This week we’ll be talking about Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele.
Over the past couple of podcasts, we’ve been talking a lot about the idea of using Hollywood genre movies as a catalyst for change— not by fighting against the “popcorn” elements that mass audiences love, but by building those elements around socio-political themes, that affect the expectations and belief systems of our audiences.
You can see this principle at play from the very first scene of Get Out. It’s a classic horror opening— an attractive young person alone in a scary place that’s just a little too quiet— and a creepy score that warns us from the very first chord that things are going to get real ugly, real fast.
Except rather than using the traditional “horror movie” location— the kind of creepy place where we all feel a little scared: a secluded beach, a dark forest, a creaky old house— we’re in a perfectly manicured, upper class, liberal suburban neighborhood.
And what makes the scene terrifying (aside from the terrific score and top notch directing) is the fact that the attractive young man we’re watching is an African American in a white neighborhood.
Jordan Peele has spoken about the conception of this scene as a way to pull a mainstream American audience first hand into the experience of an African American man– to put them in the shoes of anyone who has ever been pulled over for “driving while black”, stopped and frisked, watched nervous eyes regarding them as a threat, or seen a young family cross to the other side of the street as they approached.
It captures the feeling that this place that feels so safe for so many people, for a young black man can feel incredibly dangerous and unwelcoming.
And then, as any good writer would do, Jordan Peele lets his character’s very worst internal fears manifest externally in the universe.
A white sports car starts following him. He turns and walks the opposite direction, trying to get away from trouble… and the next thing you know, he’s being beaten by a white guy in a mask and stuffed into the trunk.
The safe place that suddenly becomes dangerous idea is nothing new. We’ve seen it in Jaws, Friday the 13th, Tucker and Dale vs Evil and countless other horror movies of every possible genre.
The suburbs as an ironically terrifying location is nothing new– we’ve seen it in movies ranging from Scream! to The Stepford Wives.
And the idea of the “wrong guy” in the “wrong place” isn’t new– we’ve seen the reverse version of it in a million movies– every time a white guy or gal finds himself or herself on the crime-ridden “wrong side of the tracks” only to be instantly mugged, attacked or harassed by people who look different from them.
But the idea of taking the everyday anxieties of an African American man about to meet his white girlfriend’s potentially racist parents for the first time– and blowing those fears up into a horror movie that looks on the outside like that character feels on the inside– that’s new. And that’s exciting.
Horror movies are obviously about fear. But the best horror movies are not just about scaring the audience. They’re about scaring yourself. About scaring your characters.
They’re about reaching into those unexplored corners of yourself left over from childhood traumas, bad life experiences, emotional and physical wounds, paranoias and nightmares that you know you should be over emotionally– but somehow just aren’t.
They’re about taking the childlike fears — the nonsensical monsters under the bed– we “know” we should dismiss — the fears just too bizarre, too unlikely to be real– and asking ourselves “what if they were?”
Allowing our worst nightmares to come to life on the page, and in that way to come to peace– not with the reality which we depict these stories– but with the real life experiences– the metaphors– that spawned them.
You can see this is the journey of the main character, Chris, in Get Out.
Chris is naturally a bit scared to meet his girlfriend, Rose’s, parents for the first time. After all, meeting the “perfect” parents of your “perfect” girlfriend would make anyone a little nervous..
Not to mention the fact that he’s a struggling photographer, while they’re filthy rich.
Not to mention the fact that he’s got a secret little nicotine addiction that he feels a lot of shame about. And considering how unpleased his picture-perfect girlfriend is with his failure to quit smoking, it’s only natural that he fears her parents would judge him even more strongly if they found out.
Then, there’s the fact that they’re white. And he’s black.
Oh, and Rose hasn’t quite mentioned that to her parents in advance of their arrival.
Sure, Rose assures him that her parents aren’t racist. Sure, Rose promises that they are going to love him. Sure, Rose insists that the worst thing he’s going to endure is her father, Dean, telling him “I’d have voted for Obama three times” (which Dean does, pretty much immediately, when Rose and Chris arrive…).
Every experience Chris has ever had as a black man in America tells him that this is a bad idea. But that’s not what he wants to believe. He wants to believe that Rose is right. That he’s the one being paranoid.
As Jordan Peele has pointed out in interviews, the inception of Get Out actually came with the election of Barack Obama. It was a reaction to the hopeful, but unlikely belief it created in so many people that maybe this racism thing was finally over.
Chris wants to believe, as so many people did at that time, that race no longer matters. That people — at least wealthy white Obama voters– no longer judge a person by the color of their skin. That if a black man can now be President, maybe one can date a rich white woman, and be accepted by her family…
He wants to believe, if Rose is not racist, that maybe her parents really aren’t either. That maybe the problem exists in him– that all these fears are just reverse racism– a false assumption that all white people must be racist.
He wants to believe– as anyone who longs for a better world wants to believe– that maybe today, the concept that the color of a person’s skin would dictate who they could be, might suddenly vanish back to into the dark imagination from which it came, like the unlikely monster under the bed it should be, like the absurd notion that it is– rather than remain the lurking demon that it has become, defining the limits of so many people’s lives.
So, Chris puts his fears aside. Just as so many people have had to put their fears aside, hoping for a better world. Hoping that his relationship can be the exception.
But still there’s that lurking fear. Maybe these nice people aren’t really who they seem. Maybe everything isn’t really okay. Maybe there’s a hidden malice here, just waiting to come out… Maybe even his girlfriend isn’t who he believes her to be. Maybe all this hope is just a facade. Maybe there’s something he doesn’t know.
Sounds like some pretty serious stuff.
But what’s brilliant about Jordan Peele is that he doesn’t deal with it seriously. He deals with it playfully, exploring the serious notion of hate as the absurdity that it is, in a big, silly, popcorn movie horror format– and in doing so harnesses its full power, not just for the African American audience who already “gets it”, but also for the wider audience who would like to think we understand, but probably don’t.
Although every paranoid fear that Chris could ever have will turn out to be true by the end of the movie, at the beginning Jordan Peele doesn’t give those thoughts to the most “serious” character– he gives them to the most ridiculous one, Chris’s best friend, comic relief and TSA Agent extraordinaire, Rod– a man whose paranoia and conspiracy theories get laughed off not only by audience, but also by every black character in the movie.
While we’re laughing at Rod’s “ridiculous” theories about “what white people do,” the main character, Chris, is doing everything he can to think like we do. To open his mind. To get over his suspicions. To believe in a better kind of world.
Sure, Rose’s parents’ African American gardener and housekeeper seem to have been ripped right out of the zombie version of Gone With The Wind… but it’s only natural for rich people to have servants, isn’t it? And would it really be better if they refused to hire black people for these jobs?
Sure, Rose’s parents’ friends’ attempts to “connect” with Rose’s new black boyfriend are painfully awkward. But isn’t it a little wrong to judge people for trying to be “accepting.”
What Jordan Peele is creating in this sequence is not just horror, and it’s not just social satire. It’s a stripping down, not of the overt racism that we normally see depicted in movies, but of the subtle, unintentional racial charge that can permeate the behavior even of well meaning people who truly consider themselves allies.
And though these characters may represent an exaggerated version of this phenomenon, it’s pretty hard not to look at this sequence and wonder: “at some point, have I done this to somebody?”
He’s giving us a chance to see ourselves from Chris’s point of view. And to understand, right or wrong, how he feels in this situation. What it’s like to feel the only way he can fit in is to become a version of himself that he doesn’t recognize– like the “whitewashed” young African American man Chris tries to reach out to at the party, and who later, in a flash of lucidity– will deliver the underlying warning that Chris still feels might linger under all this welcoming atmosphere: “Get Out!”
Jordan Peele is not saying that every white person is racist. Rather, he’s looking at just how hard it is for people of all colors to simply find normal.
In a world where so many people of all colors do have fears and paranoias about each other, he’s showing us how our need to prove that we are colorblind hampers our ability to actually connect– our ability to have a real dialogue.
And as things get darker, as a cleaned up version of a slave auction is held for ownership of Chris’s body, and all of Rod’s paranoid theories turn out to be true– Jordan Peele is showing how all this stuff comes from the same place– a legacy of the slave auction that we’re all still trying to escape.
In a mirror of last year’s (far less successful) Birth of a Nation, Jordan Peele transforms his sweet, hopeful main character into a killing machine, taking out the horrible racists that surround him. And he transforms you, his audience, from horrified witnesses to violence to a chorus of cheerleaders, applauding every well-earned death.
And though the movie may not totally hang together… Though the allegory may not totally fall into place metaphorically. Though the plot moves may be familiar and the hypnosis sequences (despite the symbolic genius of using the pristine “tea-cup” as a symbol of white control) may have no bearing on reality– the movie succeeds in dropping a mainstream audience into the point of view of that most poisonous stereotype “the violent black man”– to see him not as a threat, but as an avenging angel.
Just like any great writer, Jordan Peele takes his characters’, and potentially his own, most terrifying fears, and breathes life into them as if they were real. And though these fears may be unlikely, (I don’t have the numbers to prove it, but I’m going to assume most interracial couples make it through their first meeting with the parents without anyone being sold into slavery or lobotomized), in giving voice to the most extreme and unlikely fears of his main character– those haunting demons we know we should dismiss– what he discovers is the real place from which they flow– the legacy of slavery, a peculiar institution no more absurd than the horror of Get Out whose legacy we are all still trying to escape.
Get Out is not a perfect film, but it’s a successful one. And it’s not successful because it ignores conventions, but rather because it elevates them for its own purposes. It’s successful because its main character’s journey grows organically from the writer-director’s inspiration.
The script may have begun with Jordan Peele’s reaction to the Obama election and the idea that “racism was over.” It mined from there into his own fears of what was lingering under the good news, passing those fears onto his characters, and allowing those fears to form the structure of his film. He created a movie that explored a theme that mattered to him, the horror of racism, using form to carry the function of his message.
This is what great writing is about, whether it’s horror or any other genre. Not looking outside of yourself, but looking inside at the things that inspire you, the things that make you mad, your fears and your dreams, no matter how impossible. Giving life to them on the page, and seeing how far, and how deep, they can take you.