This piece contains spoilers for Get Out, which is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday, July 24. Do not read below this picture until you’ve seen the film. You can read my spoiler-free review here.
As I sat watching Jordan Peele’s brilliantly subversive horror debut Get Out, I was constantly reminded of Carol Clover’s brilliant book Men, Women and Chainsaws, which explores the way gender is approached in horror movies. Clover makes several eloquent and important points about how horror directors take the genre’s audience, which is predominantly young men, and place them squarely in the corner of the virginal female protagonists who often become the ‘final girls’ of slasher movies.
There’s a scene towards the end of Get Out where our central character, played by tremendous British performer Daniel Kaluuya, is brawling on the road with his white girlfriend, having narrowly escaped being turned into a powerless vessel for a blind white man. A police car pulls up to the scene and, at that moment, my heart sank and I felt a chill run down my spine. I had no doubt as to what was about to happen. In the era of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the wider #BlackLivesMatter movement, the messaging was clear.
It’s here that Peele pulls a slick inversion of our expectations, instead bringing in Lil Rel Howery’s TSA officer Rod to rescue Chris from his predicament. The outcome came as a complete relief but, in that moment of sheer dread, it became clear that the film had done an astonishing job of positioning its audience into the horrific experience of the protagonist. It’s a sobering reminder of the unsettling micro-aggressions and concerns of racism that are the sad norm for many of the real black Americans represented by Chris.
Social commentary as unsettling discomfort
The entire premise of Get Out hinges on taking the performative tolerance of woke America and portraying it from the perspective of a black man entirely accustomed to hostility and prejudice. From almost the first moments of the film, I was uncomfortable and that knot of discomfort never dislodged itself – even after the credits rolled. Get Out serves to challenge the racial attitudes not of Klan-hooded, Trump-voting rednecks, but of the kind of people who read the Guardian and tweet about #BlackLivesMatter from their London bedrooms paid for by trust funds and “bank of mum and dad” handouts.
As a white, liberal man, Get Out challenges people who are, for the most part, quite like me. Its thesis suggests that people who wear inherent prejudice beneath the surface are more dangerous than those who are out-and-proud in their racism.
The film’s basic plot sees gorgeous Prom Queen type Rose (Allison Williams) take her new boyfriend Chris home to her parents, played by subtly sinister couple Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener. Early on, we are given two indications that everything is going to be the opposite okay. Firstly, Rod – who, in true comic relief fashion, proves to be the film’s wisest character – warns Chris in no uncertain terms that nothing good can come of his visit to a secluded retreat dominated by wealthy white people and, secondly, Rose is rather too keen to take to task a white police officer who demands to see Chris’s ID after their car hits a deer.
The latter moment provides another of the film’s slight subversions of horror convention. As the adorable creature lies in the road, Chris does not “put it out of its misery” as we have seen in dozens of films over the years, he calls the authorities. Given all of the fetishisation of Chris’s physique that will occur later in the film, this is an important moment where he rejects macho brutality – embodying many of the qualities that will ultimately allow him to escape his confinement.
The racist next door
Rose’s eagerness to rush to Chris’ defence is key to the enigma of her character. Peele is keen to critique the pseudo-woke adults of suburbia, but also the young liberals who are simply trying too hard to cover their inherent prejudices. The property in which Rose and Chris are shown in the opening moments of the film is hipster perfection to the point of parody – from the photographic prints on the walls to the dog for whom Rose is “mommy” and Chris “daddy”.
Rose is, in many ways, the film’s most complex and terrifying character. Her parents can barely conceal their sense of white, middle class entitlement and her creepy brother, played by Caleb Landry Jones, is literally unable to conceal his immense jealousy at what he perceives to be genetic gifts Chris was given that he cannot match. Rose, however, is completely in Chris’s corner until the final act. A simple change of hairstyle – from loose and wavy to tight ponytail – turns her from Chris’s ideal woman into his worst nightmare.
It’s an ingenious shift that shows the most insidious kind of prejudice – that which is completely concealed behind a woke veneer. If there were any doubt as to her sheer evil, take the astonishing tableau in which Rose sits in her perfectly arranged room, cooly drinking milk and eating fry fruit loops while listening to Dirty Dancing songs as she hunts for her next target. It’s an excruciating caricature of the whitest thing ever – other than a white man writing a feature unpicking the racism themes of Get Out. Don’t worry, I know.
Silence in the ‘sunken place’
One of the most chilling elements of Get Out’s central conceit is the way in which the black bodies harvested by the white family are used. Their fate is a worse one than death, a worse one than torture and one that evokes slavery in a distinctly unpleasant way. Chris ultimately realises that Rose and her family are kidnapping black people and auctioning their bodies off to white folk who wish to use those bodies for themselves – whether to extend their life or correct what they perceive as “flaws” in their own lives.
When the brains and consciousness of the highest white bidder are transferred into their new, black body, the black person is not killed. They are condemned to something much worse as they are forced to watch their body being used from the vantage point of the ‘sunken place’ – where they are condemned by the hypnosis powers of Catherine Keener’s character. The fact that Keener hypnotises her victims using the rhythmic stirring of sugary tea is another of the film’s many allusions to the remnants of slavery.
The ‘sunken place’ is a truly horrifying creation and one that is rich with allegory. Condemnation to that place sees the black character as nominally present, but powerless to resist the actions of white people and completely robbed of a voice. That’s a scenario that will resonate deeply for many of the black people stunned that a campaign like #BlackLivesMatter still needs to exist and equally upset at the fact that laws continue to be made almost solely by white men.
It’s not uncommon for the film’s black characters to cry without warning, as the real people condemned to a powerless existence within the bodies are able to briefly take control of their emotions. It’s a powerful depiction of the ultimate act of marginalisation, as the most influential members of white society crush the desperate voices of the black people who deserve to be heard.
To describe Get Out as the first horror film of the Donald Trump presidency is tempting and not without basis, but the film was conceived way before the orange overlord ever made his way into the White House. Racism in America didn’t stop with Obama and it didn’t start with his successor. In many ways, it’s baked into history and Get Out shows that its insidious influence exists everywhere.
Black cinema’s renaissance
Peele himself has summed up the reaction to Get Out very nicely. He told The Hollywood Reporter that the experience of watching the film was “transformative” for the audience – particularly for white cinemagoers.
Let’s say the audience is half black and half white. During the first half of the film, you can tell the two are having slightly different experiences watching it. By the second half, everybody is cheering for the same character, for the black character. It creates a common ground for a discussion about racism.
In the year that Moonlight won Best Picture at the Oscars, Get Out feels like part of something bigger than itself. It’s part of a wave of films bringing black cinema into the mainstream and introducing important, diverse voices into the movie landscape. It also marks the arrival of a truly remarkable horror voice in the shape of Jordan Peele.
Horror has always been the genre that holds up a mirror to contemporary fears and issues, so it’s crucial that the issue of racism is a key part of the genre today. The ageing, white elite of Hollywood are far too comfortable in their supremacy – as are white audiences – so a film that makes us feel uneasy and unsettled is very valuable indeed.
What did you think of Get Out? Did its themes resonate for you? Where does it stand among the year’s best films? Let me know in the comments section.