In Get Out, the true horror is racism

May 2, 2017

Get Out
Written & directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams & Lil Rel Howery
In cinemas now

Why don’t more horror movies deal with racism?

Race, of course, always lurks underneath the surface, especially from a white protagonist’s perspective. In many horror films, the monster is some unconscious manifestation of racial anxiety or white guilt, like the prosperous, Reagan-voting family in 1982’s Poltergeist, haunted by the vengeful spirits of Native victims of genocide.

Or worse, the monster is a thinly veiled stand-in for a racial menace, a monster that preys on virginal white teens. In Eli Roth’s 2013 film Green Inferno, well-meaning liberal youths are menaced by indigenous cannibals.

Only rarely does horror give us the perspective of people of colour dealing with the racist terror that undergirds everyday life in the US. This is what led Black filmmaker Jordan Peele to write horror thriller Get Out.

“I felt like race has not been dealt with in my favourite genre, which is horror,” Peele said in an interview with NPR.

“Every other human horror has its sort of classic horror movie to go along with it. So I kind of wanted to fill the gap in that piece of the genre of conversation.”

Get Out takes us on a terrifying ride through the racist landscape of so-called “colour blind” America.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young Black photographer, is meeting the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time. The film’s first half is consumed with the awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes patronising and offensive interactions Chris suffers through with Rose’s family and friends.

Kaluuya excels at communicating Chris’s exhausted and bewildered emotional state throughout the film — including his enormous patience and restraint in navigating the myriad insensitive comments, unsure if he is confronting veiled hostility or merely the tone-deaf racism of her liberal family.

It doesn’t even occur to Rose that she should mention Chris is Black to her parents. After all, they’re nice upper-class liberals who don’t waste any opportunity to tell you they would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if they could.

In an early scene, the gulf between white and Black experiences with the police is on display when Chris and Rose are pulled over. Rose repeatedly defies the police officer, while Chris tries to quietly move the interaction along.

Throughout the first half, Get Out lays out the subtle ways modern white supremacy manifests itself. Imagery evocative of Jim Crow and slavery establishes a continuity with earlier eras of racism.

It quickly dawns on Chris that there is more going on with the Armitage family than just well-meaning clumsiness. Their Black servants, dressed as if they are hired help from the Jim Crow era, act in increasingly inhuman and erratic ways.

Rose’s brother, a perfectly on-point frat-boy stereotype, makes the veiled racism explicit, openly admiring Chris’s “genetic make-up” and trying to provoke him into a fight.

It becomes clear that some sort of conspiracy is targeting Chris, just as his friend from home, Rod — played by Lil Rel Howery, who provides much needed comic relief — had warned.

The film leads to a heart-stopping conclusion, as satisfying as it is draining.

Warning: spoilers follow

We that the white people aren’t merely brainwashing Black people to make them loyal servants, but are auctioning off their bodies for brain transplants. Not content with just the oppression and subordination of Black people, the Armitages are seeking complete control over their bodies.

It’s a twist reminiscent of the first zombie stories that originated in Haiti — of people whose bodies are possessed and compelled to labour for malevolent sorcerers. Not coincidentally, these stories gained more popularity during the US occupation of Haiti and the forced labour that followed.

The white people in Get Out covet the bodies of Black people, obsessed with all sorts of racist, pseudoscientific ideas of their supposed physical superiority.

Just as chilling is an art dealer named Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), who is self-aware enough to know that these racist ideas are baseless, but cynical and monstrous enough to use them to his own benefit.

“Why Black people?” asks Chris. For Hudson, there is no reason, other than the fact that he can get away with it.

The last act reaches a climactic and thoroughly cathartic finish, as the racists continuously underestimate the humanity of their victims and their capacity for resistance. Even with all the ideological and technological tools at their disposal, they could never stamp out the humanity of their victims.

The theatre I was in broke into applause at least five times during the film’s last stretch.

Get Out is also a loving tribute to the genre as a whole. Visual and musical allusions to Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter abound. The film is rich with all kinds of references I can’t wait to unpack on future viewings.

I couldn’t recommend Get Out enough to left-wingers and horror geeks alike, especially if you can see it in the theatre. Both as a stinging indictment of our racist society and as a thriller, it’s a smashing success.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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