GET OUT (2017) is Identity Politics: The Horror-Comedy

You should know from the opening credits – Times New Roman font on top of footage of trees, natch – that you’re in for a horror movie made by a guy who’s studied the classics. Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele) made his name in sketch comedy, and brings the same edge that made his comedy so resonant behind the camera for his directorial debut with Get Out. Unfortunately, Get Out is a bit of a let-down when it comes to the scares; but as a comedy, uses many familiar horror tropes to shine a light on the frightening state of race relations in America today.

Get Out gets a lot of its material from the fascinating identity politics surrounding the American horror movie. It follows the tradition of classics like Deliverance or Texas Chainsaw Massacre; in that the plot involves a young person getting stranded in hostile territory. Except, unlike in most movies in that tradition, this isn’t the Southern or Appalachian territories inhabited by the abominable poor, but a rich white neighborhood; and pointedly, our protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is black.

This is the main conceit of Get Out, and what really puts it in conversation with the American horror tradition of the mid-to-late 20th century. Where many of those movies prey on the fears of the people left behind by the century’s rapid post-war post-modernization (aka: hillbillies); Get Out is fueled by the fears that black people rightly have of white folk. After centuries of slavery, lynchings, jim crow, police brutality, and the unpunished murders of black children; the supposed safe spaces of white-fenced suburbia are still places where a black person can reasonably feel unwanted.

Racial tension permeates every second of the movie, starting from an early scene where Chris is clearly discriminated against by a white cop that he and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), call to help them after hitting a deer on their way to her parents’ house; and continuing across Chris’ introductions to Rose’s hypno-psychiatrist mother (Catherine Keener) and neurosurgeon who “would’ve voted for Obama for a third term” father (Bradley Whitford). Get Out turns micro-aggressions into hints of the sinister, with every uncomfortably thrown in slang-term and fumbled mention of blackness becoming not unlike the uncanny mannerisms that reveals the psycho in any given slasher-flick. The villains in Get Out don’t just happen to be rich, suburban, and white; it’s those very qualities that explicitly make them monsters.

Get Out also has a lot of fun specifically with the identity politics of black people in horror movies. For as much as American horror has pretty much always been about white people and white fears (of communism, of the poor, of urbanity, of the other, of African/Caribbean/Native-American spirituality, etc.), there is a weird cultural space for the black person in a horror movie. Probably the most well-known trope in this regard is of the black person being the first to die; which has seemed to result in the complex (and often comedic) line of thought that black people don’t actually “work” in typical horror-movie situations (Just a few examples) because of a culturally ingrained overactive fear response. In the words of Cedric the Entertainer, “Black people just run,” where the typical white horror protagonist would rather investigate.

Another stereotype of Black people re: horror movies that Get Out plays with is that of Black people talking too much/talking to the screen while watching – specifically – horror movies. In the movie, Chris’ friend Ron (Lil Rel Howery) turns this tired stereotype into a Greek Chorus of sorts. He’s immediately picks up on the eerie stuff that Chris refuses to accept at face value, and essentially lays out the entire second and third acts; and his doing so, and Chris ignoring the incredibly obvious signs despite it, provides the biggest laughs of the entire movie. And what’s great is how Ron’s character completes the bridge between the reasons the film gives us for being scared of this particular white family and why certain black people are always suspicious of certain white families in general.

Having Chris as the protagonist may be what gets white audiences to identify with a black male in a horror movie, but it’s through Ron’s support that the audience gets an understanding of what’s really so scary about a black man going to visit his white girlfriend’s well-off parents for the first time.

And all of this is before getting into the ideas this movie presents about the appropriation and erasure of black culture and bodies, the weird and often mistaken legacy of slavery on racial genetics, and so much more that later parts of the plot are built around. However, as smart as this movie is with all of that – and you should see it for those reasons alone – Get Out isn’t without its problems.  Get Out focuses more on the reasons it is scary than it does on actually scaring the audience, and aside from a handful of jump-scares (with accompanying violin shrieks) it falls definitively on the comedy side of horror-comedy. The movie also suffers from a lack of creative steam during its resolution, and aside from its major subversion of having the audience root for a black man killing a white family, doesn’t really have much to offer in terms of a satisfying payoff.

Get Out’s influences within the horror genre are worn on its sleeve, and Peele proves himself to be a visually interesting director capable of balancing disparate tones; but while Get Out has plenty of ideas, it doesn’t have enough real story to fill it’s relatively short runtime. It does end on one hell of a gag though, and combined with just how subversive this movie’s very existence is; Get Out earns its recommendation.

 

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