03.05.2017

Something’s Off

Get Out has tapped into the fears of millions of people who have a growing sense that something is very wrong in this country.

In 1968, George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead shocked audiences and birthed the modern zombie flick that both horror aficionados and general audiences have come to know and love. In a less-than-subtle commentary on the persistence of racism in recently-post-Jim Crow America, Romero closed his film with a scene hauntingly reminiscent of a lynching, in which Ben, the African-American protagonist, is shot by a mob nominally patrolling the countryside to protect residents from the undead hordes. His would-be rescuers then use meat hooks to toss his body onto a pile of flaming corpses.

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out makes clear from the start that it intends to follow Romero’s lead by using the horror genre to peel back the flesh of contemporary bigotry and invite audiences to look at its bloody contours. Where he departs most significantly from Romero (besides electing to include not even one flesh-eating ghoul) is in the specific form of racism he chooses to make monstrous.

If Night of the Living Dead was about the festering, more-often-than-not open racist paranoia of the late sixties, Get Out is about the well-meaning and often grudgingly excused liberal racism of the Obama era.

The opening scene spells some of this out with a simultaneous nod to genre convention and to the murder of Trayvon Martin. Late at night, on a dimly lit and totally deserted suburban street, a black man walks along by himself, nervously asking for directions from someone on his cell phone. Before long, a white sports car, unsettlingly blasting “Run, Rabbit, Run,” begins stalking him.

Knowing “how people do out here,” he turns around and heads back the way he came. When he glances over his shoulder, a masked figure jumps into the frame, wrestles a cloth over his mouth, and drags him into the trunk of the parked car.

As slasher-movies have long pleaded with us to recognize, behind the placid picket fences and gaudy holiday displays of suburbia lurk unknown terrors. Peele wants us to recognize that for black people, these dangers manifest not only in the form of chain-saw wielding mass murderers or Truck Nutz enthusiasts, but also as affluent Porsche drivers.

After a brief title sequence (featuring some incredibly unnerving trees), we are introduced to Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams) as they pack for a trip to meet Rose’s parents. As they banter about what to expect, Chris, looking almost embarrassed, asks whether her parents know that he’s black. Rose assures him that it won’t matter, but does warn him that her father will probably look for an opportunity to confess his desire to vote for Obama a third time, “but that’s just because he’s a lame dad.”

When we meet Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), her description seems true enough, but the just-this-side-of-racist micro-aggressions quickly begin to accumulate.

Dean professes his “love of other cultures.” Missy politely lectures Chris about smoking in front of her daughter. Dean proudly presents a photo of Jesse Owens and shares a story of how his father “almost got over” losing to Owens at an Olympic qualifying race. Missy asks uncomfortably direct questions about Chris’s family background. And, as predicted, Dean takes Chris aside and shares that he wishes he could have voted for Obama a third time.

These early interactions are all easily over looked as the well-intentioned, if miscalibrated, attempts by two very white people to convey their open mindedness about their daughter’s new boyfriend. More disturbing are the painted smiles and robotic gestures of the Armitage family’s hired help, Walter (Marcus Henderson), the groundskeeper, and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), the household maid. Between Georgina’s vacant stares into reflective surfaces and Walter’s “training exercises” that find him sprinting around the yard in the dark, Chris is left with an inescapable impression that something isn’t right about the pair.

Get Out deftly weaves together these anxieties — Chris’s discomfort at traversing frustratingly familiar social exchanges, and his feeling that something is disturbingly wrong — into a sense of dread that patiently mounts as the film unfolds.

Chris’s unease ratchets up as benign comments drift steadily toward undeniable bigotry, before transforming into outright terror when he finally learns why all the other black people in this corner of suburbia are so odd. Scenes, like the opening, that intentionally slip between what could be the straightforward portrayal of the everyday black experience, or could be homage to the classic horror cannon (or both), recur throughout and contribute to this swelling sense of  wrongness.

Because they deal with the stuff that nightmares are made of, and because so many nightmares are born from society’s darkest fears, horror movies have always featured more or less explicit political subtexts (of both the left and the right varieties). Yet the genre usually presents its politics symbolically, requiring a fair amount of decoding and leaving plenty of room for alternative interpretations.

In the case of Get Out, director Jordan Peele, who is most famous for his sketch comedy show Key & Peele, has stated outright that his movie was originally conceived as a way to “combat the lie that America had become post-racial,” and it is unflinching in its commitment to this task.

From the opening scene to the film’s conclusion in which Chris, bloodied and bruised from his ordeal, is confronted by the flashing lights of a police vehicle, Get Out foregoes the normal horror-movie recourse to monster-as-metaphor for social issues by making an immediately recognizable racism the underlying source of its scariness.

As a consequence — and this is one of its many strengths — the movie seems singularly uninterested in trying to present a narrative that addresses itself to white audiences. Based on box office numbers, and the response of critics, this has done nothing to detract from Get Out’s mass appeal. In fact, if one discounts the torrent of hateful user responses (like the .5 star review on Rotten Tomatoes from Jim S. which reads “white people is evil”), as of this writing, only the conservative stalwart National Review has published a negative assessment of the movie.

All of this should make obvious that Get Out has succeeded at tapping into the fears of millions of regular people who have a growing sense that something is very wrong in this country.

Whether it’s the near daily appearance of high-profile cases of police violence, the presence of the sheet-wearing and Nazi saluting among the ranks of Donald Trump’s supporters, or the more mundane (but, in some ways more crushing) features of the “New Jim Crow,” racism continues to be high on the list of crippling societal anxieties that structure life in America. By offering a genre-based exaggeration of this reality, Get Out forces us to confront the more subtle aspects of racism in a supposedly color-blind society.

On an aesthetic level, the movie is fantastic. It is wildly entertaining, impressively well written, brilliantly acted, and sufficiently scary. On those terms alone it is worth scraping together the $15 it’ll cost to watch it in the theater. Whether or not its politics are perfectly in line with socialist views on how to dismantle racism (and, spoiler alert, they are not) should have exactly zero impact on one’s appraisal of whether the movie succeeds or fails as a movie.

Still, given how seriously the film takes the political task it sets for itself, it bears thinking a bit about how its perspective on racism — and what that view implies about how to combat it — translates into the real world.

By emphasizing the danger posed by even the well-intentioned casual racism of today’s world, it achieves its director’s goal of destroying the myth of a post-racial America. This is a movie that refuses to make even the smallest concession to the #notallwhitepeople line of argument — something very much worth defending in a world where it has taken the efforts of activists to drag Hollywood kicking and screaming into so much as acknowledging that the artistic endeavors of black people deserve recognition.

But it doesn’t go much further than that. The film’s politics can probably best be described as a variety of black nationalism, with the title serving as an annunciation of its view on how black people can overcome the racism of contemporary America.

Yet, unlike some strains of thought within the broad black nationalist tradition, Get Out is so focused on how social interactions, individual attitudes, and micro-aggressions become racist knives pressing against Chris’s throat that it completely fails to so much as hint at the existence of structural sources for racism’s endurance.

While one could reasonably object to this point by claiming that the discriminatory practices of HUD don’t readily lend themselves to compelling genre fiction, such a position could only be maintained by completely ignoring the existence of Candyman, a horror movie about racism set in Chicago’s Cabrini Green that is many times more terrifying than Get Out.

Still, this is a feature length film, not an agitational pamphlet. Like all artistic mediums, it is quite difficult to get nuance to adhere to 35mm stock, not least because movie-going audiences tend to want whatever it is they’re watching to entertain before all else. Attempting to use film in the service of complex political arguments has produced more than a few horribly boring failures.

As socialists, we shouldn’t be surprised that Get Out doesn’t articulate a political perspective aimed at mobilizing a mass, class-based, anti-racist struggle against capitalism. The best that we can hope for from mass popular culture is that it will on occasion provoke conversations that we can participate in with the goal of pointing people toward practical activity of some kind.

Political quibbles aside, Get Out is one of the most poignant horror movies of the last decade. Instead of reading about whatever latest disaster the new spray-tan-in-chief has enacted through executive decree, go watch it immediately.