, every single one of them remark on the genius that is Get Out with its racial commentary. Scrolling through photo profiles of each of those critics showed one common trait between all of them — white skin.
Get Out is funny, entertaining and fascinating. But the plot has holes in it, and it certainly wasn’t the best cinematic creation of all time. Some of the symbolism was clunky and overused. The story is not as original as people think — it is just a scary version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. There were many failed attempts at jump-scares. And. So. Many. Horror. Clichés.
Does it deserve a nearly perfect rating from critics? Or are they being overly gracious — just like the brain-stealing Armitages?
YouTube (trailer screenshot)