Jordan Peele’s Get Out is most appealing because it busts through the shackles of hopelessly milquetoast race-themed Oscarbait persistent to this day, and not only the old standbys like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. Get Out also ousts and decentralizes more modern fare like Hidden Figures for their contentedness to coast on shuffling black historical figures into the relatively unchanged narrative structure gifted to white historical figures for decades: down-and-outs persist, struggle, and triumph. By thrusting African-Americans into this all-too-American success narrative thrumming with national mythologies of potency and virile capability, Hollywood only allows this agency-narrative to continue unabated as the dominant acceptable lexicon for black characters in film. If you are black and not a scathingly regressive stereotype in a film, essentially, you better be a success story, operationalized to validate America’s go-to narrative of assimilating all races into its fetishization of “opportunity” as an opiate keeping discussions of real equality at bay.
Now, Get Out is not exactly Langston Hughes or John Coltrane insofar as making a case for a unique African-American aesthetic voice not only unsettling existent artistic ground but venturing out into untested territory with an artistic form that destabilizes the rules. Peele does not seem to have any interest yet in developing the ever-elusive black film aesthetic, if it exists. No, Get Out is largely content to deal in terms of content. It is, as they say, an Important Movie because the subject matter it deals with has been so underserved in film history, so it gets a little slack for being, artistically, merely on solid ground. Ideally, now that the first blow has been struck, the rivers of truly great mainstream black-directed, black-written cinema with an essentially caustic attitude toward race in America can flow.
Of course, the operative word there is “mainstream”. Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and many others have been turning over the rocks hiding America’s racial problem for decades, utilizing their LA Rebellion film collective as more than a mere parenthetical aside to the boots-on-the-ground fighters of social justice. Tomes have been written about the possibility of constellations of style and sensibility that constitute black literary, musical, and painting aesthetics, and, although cinema’s representational quality makes overt aesthetic slightly less welcome in the medium, filmmaker’s like Dash and Burnett have at least crept in the direction of a filmic style – a way of depicting being – that is informed by if not defined by a fractured and splintered black history and dialectical black consciousness. Not exactly a repository of directorial technique, Get Out lacks this emancipatory stylistic thrust.
In this light, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that Get Out’s unique achievement is simply having pride of place in the multiplexes rather than the independent theaters. But that’s fine, what with counter-cultural hegemony requiring public recognition and all that. Get Out is, thus, more an achievement of nerve than ragged aesthetic radicalism – it challenges the subject matter, the content, of mainstream white cinema, not the formal structures of perception adopted by mainstream white filmmakers. Essentially, what Peele has conjured is a highly effective, stylistically robust classic creeper and prowler, using basically the same style that white filmmakers have adopted for decades. It just so happens that this particular film happens to be creeping on the hot coals of racism and prowling around the dark corners of oppression.
But, as they, that certainly ain’t nothing, and Get Out is certainly a stunner in its own aesthetically pared-down register and on its own terms. Those terms happen to be compromised – the terms necessary to appeal to a mass audience – but Peele’s film is no corporate shill. Rather, it’s a carefully cultivated barn-burner, heterogeneous enough in its subject matter than its stylistic homogeneity is only a relatively minor trifle. The State of Film Address out of the way, the matter of Get Out can be discussed for what it truly is: a simple, exceptionally well-constructed horror film walking not cautiously but briskly on unstable ground. I will, I suppose, walk cautiously on the narrative though, which boils down to an inverted, flayed, skewered, and strangled riff on the aforementioned half-centennial “classic” Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Our protagonist is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, in a feat himself giving far and away the greatest performance in a film generally not wanting for decent performances). Chris is dating Rose (Allison William), who has invited him to visit her parents Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) for the weekend. The only problem is that Chris is black. And Rose hasn’t told them.
For her parents, Rose says, this is no problem at all, which is the first spark in the film’s eyes, its initial breach into the hallowed halls of modern racial naivete. The second marker is Chris’ casual, almost indifferent expression when a police officer stops Rose – driving – and asks Chris for his ID. Without over-determining himself, Peele makes it quite clear through Chris’ sly “same shit, different day” smirk that Chris gets it and Rose doesn’t. When speaking to a bemused Rose about having to tell her parents his racial identity, he merely intones “It’s a thing”, another pinprick in the film’s cushion of reminders that its embellished tale of racial horror is not so much an accident or a coincidence as an emblem of generally-brewing paranoia present like a thin, often unseen membrane over his entire experience in life. When they arrive at his parent’s white-washed, pillar-encased mansion – its decorative dollhouse decorum has the pallor of a plantation – things take a turn for the uncanny. The parents are gregarious, ecstatic to meet him, their inflections fraught with a not-so-subliminal desire to please Chris with signs of their racial hipness. The father all but steers him to a picture of Jesse Owens on his wall and, naturally, asks Chris what his sport is without any evidence – other than his skin color – that he has a sport in the first place. Racism becomes entombed in generosity as the film hones in termetically on the sociocultural awareness of white people playing their parts, confronting black characters through construed, contrived, and entirely constructed frameworks.
For her part, mother Missy is a post-hippie type who practices hypnotism – which will of course be weaponized as a tool against Chris. Her primary weapon is a spoon gently rattling in a teacup, which is itself a signifier of a white master beckoning a black body to their side for service, a marker of feminized domesticity curdled into suggestive bric-a-brac that insinuates the latent power dynamics and less-than-manifest horrors lurking and bubbling within domestic power structures. The whole family, in a gesture that does not dissipate, is genuinely in love with blackness but only insofar as it settles into their arms and confronts them on their own terms, or, more accurately, insofar as they get to define the terms and sculpt them as they wish. The earliest odd mark is Rose’s brother whose attitude is clearly more unhinged, but what seems suspect at first eventually nurtures into something oddly familiar, even comfortable: a more overt form of racism. Tellingly, his refrains to genetic coding and interest in wrestling Chris, carrying an Antebellum sting to them, never mushroom into center-stage in this many-ringed racial circus of white and black spectatorship and white and black performance. Instead, they cede ground to the ostensibly kinder-hearted, more nebulous racial obsessions of the parents and the benign Rose. What the film is really after is not Rose’s race-conscious brother but her parents, emblematic of the white liberals who express an alternately feigned and genuinely-believed empathy with marginalized groups verbally while institutionally facilitating policies that are largely identical to the inequalities of the past.
Humming in the background are two black servants – Georgina (Betty Gabriel) Walter (Marcus Henderson) – who speak and act through a lexicon of acquiescence, as though they learned all they know from a history book written in Mississippi in 1872. More subliminally troubling are the family’s attitudes toward them, parading them around like showpieces or motile furniture good for whatever ails you. Although it reveals an ulterior meaning later on, the father’s claim that he hired the servants to care for his ailing parents and “couldn’t bear to get rid of” the servants when they died carries a whiff of black bodies as property masked under a rhetoric of benevolence. Having the servants around, as it has done for well-to-do white families for centuries, creates a passively domineering front for Chris and other guests to see that lies only a few degrees more subliminal than Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman.
Thus, the film deals in the innocuous horror of systems masked not by flesh-scarred lesions or pin-filled heads but with a smile. Although the film always veers two places to the left of genuine sociological tract, it maintains a cogent analysis of race even as it settles into darker, more explicit territory. Most obviously, we get a metaphor for whiteness in black bodies, or rather, the film hones in on modern African Americans who have, Get Out suggests, sometimes been lulled by the façade of post-racial opportunity into uncoupling themselves from interior “blackness” in a bid to impress white America.
It is fitting that consciousness, black skepticism, renewed realization, a refreshed self, ultimately begins to set Chris free when he moves past his ambivalences about positioning himself in white society and begins to explore why he wants to fit in at all. Make no mistake: this is not a comedy of remarriage with race in place of gender. Reconciliation is not on the table, and the badly bandaged wound-chasm between races only reveals the extent of its infection as the film goes along, which any critic of malignant color-blindness will cosign as an unmistakable good. Chris begins circling the wagons waiting for a racial remark to slip out. Lucky for him, racial liberals are insurmountably adept at making a fool of themselves if the viewer’s perspective is sufficiently acclimatized to the labyrinthine ins and outs of the liberal language of superiority-encased-in-kindness and the fetishizing of black bodies. Just as it rescinds even an iota of redemption for its white characters, the film also burns the respectability narrative – where black characters are defined by their righteousness – to the ground.
The film’s commitment to Chris’ own dueling dread and perhaps-negligent desire to overlook and trust these white liberals is entirely admirable, especially in comparison to, say, the make-white-people-happy-or-else Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – which this film never explicitly references but is never not thinking of. Of course, that film featuring Sidney Poitier all but pleaing that his fiance’s well-to-do liberal parents would condone their engagement was never really about Poitier’s character, a totem to black exceptionalism more than a conflicted human being. He was primarily a collage of positive traits manicured and curated by white people so they could have their own liberalism reflected back onto them and congratulate their own ability to appreciate a black man if, and probably only if, he wore a suit and happened to be one of the most respected doctors in the world. The same is true of Poitier’s other 1967 film – also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – In the Heat of the Night, where Poitier slays a white police captain’s racism in the most contentious black-white pas de deux that side of Lethal Weapon. Again, his character in that film is a statue, a totem to black respectability for a film more invested in the white police officer’s complexities and multivalent, shifting, liquid persona. The film must hold Poitier’s emotions hostage, locking him into a vise of respectable black male typecasting in order to contrast his begrudging partner’s growth and vulnerability to change.
In comparison, although bluntly acerbic and sharply pointed on the subject of white liberalism, Get Out is equally adept at navigating the complex perspective of its black protagonist and negotiating the Du Boisian layers of consciousness fighting within him, skepticism about wider society on one hand and a pronounced interest in believing in a post-racial society on the other. Ultimately, the film is less about white racism than black double-consciousness, the disconnect between the black body and the black mind and the socially-sanctioned atmosphere of coercing black characters to dissociate from themselves, to not trust their better, more suspicious instincts and, instead, simply listen when the world around them informs them it’ll be all right in the end. Get Out nails the great cinematic unknown of a complex black point of view defined not in relation to how he acts around white characters or helps them but how he sees white characters and what he thinks of them. Chris’ own self-cultivated sophistication – his self-policed desire, taught to most of black America, to act benignly toward white people and trust in their best intentions – also veers him into murky waters unthinkingly. The perhaps-necessary but costly belief that he can navigate the phalanx of ingratiating white remarks thrown his way and come out the better man taps into the surreal nature of a black man’s experience in a white world. The film explores Chris’ mind as a constant self-negotiation, a persistent double-ness, and, above all, as a walking-hallucination.
The only major flaw is the conclusion. Although the ending – racial retribution manifested as an onslaught of sanguine – is cathartic, it also betrays Peele’s until-then adroit grasp of his nefarious tone. It’s a cop out, more than anything, particularly because it rests the crux of solution on the very black physical virility it has spent 80 minutes mocking white characters for adoring. Perhaps one might say the conclusion acknowledges black masculinity insofar as it can be turned against the white characters who appreciate it only when wrapped in a subservient package for their institutional utilization. The very final image, however, resurrects black intellect and black skepticism as genuine narrative instruments and valuable traits, albeit ones this particular film couches in a comic light to its partial self-sabotage through the character of Rod (Lil Rel Howery), Chris’ TSA-employed sidekick from home and the one black stereotype the film does traffic in relatively uncritically. Most of the film wields indecision as a kind of skill, but the finale is a touch too preoccupied with dolling out divine retribution through the demonic art of corporeal brutality.
Other nagging issues abound. Peele misses certain opportunity to deal in the aesthetics of color considering the subject matter, and he occasionally deploys horror tropes strategically to investigate the gap between the de-raced – or implicitly raced – horrors of most films and the explicitly raced horrors here. He also tattletales on himself far too gregariously, embellishing some of the more buried themes and neutering their impact, particularly in the final 15 minutes. The earlier moments never let the racism get too comfortable; they’re the disquietingly liquid kind, slipping out of reach just when you are sure something is wrong here. The latter stages of the film take the brackish waters of race – diaphanous, porous, capable of being read multiple ways and always mutating so you can’t quite grasp it assuredly – and ossify them into ice.
Still, my skepticism merely rejects the fervent occultism surrounding the film in the last few months, not its quality and necessity. What Peele is adept at is scraping the mental architecture of white and black characters and uncovering the relics of racism that are, in fact, merely subsumed underneath genteel masks today, rather than actually dead. Peele’s film descends into the lower registers of racial discomfort missed in the grand-scale Elephant Art aspirational narratives like Roots that deal in and dole out historical specificity like markers of truth. In emphasizing triumph and narratives thereof, media in the Roots sensibility can succumb to the shibboleth that slavery and racism were mere stray accidents and unfortunate mistakes, delays in the American equality project, rather the building blocks of oppression. But because it refuses a story of triumph, Get Out is no deep dive to reclaim an unmediated and pure “true” America rooted in exceptional inclusiveness and an unflappable core of equality. Instead, Get Out sees racism as a fundamental factor of how we construct equality.
When the characters in Get Out resort to positive opinions about Chris’ skill, beauty, class, and capability, they are reifying the wrong-headed belief – one we turn to almost intrinsically – that racism is merely the lack of goodwill or the tone of voice rather than perennially reactivated social institutions. Being nice and respectful is not enough to corrode a system where oppression is predicated on a perverse variance of niceness, where we turn to abstract platitudes like empathy and tolerance rather than social and institutional upheaval. The problem of liberal discourse is that it favors the same essential framework of personal gentility and individual rhetoric embraced by the right as markers of good and bad people rather than progressive and oppressive institutions.
Although Peele’s film doesn’t entirely destroy this rhetoric of individuality – it sometimes reduces the white characters to grotesquely malformed individual gargoyles to alleviate the sting that these people are really like us, reflective of institutions and communities – he brings us further than many of the other acclaimed race films of recent years have dared. Concerns aside, Peele understands race not as a linear track toward a finish line but as a knot melting and resolidifying almost constantly and in inconstant ways. That, and the film couples these concerns to a thorny, unanswered curiosity about whether race is a material, a consciousness, an idea, a perception of the self, a perception founded by others, or, obviously, a kind of New Jersey Turnpike of them all informing and inflecting each other. In other words, Peele sees race as it is: unfinished business, and he doesn’t dare finish it.