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Film Review: Get Out

Get Out (2017; Directed by Jordan Peele)

A surprise box office smash and undeniable film-of-the-moment, Get Out is a consistently unsettling horror-thriller genre piece whose creepy central concept likewise functions as a resonant metaphor for anti-black racism in America. Written and directed by debutant auteur Jordan Peele (one half of the acclaimed sketch comedy duo Key & Peele), it’s masterfully poised and finely calibrated, the work of an assured filmmaker whose control of narrative, tone, tension, and visuals conveys his desired ideas and emotions with impressive effectiveness. Get Out works on its audience as a tense and troubling (though not often really frightening, in pure jump-scare horror terms) isolated imagined scenario but also subtly, incrementally imparts how tense and troubling (and often frightening) the experience of living as an African-American can be, in any scenario.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for a few months, and with their relationship having reached the meeting-the-parents phase, she invites him to the family’s isolated country home for the weekend. Chris is concerned that Rose’s parents aren’t aware that he’s black, and, being white like their daughter, might not approve of him. Chris’ unease with the situation is fed by a phone chat with his buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who spins fanciful yarns about all the potential dangers lying in wait for a black man in a white person’s milieu (perhaps not so fanciful, given the chilling film-opening vignette of a black man being ambushed and kidnapped while strolling lost through an affluent suburb). That unease increases when a vehicular collision with a deer activates Chris’ childhood traumas, and builds to an eerie crescendo through their visit.

Despite an initially warm welcome to Casa Armitage, discomfort gradually consumes the observant Chris (he’s a photographer by profession, a highly conscious and symbolically-reflective choice by Peele). Awkward racial assumptions and behaviours both small and inadvertent as well as more major begin to add up. Rose’s neurosurgeon dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) persistently calls Chris “My man”, points out his family connection to Jesse Owens’ showing-up of Hitler’s master-race posturing at the 1936 Olympics, and tells him he would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if he could have (as Rose predicted he would with a precision that wrings out a laugh but may suggest something more). Rose’s vaguely-threatening med-student brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is more inappropriate, bragging of his jujitsu training and telling Chris that with his “genetic makeup” he could be a formidable MMA fighter. Rose’s psychiatrist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) doesn’t touch on anything racially-charged, but she does offer to hypnotize Chris in order to cure him of his smoking habit, and then does so on the night of his arrival, without his consent.

Outside of the Armitages themselves, Chris is also weirded out by their African-American servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who speak and behave in a very odd, old-fashioned (and, to Chris’ mind, non-black) manner. His paranoia waxing, a series of encounters at a garden party attended almost entirely by older, wealthy white people (friends of the dearly departed Grandpa Armitage, it’s claimed), who are inordinately interested in the colour of his skin and his physical attributes, finally drives Chris to insist on leaving. But it may be too late for him to extricate himself from a situation that will become far more sinister than a mere series of embarrassing social expressions of half-unconscious racial prejudice.

It’s impossible to properly discuss Peele’s ingenious embedding of the persisting fundamentals of African-American exploitation by the white supremacist order in his core horror concept without completely spoiling it. Consider yourself forewarned. But Get Out is so unsettling and challenging as it moves towards its expected twist because it deploys that twist’s active, leading clues alongside the hints of racism that Chris keenly feels throughout the awkward weekend retreat. Peele’s writing and direction and Kaluuya’s performance are all so keenly attuned to even the most minor of slights that this heightened attention disguised the film’s sleights (of hand). As Peele makes his audience, black but especially white, increasingly uncomfortable with a million pinpricks of racial prejudice, he also wratchets up the tension derived from the growing awareness that Chris may be in real danger of a worse fate than social mortification.

That fate, revealed following Peele’s exquisite depiction of the strained interpersonal interactions of those on both sides of the American racial divide, is a powerful punch of a metaphor for the enduring agony of African-Americans’ exploitation and marginalization by the nation’s generational white elites. As is revealed to a bound Chris by a television screen in an eeriely symmetrical wood-panelled basement den, the Armitages have maintained a secret family medical “process” for years known as Coagula, which allows privileged but aging whites to cheat death by transplanting their brains and therefore their consciousnesses into the captive host bodies of young black men (and occasionally women) chosen specifically for their physical prowess and robust health. The whole Armitage clan collaborates in these abductions: Rose acts as the attractive honeypot to lure them in, Missy hypnotizes them in order to control them with Jeremy ready to provide stiffer physical compulsion if required, and Dean swaps the white brain into the black body. The strange dinner party? A twisted form of auction, the attendees’ bizarre, racist assessments of Chris revealed to be simple, blunt probings of his potential as host-body merchandise.

Behind Get Out‘s body-horror-lite conceit lies a very clear message from Peele about African-Americans’ tragic history of corporeal oppression. Brought against their will to the Western Hemisphere to work for nothing to make white men piles of money, their bodies reduced to commodities no different than (and sometimes less valued than) livestock, furniture, or any other property, Africans in America were always defined above all in physical terms by their white masters, terrorizers, bosses, and superiors in privilege and wealth. Exploitation of the black body (once achieved in cotton fields, now carried on in high-gloss sporting arenas and low-wage jobs alike) has subsisted alongside its destruction: by the overseer’s whip, the lynch mob’s rope, the state trooper’s fire hoses and dogs, the city cop’s service weapon, by drugs, gun, and prison. For African-Americans, body horror is not a mere queasy, tittilating cinematic escape. It is a crushing daily reality, a discouraging way of life. Peele even has a zeitgeist-ready term for the space of dispiriting hopelessness this plight engenders: the sunken place, Missy’s name for the starfield-like empty space that Chris’ consciousness is banished to when she hypnotizes him. The concept of Coagula contains all of this and more, a disturbing genre-movie fantasy built out of a more disturbing real-world truth.

Get Out is flush with its own ideas and position-takings of race in America, but it isn’t difficult to notice that it’s a darkly inverted homage of sorts to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the seminal 1967 progressive Hollywood drama about an affluent young woman bringing her African-American boyfriend home to meet her liberal but still stubbornly bigoted parents. Whitford’s thick-rimmed black spectacles and white hair suggests that film’s patriarch Spencer Tracy, certainly. Williams, meanwhile, is the daughter of news anchor Brian Williams, a link to White America’s cultural elite that makes her casting seem like another peeled-back layer of the larger joke (Whitford, a veteran of neoliberal television monolith The West Wing, and arthouse mainstay Keener seem to be similar chosen for more than merely their thespianic skills). The clean-cut creative-class Chris may contain something of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, a best-and-brightest, twice-as-good black professional, but Peele provides him with a crucial link back to African-American culture in the form of his outspoken best friend Rod, a TSA agent who plays amateur detective amusingly in the film’s last act-and-a-half.

Beyond these more superficial intertextual suggestions and self-aware subversions, Get Out repurposes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner most strongly in terms of the insights and sense of perspective that its scenario grants its audience, which in the case of the half-century-old film was presumed first and foremost to be white. More precisely, although Get Out presents a certain perspective on the African-American experience of racism, unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner it never allows a white audience to feel a surge of comforting, positive fellow-feeling about this opening of vision.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner concludes with Spencer Tracy’s grizzled newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (known professionally for his progressive social concern) reluctantly acknowledging his inborn prejudice and giving his belated blessing to his daughter’s union with Poitier’s Prentice, recognizing with sad resignation that he may not have the time left in a waning life to banish his racial assumptions entirely. Made more poignant by the production reality that this was Tracy’s final role, one that he fought bravely to complete before dying (which he did, 17 days after filming wrapped, as it happened), Matt’s pained realization coupled with his magnanimous acceptance of his daughter’s choice in love made Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner not merely a major ideological focal point of liberal white attitudes towards anti-black racism, but a moving emotional expression of those attitudes as well.

But Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also carries a legacy of helping to define white racial animus against blacks as a personal foible, a mere fault of social manners and behaviour to be overcome, or at least politely contained and then disavowed. This is how Get Out depicts such racism in its first half, often with nearly-transcendent insightfulness and a sharp satirical eye. But when the pivot comes, it comes hard, and shifts the film’s ideological axis firmly into the more “woke” symbolic space of emphasizing racism in America as structural, institutional, and as emanating powerful, inescapable social conditioning into the cultural spheres of whites and blacks alike. African-American professor Otis Madison, quoted by colleague Cedric Robinson, said that “the purpose of racism is to control the behaviour of white people, not Black people”. Though Madison added with a fatalistic turn that for African-Americans, “guns and tanks are sufficient”, Peele understands the awareness of racism as seeding not merely black-white interactions but discourse within each segregated community as well.

Chris is given a relatively happy ending, despite a stomach-churning tease of his potential arrest for the murder of the Armitages effected during his desperate escape. Although the flashing squad-car lights belong to TSA agent Rod and represent Chris’ rescue, they might just as easily (and, in an earlier, darker cut of the film, in fact did) belong to white police bringing the unjust arm of the law down across his chest, cruelly punishing him for achieving his own release from bondage and mind-slavery. But Chris’ escape, even alongside the reduction of Coagula, offers no comfort. Racism is greater and more terrible than one imagined scenario. Hate wins even in violent defeat, as Rose’s creepy smile as he strangles her in anger makes Chris realize, at the last.

Get Out is a masterful genre exercise that amplifies a vital political message about racism in American and beyond. But it doesn’t tell us that it will all be okay if we all come together (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and it doesn’t flatter us by allowing us to imagine that we can view through the eyes of another. Before he gets out, Chris’ body was to have been the host for the mind of Jim Hudson (the always indispensible Stephen Root), a blind art dealer who admires Chris’ photographs (at least as they are painstakingly described to him by an assistant) and covets the younger man’s “eye”. Quite literally claiming not to “see colour”, Hudson doesn’t get to quite literally see through Chris’ eyes. I would argue that, despite Get Out‘s complex depiction of fraught social racism, we don’t get to really see through Chris’ eyes either. “We” in this case is white people watching the film, always already including myself, whatever dubious claims to laudable progressive attitudes I like to entertain and whose every crack and fissure of doubt this film mercilessly probes and enlarges.

Perhaps African-Americans watching the film can see through the protagonist’s eyes, and maybe Get Out is compelling, resonant, or painful for them in ways that white people, like myself, cannot ever really understand. Perhaps that assumption is another form of prejudice. Fundamentally, we cannot know what another (an other) sees, especially across the tremendous, fantastic wall that is the American racial divide. Get Out doesn’t flatter its audience with the suggestion that such rapprochement, such intimate empathy of perspective, is possible. It opts for stark recognition instead. It’s a form of cold comfort, maybe, but recognizing and embracing that truth, and the truth of racism’s historical atrocities and contemporary conditions alike, does bring us closer to living with it, if never managing to overcome or contain it. Or to escape it.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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