If the blaxploitation era was born, in part, out of the Civil Rights movement, then it’s reasonable to wonder if a new wave of racially charged genre films is on its way, inspired by Black Lives Matter and other, similar social-justice causes of recent years. Should that happen, we’ll likely look at Get Out as one of the wave’s early ripples: a pure genre film that nonetheless has race as its primary concern.
Because this is written and directed by Jordan Peele, one half of the sketch duo Key & Peele (Keanu), Get Out has been described as a horror comedy. But it’s pure terror. The movie follows Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), an African-American twentysomething who follows his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to visit her family for the weekend. She insists, “They are not racist.” But by the end, Chris will wish that’s all they were.
I won’t give any details away, but I will note that part of the accomplishment here is the trajectory the film charts, from early scenes of social discomfort (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford play Rose’s too-nice parents) to a finale full of Grand Guignol violence and gore. The point, of course, is that the distance between these two tones isn’t all that vast; scratch the surface of contemporary racial tension in America, and beneath you’ll find the legacy of slavery—historical body horror. By its wild finale, Get Out makes explicit what polite society avoids: the reality that a major component of the American experiment is the exploitation and subjugation of those who aren’t white.
When we later catch up with Chris, we’re already primed to think of him as prey.
Before I make Get Out sound like a think piece more than a movie, let me back up and reiterate that it works as a riveting thriller first and foremost. Peele gives us a sly, spooky opening, in which a lone African-American man walks down the streets of an affluent suburb at night. Talking on his phone, he describes the place as “creepy.” Indeed it is, not for any aesthetic reasons, but for the fact that as a black man in contemporary America, he’s in danger in a neighborhood like this. And indeed, something bad happens to him, filmed by Peele with a chilling, decisive matter-of-factness.
When we later catch up with Chris, then, we’re already primed to think of him as prey, a notion further emphasized when he and Rose hit a deer on the road and Chris gets out to look at the dying creature, sharing a moment of recognition. Later, at Rose’s parents’ plantation-style home (I like how Peele films their initial greeting from a distance, to emphasize the grandeur of the front porch), Chris finds himself surrounded by white friends and relatives. There are two black servants on hand—a maid and a gardener—but they have such glazed stares of servility that their presence provides Chris with little comfort.
For a horror film, Get Out doesn’t feature any real standout set pieces (although a hypnosis sequence has a nice woozy vibe, with the victim falling slowly into a starry inner space known as “the sunken place”). Instead, the movie mostly squeezes tension out of its person-to-person interactions. Chris repeatedly brushes off minor insensitivities with a polite, “It’s all good,” until those insensitivities increase and it becomes clear that things aren’t good at all. Kaluuya has big, bright eyes that project an ease and amiability early on, before they begin to widen in alarm. Then, when the worst is finally revealed, a different expression sets in: one of hardened hatred.
In the early 1970s, films like Blacula, Sugar Hill, and Ganja & Hess brought a horror flair to blaxploitation cinema, staking a claim on genre that was decidedly African-American. Get Out follows in that tradition, and in a sense takes things even further. I’ve learned—from the writing of the likes of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as the recent Baldwin-centric documentary I Am Not Your Negro—that to be black in America can sometimes feel like living in a horror movie. And here is a black horror film in the sense that blackness is directly related to the terror. The monsters are coming for you, the movie suggests, precisely because of the color of your skin.