By Dev Agarwal. This review first appeared in Vector 287.
Get Out premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, and was theatrically released in the United States a month later. The film was well-received by critics and audiences, with particular praise for Jordan Peele’s writing and directing and for Daniel Kaluuya’s performance. Get Out was chosen by the National Board of Review, the American Film Institute, and Time magazine as one of the top 10 films of the year, and received four Oscar nominations.
The film is both its own unique story and part of a canon of socially relevant horror films. It blends social commentary, comedic elements, drama and genuine scares to bring together a coherent narrative about exploitation and the black experience in America today.
Besides being the highest grossing feature debut for an original screenplay, the film made Peele the first black writer-director to reach $100 million on a feature debut. And at $162.8 million, it’s the biggest domestic hit from a black director. It cost $4.5 million dollars but it now grossed $175 million in the USA and 254 million worldwide. It is the third highest ranking for an R rated horror after IT and The Exorcist.
In fannish circles, Get Out arrives at a time when some loud voices are decrying diversity as “virtue signalling” and “message fiction.” Message fiction, they claim, puts politics ahead of all other considerations, especially storytelling and entertainment. As science fiction writer Larry Correia puts it: “Let’s shove more message fiction down their throats! My cause comes before their enjoyment!” This little schism in science fiction reflects a greater schism in western society itself. For the first time in decades, the neoliberal consensus is under serious pressure, both from the left and from the alt right. Long held certainties are in question. Brexit has wobbled the postwar European project. Nuclear Armageddon is being credibly imagined once more. There are actual Nazis everywhere; Marine Le Pen of the Front National brushes against the French presidency while White Nationalists run down protesters in Charlottesville. And, of course, looming over everything is the still remarkable phrase: President Donald Trump.
And none of this is fiction. Not even the most outlandish science fiction. Into this volatile, surreal world comes the movie Get Out.
Get Out posits the story of a black man, Chris, driving from his comfortable middle-class home in Brooklyn to upstate New York. But just before we get to Chris and his story, there is a pre-credit prologue. A black man is lost in a prosperous white suburb … a ‘nice’ part of town. We have, for many years and regardless of our own origins, been invited to follow the story from the default setting of white protagonists navigating white society. Get Out invites us to instead follow black protagonists navigating white society, and horror proves a relevant genre. As this prologue unfolds, the terror mounts, and racial identity become an increasingly urgent matter.
Tanarive Due draws a comparison with ‘The Comet’ by W.E.B. DuBois, observing that DuBois “was writing horror from the heart. And, of course, what he’s trying to counteract with that story is a different horror […] There were moments in the DuBois story where he’s nervous about where he goes and how he’s seen from the outside. It’s similar to the opening of Get Out, being lost in a strange, white neighbourhood. That’s so real.”
Manohla Dargis, reviewing in the New York Times observes that “Peele briskly sets the tone and unsettles the mood. He’s working within a recognizable horror-film framework here (the darkness, the stillness), so it’s not surprising when a car abruptly pulls up and begins tailing the man […] when this man anxiously looks for a way out, the scene grows discordantly disturbing because you may, as I did, flash on Trayvon Martin.”
The film soon introduces our main character, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya. A staple of horror is that things begin very “normally.” Chris is a black man in Brooklyn, living a comfortable middle-class life with his white girlfriend, Rose, who is played by Allison Williams. So things may seem normal, even humdrum. Chris has been invited to meet Rose’s family, who live upstate on a huge estate. At the outset, the implication is that Rose’s family are part of the wealthy white middle classes, post-racial, egalitarian, liberal, and welcoming. Chris’s attempts to anticipate any racial awkwardness are met with disarming humour by Rose. This premise could be lifted from Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from 1967, but then projected through the amplifying lenses of both horror and science fiction.
As we journey closer to Rose’s family, things begin to steadily deviate from anywhere near “normal.” On the drive upstate, Rose and Chris hit a deer – a jump scare and also a distressing and bloody encounter. A white policeman arrives on the scene and his reaction to the traffic accident is to demand Chris’s ID. It’s a moment designed to outrage a liberal audience. But it also reveals how both characters react. Chris is pragmatically compliant, whereas Rose, the one who was actually driving the car, confronts the officer. Following this tense, ambiguous encounter, Chris affirms Rose’s act – “that was some ride or die shit, baby; I like that” – but it’s a remark with many layers, and even below those layers, we sense that there is a lot he isn’t saying. This film doesn’t just talk about race, but also about silence: about all the ways race isn’t talked about.
By the time he arrives on the estate, Chris has been through two unnerving events, the death of an animal and the threat of a police officer. Neither incident is fantastical, and yet they add to the accumulation of tension and discomfort. Now, the family who awaits him ranges from the patronisingly liberal to the loutish and offensive. It’s just the welcome Chris appeared to fear at the outset.
In this sense, the film is experimenting with the use of ‘normality’ in the standard horror arc. As Tananarive Due points out, “Horror is a great way to address this awful, festering wound in the American psyche, the slavery and genocide that was present during our nation’s birth.” The possibility of being arrested or murdered whenever he meets the police is part of Chris’s reality that Rose is shielded from. Likewise, the awkwardness of managing the family’s creepy behaviour is ‘normal’ for Chris.
Nevertheless, at this stage, the story may seem more social drama than horror. However, Peele has already skilfully slipped in cues which will resonate later in the film. The narrative’s details continue to accrete like coral. The black characters on the estate are mostly servants, and they remain distinctly uncommunicative with Chris, or weirdly out of sync in their behaviour. Indeed, it is these few black characters who create the gateway into the horror genre proper. Their uncanny presence, and the reactions of the white characters to their disturbed behaviour, is the chief source of tension in this part of the film. The smallest details imply warnings of the looming terror, as the ‘minor’ characters start to leak their secrets, and bit by bit the skin of the genteel peels back to expose a brutal, fantastically horrific foundation.
I’ll avoid any big spoilers, but this is a film you can run your mind over afterwards, admiring the many small, clever details that reveal its careful construction. Many audiences may be satisfied with the jump scares and plot surprises, while more schooled genre viewers will take the extra pleasure in their anticipation of horror and SF tropes. Peele engages established genre elements – hypnotic suggestion, out-of-body experiences, experiments on human subjects that would fit within David Cronenberg’s body horror films. We even get grainy video footage of the 1980s that looks like the Dharma Project from Lost, or recalls that moment in Quatermass where a major plot development is explained by silent film footage.
At the same time, Peele never resorts to mere pandering allusions or cheap tricks. He asks us to emotionally invest in the characters’ lives, and that means understanding how they feel in specific settings or situations. The film draws on the history of slavery and exploitation, as well as the racist stereotypes about the ‘physical vitality’ of black bodies. The allegory has resonated so widely that a UCLA course in African-American Studies has now been named after a key conceit of the film: ‘Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and Black Horror Aesthetic.’ The course is now made available to anyone online. The trick that Peele pulls off is to make the message mesh with his story in such a way that they become synergistic and ultimately indivisible.
Get Out cost $4.5 million dollars to make and took $33.3 million on its opening weekend. It’s now surpassed the $175 million mark in the US alone, putting it behind The Exorcist and It for R-rated horror. In financial terms, Get Out is a success.
And, in cultural terms, the film is already earning the sobriquet “revolutionary.” In an interview with Evan Narcisse for io9, Tananarive Due said that, “just recently, we were talking to some network execs about a pilot we were developing […] and they were like, “Oh, like in Get Out.” And it’s not that it’s anything similar to Get Out, it’s just that was now the new framework. That’s what black horror looks like: Get Out. They can now have a reference point and you can continue with the conversation. Because before, you could barely even get that conversation started.”
Any work that is discussed as revolutionary resists pigeon-holing, especially if categorisation itself is symptomatic, as in the case of Get Out being nominated in the “comedy” category at the Golden Globes. Peele himself has said that “[t]he reason for the visceral response to this movie being called a comedy is that we are still living in a time in which African-American cries for justice aren’t being taken seriously. It’s important to acknowledge that though there are funny moments, the systemic racism that the movie is about is very real. More than anything, it shows me that film can be a force for change. At the end of the day, call Get Out horror, comedy, drama, action or documentary, I don’t care. Whatever you call it, just know it’s our truth.’’