Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
Anyone remember that show called “On the Lot?” This was a reality competition show from about ten years ago that was made when the networks were trying to apply the “American Idol” formula onto all sorts of random things, in this case filmmaking and it took the form of contestants making short films every week for the viewing public to vote on. It wasn’t very good. I bring this up because one of the most memorable things about it was a contestant named Mateen Kemet, an African-American fellow who was very interested in reflecting his political beliefs in his films. His most memorable short on the show was for “horror movie week” in which he interpreted the theme creatively and made a movie about the anxiety that minorities feel when they’re pulled over by the police. It was pretty interesting, certainly more memorable than every other contestant’s films even if a lily-white Fox Network show maybe wasn’t the most obvious place for biting political statements. If I recall correctly I think it actually got a decent number of votes and he moved on to the next round but the short seemed to function better as a political statement than as a true genre film, a fact that I doubt troubled him much. I was reminded of this obscure moment in reality television when watching the new hit horror film Get Out, which uses the language of the horror movie to look at the anxieties of being black in modern America.
The film begins in modern New York City, where an African-American man named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are planning a trip to visit her parents in upstate New York. Chris is wary of this as visiting white people of an older generation can always go in some bad “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” directions but Rose tries to assure him that her parents aren’t like that and that they “would have gladly voted for Obama a third time if they could.” When they get to her childhood home we meet those parents, who seem to be affable upper-middle class former hippies with all the trappings of modern progressivism. Her father Dean (Bradley Whitford) talks rapturously about Jesse Owens and her mother Missy (Catherine Keener) has a sort of earth-mother vibe going on and is apparently an accomplished therapist with an interest in hypnosis. Things seem to be going alright in theory but something seems to be profoundly off about the place. The parents have a pair of African American servants, a groundskeeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a maid named Georgina (Betty Gabriel) who seem oddly servile, almost inhuman. Something’s going on and he’s not sure what.
The setup for Get Out would seem to immediately remind audiences of the 1975 feminist thriller The Stepford Wives, in which it’s revealed that the town a woman has moved into have been replacing all of its women with servile robot housewives with the not so subtle message being that society forces women to give up their individuality to meet patriarchal demands. It wasn’t really a particularly scary movie, at least scene to scene and it’s not really a movie that all that many people actually watch all that often anymore, but it made its point pretty well and has remained something of a cultural touchstone ever since. Get Out is similar in that it’s not a particularly frightening movie in terms of raw suspense. People who go to this expecting to be scared by it the way they’d be scared by a James Wan or something and who have no interest in engaging in its racial messages will leave disappointed. The film lives and dies by its allegory and to me that allegory is a bit hard to grasp.
The film was written and directed by Jordan Peele, one half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele (he’s the one with the hair) who are both bi-racial and much of their comedy stems from the tension of straddling the worlds of white and black. That was the main theme of the duo’s feature film debut Keanu, which featured the likes of Keegan-Michael Key introducing some gang members to the music of George Michael. Here Peele looks at the darker side of all this. Malcom X once said that Southern white conservatives were like angry wolves lashing out at African Americans but that Northern white liberals were like foxes who hunt the lamb by acting friendly towards it before striking out and betraying it and believed that they were both two sides to the same coin. Get Out seems to share this belief at least to some extent, as it is ultimately a story about two-faced liberals who put on a nice face but hold a secret agenda. Here most of this secret racial animus takes the form of micro-aggressions: the slightly off tone that Rose’s parents take on when they see him, the stupid questions that he has to answer when attending their boujee dinner party, the agro tone that her brother takes on (which I guess isn’t that micro).
All micro-aggressions certainly seem annoying and I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of them, but they alone would seem more annoying than scary, but this isn’t a satire (at least it’s not just a satire) it’s a horror movie so this family’s ill-intent needs to go quite a bit further than that. Eventually it’s revealed that they are not only less progressive than they appear but are in fact taking part in a scheme to kidnap black people and implant the minds of the elderly white people into their bodies in order to reverse the aging process… and this is where the movie’s allegory starts to lose me. In the film white liberals and their micro-aggressions aren’t merely clueless people who aren’t as enlightened as they think they are: they’re evil. They aren’t blind to their own racism, in fact they’re perfectly aware of it and are quite deliberately hiding it so that they can actively exploit and harm the black victims they’re luring to their spaces. What exactly is this next step supposed to be a stand-in for? What end game is the film positing is the result of the sort of benevolent liberal racism the movie is attacking?
Perhaps the suggestion is that by trying to incorporate these black people into white society they’re trying to rob them of their culture and heritage and turn them into “Oreos,” but Chris doesn’t really present himself as being particularly “black” in his mannerisms to begin with and the earlier micro-aggressions rarely seem to show all that much hostility towards his culture. Perhaps the film is suggesting that white people all secretly want to be black out of some primal jealously, but that kind of thing seems to be more the domain of teenagers who want to emulate rappers than elderly people who pine for whatever slight athletic advantages they have, and again this doesn’t seem to be at the root of the micro-aggressions that were occurring earlier. I think the more plausible message would seem to be that these white people only like black people insomuch as they can use them as props in order to make themselves seem cooler and more progressive, but if that’s their ultimate end-goal why would they be keeping their current brainwashed black people as servants? That would seem to be the opposite of that goal.
I went into this movie pretty earnestly trying to get to the bottom of Peele’s critiques of the white liberal racism but I must say by the movie’s end I felt like I was left with more questions than answers. I feel like what the movie may be missing is some model of what the “right kind” of white liberal looks like. In the film every one of the white people turns out to be two-faced and awful both before and after their full motivations are revealed, and yet I’m not entirely sure what they could have done not to be judged as such. Early in the film Rose is depicted as being a privileged fool when she stands up to a cop on Chris’ behalf and yet later she’s depicted as a traitor for failing to stand up on his behalf when other people around her start asking inappropriate questions and her brother starts acting like a dick. People who go out of their way not to seem racist are believed to be hiding racial animus, people who do the opposite and make their racism clear are also obviously awful, and people who try not to bring up race at all are likely to also be seen as conspicuously two faced.
The movie perhaps inadvertently makes being white something of the ultimate catch-22 in which one can never really be without sin… and maybe that is a legitimate point of view and I can also see why Peele wouldn’t want to give white audiences and easy out, but there’s something rather hopeless about the film’s view of race in America. Again, Jordan Peele is the product of an inter-racial marriage and he is himself married to a white woman, clearly he doesn’t really think it’s impossible for whites and blacks to live in harmony and yet he still ends the movie with Chris killing the “white bitch” and then returning to his black friend and by extension the black community, presumably never to make the mistake of going to a white girls’ parents’ house again. That’s pretty damn dark, and again, I’m sure Peele isn’t really a segregationist and that I’m maybe taking this to some symbolic extreme but what other conclusion am I to come to from this?
Of course maybe I’m just making the white boy mistake of trying to make this about me. This is a movie about a black man told from the perspective of a black man, maybe it’s a big mistake to be looking at it as some kind of how to manual about how to be a white guy and how not to be a white guy. It’s more likely that the movie is simply trying to make you feel empathy for this guy and give you an idea of how and why he’s so ill at ease in these elite white settings, but then I have to go back to the point I made two pages ago: the movie isn’t that scary. I feel like there would have been more tension to the whole situation if the film had done the Rosemary’s Baby thing and left it ambiguous for much of the run-time as to whether there was truly a threat here or whether Chris was being paranoid but with the film’s opening scene and the absolutely bizarre way the black servants behave it’s clear that Chris’ concerns are more than valid and you’re actually ahead of him in realizing that he’s in mortal danger. Otherwise there just isn’t a whole lot in the way of really scary scenes here. There’s a jump scare or two complete with musical stings and things do start to get a little gory at the end and there are one or two legitimately suspenseful scenes here or there but I do think Jordan Peele’s inexperience behind the camera shows and he’s not terribly elegant in executing on some of the horror sequences.
As of now Get Out is sitting at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes with 176 positive review and only one negative review, meaning that if I was deemed worthy of contributing to that website’s aggregator I’d be sitting alone with Armond fucking White in not being terribly impressed with the movie. That’s not good company to be in. Honestly though that score kind of makes me think there really is something wrong with the movie. I’d think that if a movie was truly provocative then unanimous praise should be the last thing it wants to receive. Movies that break boundaries and tell harsh truths should divide people and get people riled up and if all the do is receive praise from the very people it’s speaking out against then something’s wrong. In the case of Get Out I think Peele has oddly found a way to appeal to all sides in all the wrong ways. Conservatives, who tend to hate latte liberals even more than black people, will watch it and say “see, those liberals are the real racists” and will proceed with their usual deplorableness secure in knowing that they’re no worse than the other guys. Liberals will watch it and vocally approve of it lest they be accused of being the kind of two-faced liberal the movie is out to attack. And finally the actual minorities will watch it and appreciate that a movie is finally acknowledging their lived experience. That last reaction is fair enough, I’m certainly in no position to argue with that, but reviews are meant to be a personal reaction and I personally don’t think the movie worked for me. As a horror movie I found it limp and if it set out to prove that liberal racism was just as bad as overt racism, well, consider me unconvinced… I don’t know what that says about me.