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Conceived in the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, four days after Donald Trump assumed power, the comedian Jordan Peele’s semi-parodic horror film Get Out has a complexity worthy of its historical moment.
Get Out opens with a familiar horror-movie trope. Someone walking alone down a dark street stalked by a mysterious force. That the setting is an idyllic suburb, the someone is a young, increasingly panicked black man, and the predator is driving a white car gives the scenario an unmistakable reality. “The scene grows discordantly disturbing because you may, as I did, flash on Trayvon Martin,” wrote Manohla Dargis in The New York Times. That the black youth is not shot but rather abducted is a dreamlike condensation of the movie to come.
It also introduces a feeling of free-floating dread that will be more or less continuous for the next 100 minutes. Where Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1963 crime novel The Expendable Man opened with a detailed account of a young man’s mounting anxiety driving from Los Angeles to Phoenix in a borrowed Cadillac—the author strategically withholding the fact that her protagonist is black until the subject of race is casually introduced well into the book’s second chapter—Get Out plunges right in.
Although the original Hollywood zombies were mainly black (and derived from the experience of enslaved Haitians), the notion of an African-American horror film may seem redundant. (What recent movie has been more terrifying than Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave?) But, as demonstrated by its prelude, Get Out uses horror tropes to viscerally evoke the loss of identity and enforced powerlessness, in a duplicitous intimidating environment. Other scenes evoke the Tuskegee experiment and slavery itself.
Most obviously, Get Out is the latest instance of the remarkable and remarkably varied African-American cinema of the past few years. This includes popular and critical successes like Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Creed, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences, and 12 Years a Slave, but also the scandalous rise and fall of Nate Parker’s ambitious Birth of a Nation, the restoration of Richard Wright’s Native Son film, the discoveries of Kathleen Collins’s Losing Groundand of the teenage avant-garde filmmaker Edward Owens, and the release of the scholarly, multi-disc box set Pioneers of African American Cinema.
This year’s Oscars may be remembered for the dramatic way in which Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight wrested the Best Picture award from the jaws of defeat. But even more striking, the often mediocre documentary feature section included three movies that each could have been worthy of Best Picture, let alone Best Documentary: Ezra Edelman’s eight-hour epic O.J.: Made in America, Raoul Peck’s rich and beautifully crafted I Am Not Your Negro, and DuVernay’s impassioned 13th. Coinciding with the grass-roots movement Black Lives Matter, these movies suggested an expansion of American consciousness and a new preoccupation with the nation’s far from resolved racial conflicts.
Existential angst established, Get Out turns to the relationship between Chris (British actor Daniel Kaluuya), a Brooklyn-born photographer, and his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams, best-known as part of the posse in Girls). They have been together for four or five months and Rose is planning to introduce Chris to her parents, who have an estate somewhere outside the city. She has not, she admits to his consternation, told her folks that her boyfriend is black.Initially, Initially Get Out seems like a hipper version of Meet the Parents or a sinister parody of the 1967 chestnut Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, wherein Katharine Houghton brings her fiancée Sidney Poitier home to meet her white liberal mother and father (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). While the handsome, polished, dark Kaluuya may evoke the Poitier of fifty years ago, the girlfriend’s parents are a bit more enlightened. Rose’s father (Bradley Whitford, for years the deputy chief of staff in The West Wing) is a neurosurgeon who proudly declares that he would have voted for Obama a third time—“the best president of my lifetime by a mile.” Her mother (Catherine Keener, an actress who improves every movie in which she appears) is a self-possessed New Age therapist.
The viewer waits for Dad to make some egregious patronizing or racist slip, but Rose has a creepy older brother, something of a hostile hipster, to deliver the inappropriate faux pas. The mood escalates from embarrassment to something stranger when it becomes apparent that Rose and her family are waited upon by a pair of weirdly inappropriate, even zombie-like black servants. And the nightmare continues into the next day with a surprise garden-party gathering of family friends. As painful as it is funny, the scene starts as a riff on the old Lenny Bruce routine “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties” (something Chris, practiced at putting white folks at ease, is equipped to deal with) but quickly becomes more pointed. The polite remarks, many of which suggest a desire to appropriate Chris’s blackness, become a subtle attack on his sense of reality.
Every line of dialogue cuts two ways—one of which is a thinly veiled reference to race. Recovering from a curious exchange with the affair’s only other African-American guest, Chris falls into a conversation with a blind art dealer who describes his own condition as “a sick joke” and “genetic disease,” as if daring Chris to say, Tell me about it. Seeking refuge inside the house, Chris attempts to bond with the black female servant. “If there’s too many white people I get nervous,” he explains, prompting an inexplicable crying jag she delivers with a fixed over-bright smile.
Chris, who typically handles white people with practiced insight into and tolerance for their quirks, is desperate to have someone with whom he can discuss the frightening world in which he has found himself. (Rose is only good for apologizing for her family.) His life-line is a series of cell phone calls to his best friend, an affably trash-talking Transportation Security Administration officer played by comedian Lil Rel Howery. Openly and humorously mistrustful of white, Howery’s character serves as both the movie’s reality principle as well as its comic relief, as when he attempts to explain his friend’s apparent disappearance to the New York City police.
Peele knows his genre mechanics. Get Out synthesizes elements of Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers the movie which more or less introduced the idea of the alien possession in an alienated America. In a sense, Get Out marries Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to another, far greater movie from the late 1960s, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The most graphic imaginable representation of American society devouring itself, the Romero film is also, whether by design or (as the director has always asserted) fortunate casting, a vision of a black man trapped in a world of white hysterics, shoot-to-kill cops, and flesh-eating zombies. It was also a movie that encouraged its audience to cheer when the black character shot and killed one particularly obnoxious but unarmed white man; Get Out ultimately has no sympathetic white characters.
Opening for general release the very day that the new president designated certain media outlets “enemies of the people,” Get Out surely owes some of its all but universally favorable press and strong commercial appeal (it was the number one movie in the country during its opening week and has yet to fade) to widespread apprehension felt by a large segment of American society.
This pervasive fear makes it easy for white audiences to identify with Chris and perhaps even enjoy the movie’s cathartic ending (while maybe ignoring the degree to which white liberals are satirized in the presentation of Rose’s family). The presence of a clownish employee of the Department of Homeland Security notwithstanding, the movie’s ambiguous title—is it an imperative, a word of advice, a phrase asking to be attached to the word “all”?—speaks to immigrants, refugees, and other minorities as well as their sympathizers. But Get Out is also a movie that, in the twists and turns of its plot, seems to address an African-American audience quite specifically. One of Get Out’s lone unfavorable notices, published in The National Review, dismissed it as a “get whitey” film—a characterization that, reminiscent of Glenn Beck’s unanswerable slander that Obama had “a deep-seated hatred of white people,” grossly simplifies the film’s argument.
Did eight years of Barack Obama inspire black filmmakers? McQueen specifically credited Obama’s example with encouraging him to make 12 Years a Slave, the movie that, in its emphasis on a single individual’s suffering, Get Out most resembles. For several seasons, Peele appeared with Keegan-Michael Key on Comedy Central’s comic sketch series Key & Peele. The show had a recurring routine in which the tall, aloof Key played President Obama’s Anger Translator, riffing on the rage presumed to be present beneath the president’s cool, unruffled exterior. In his directorial debut, Peele—who, like Obama and Key, is biracial—might be said to be dramatizing our former president’s unexpressed anxiety.
Responding to the near continuous wave of police shootings, Peele evidently softened his movie’s original ending, which may have been closer to that of Night of the Living Dead, but he did not efface the knowledge that Chris is caught in a trap that exists within a larger trap. Among other instances of realistic paranoia and reasonable conspiracies concerning white intentions, the movie—almost subliminally—introduces the notion that the unflappable Barack Obama was a new sort of zombie, a white man occupying a black body.
Get Out articulates the fear that the Obama presidency was smoke and mirrors, a sham and an illusion. And while the filmmaker had likely not anticipated our current situation, it would seem that his film has materialized at the very moment that curtain rose and the real America was revealed.
[J. Hoberman’s books include Film After Film (Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?) and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War.]