If you look back on the history of horror cinema, you’ll find that many make use of timely social issues in order to convey powerful commentary on their respective subjects. The late, great visionary horror director George Romero continually did it in his legendary Dead series, with Night of the Living Dead tackling race relations during the height of the Civil Rights movement, while Dawn of the Dead took shots at consumerism and its power to basically turn society into zombies. Recently, The Purge series of films delves into classism, the classic Rosemary’s Baby is related to feminist ideas, and the cult-favorite They Live looked at the power of the media.
Get Out, which comes courtesy of comedian-turned-horror director Jordan Peele, is the latest and greatest example of how horror films are often utilized to depict poignant social commentary. While we’re a year removed from the initial release of Peele’s debut horror subject, Get Out, it’s a film I still can’t seem to shake from my head. It’s never apparent as you watch it, but Get Out is Peele’s first time being in the director’s chair for a film, as well as his first foray into the horror genre. Get Out is so successful in so many aspects that it ends up not only being one of the most impressive debuts of the last decade (so much so that Peele actually was awarded an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), but also perhaps the most socially charged mainstream horror film in that timespan as well.
Get Out’s central character is Chris (played by the excellent Daniel Kaluuya), a 20-something black man in an interracial relationship with his white girlfriend, Rose (played by Allison Williams), who plans to take him along for a visit at her family’s classical Northeastern estate for a family get-together. You’ll see that Chris is noticeably skeptical about the trip, and coyly asks Rose if her parents are aware that he’s black, implying that he believes he may not feel welcomed by Rose’s family because of the color of his skin. Rose’s on-the-nose rebuttal attempts to strike down his fear: “My dad would vote for Obama for a third term if he could,” she replies, with the punchline of the joke landing a handful of scenes later when Rose’s father recites this line verbatim to Chris.
And it’s moments like this one, I believe, that make up one of the best attributes of Get Out: it remains a biting satire plainly hidden beneath a rotten exterior. Peele has certainly looked at similar issues concerning race relations in the past through his various comedic avenues, such as in his former Comedy Central show Key & Peele, but here he takes a much more subdued approach to his comedy. While the film is foremost a psychological horror-thriller, and displays its fair share of horrifying scenes dealing with serious themes, Peele regularly intersects the built-up tension with well-timed jokes and often funny reactions from the characters. However, Get Out can and should scare you, especially in its final act when all of its cards have been laid out in front of you, and definitely after its credits have rolled and you’re allowed to reflect on its potent themes. But to Peele’s credit, you may find yourself crying from laughter just as much as you’ll be sweating in terror.
More so, Get Out is a masterclass example of how to effectively build suspense and then successfully deliver on it. From the first interaction Chris has with Rose’s parents, Dean and Missy Armitage (played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, respectively), we get the sense that there’s something…especially peculiar about them. Dean repeatedly attempts to fit in with Chris in increasingly eye-roll-inducing ways, which immediately gives the impression of slight hostility between the two. Opposite Dean is his psychologist wife Missy, who insists that Chris allow her to perform her practice on him. Chris politely declines, still visibly doubtful of the family’s integrity. Then there’s Rose’s brother, Jeremy, who is the most outwardly malicious toward Chris in the beginning, but still not so much so that Chris feels truly threatened by him. Chris (as well as the audience) is likely willing to shake off Jeremy’s routine as being no worse than any other protective brother looking after his sister’s well-being.
What Chris is most concerned about, though, results from interactions with the two black servants under the family’s dominion, Georgina (portrayed by Betty Gabriel) and Walter (portrayed by Marcus Henderson). They move with purpose, but only in order to complete the Armitage’s chores; They don’t speak very much, but when they do it’s robotic and awkward; And they ultimately come off as being creepy in certain moments. But like the family, who are just as off-putting to Chris — albeit in a totally different way — for much of the film, neither parties take it far enough to truly convince him that his suspicions have been right all along.
Peele constructs his first act in such a grand and complete way that you’ll likely have your own ideas as to what’s going on as you’re watching the film. But where Get Out ends up leading is legitimately surprising, and the payoff is well worth the wait. As much as you will think you might have the through-line figured out from the opening moments, the film doesn’t actually end up simply being about a family of racists who intend to hurt or kill a young black man due to the color of his skin. Get Out isn’t so much concerned with being a commentary on overt racism against a singular target — in this case, Chris — as it may seem at the outset. Rather, the film presents something that is perhaps even more sinister and disturbing — something Peele himself notes as being related to “systemic racism,” in this particular case as perpetrated by a white, self-described “liberal” family.
It’s important to note that Get Out wasn’t written in a post-Trump society, wherein we’ve watched numerous times over the last few years groups of white nationalists come forward in droves screaming “white supremacy,” almost as if it’s a natural, everyday occurrence. Rather, Peele actually conceived the film during Obama’s tenure in office, making strictly the point to criticize the supposed “post-racial” world so many liberal-minded people believed we were already living in.
So when the film finally unveils what the Armitage’s plan on doing with Chris by the third act — wherein a white man’s brain will be transplanted into his black body without his consent — it’s a mind-blowing, albeit totally B-Movie type twist. But it’s also one that works extremely well due to the foreshadow-ridden events that hint to this exact conclusion throughout the first two acts. We begin to see clues of it not only through the off-putting servants (who we come to find out are Rose’s grandparents post-surgery), but as well in the almost glossed-over discussion Chris and Dean have early on regarding black Olympian Jesse Owens (who, it’s safe to assume, was the original inspiration for the unthinkable procedure). The greatest hint we get to the eventual outcome is from one of the film’s best scenes. I’m speaking of the one in which Chris meets dozens of the Armitage’s wealthy white friends during their annual get together, and wherein Peele lambastes our society’s objectification of black bodies and white people’s damning appropriation of black culture.
Get Out is also heavily informed by the horror genre and its many tropes — twisting and inverting many of them in wholly special ways throughout — and its lineage and direct inspiration can be traced back through the decades to the 60s and 70s with Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Stepford Wives being some of Peele’s most important influences for the film. And, of course, as you watch Get Out and explore its themes further, all of these connections become all the more apparent.
Get Out shares with Rosemary’s Baby the slow-build of dread and terror that a singular character feels when trapped within someplace they once assumed was safer than it eventually turns out to be. The connections to Night of the Living Dead and The Stepford Wives run much, much further though, with The Stepford Wives especially seeming to be the blueprint from which Peele would build his own cinematic home. He trades in Wives’ social commentary on the traditional roles of women and feminist movements of the 1970s, replacing it with a poignant view of current-day race relations in the U.S., specifically in regards to the aforementioned post-Obama and supposed “post-race” American society. There’s direct connections between character traits in the two films, and even some scenes almost directly translate from one to the other. In an interview about his inspirations for Get Out, Peele stated, “One reason that The Stepford Wives was a perfect template for me is because that movie was about gender and [Get Out] is about race.”
In relation to Night of the Living Dead, Get Out ends up being the most racially-aware horror film to come out since George Romero’s 1968 genre-defining masterwork. I’m going to take a detour real quick, but I swear this will get back on track soon. So, the horror genre is often viewed as wholly misogynistic, and I can understand why — after all, on its surface, the genre, at its lowest and most perverse points, often presents beautiful women that have been stripped naked and terrorized solely for the sake of entertainment. However, many fans of the genre and even many film scholars would disagree with this overarching, misinformed sentiment.
You see, the protagonist and final survivor of oh so many horror films are a lone woman that defeats the evil entity (who is usually a man or man-like creature). She survives the night, something not even her male counterparts could do. This is widely known as the ‘final girl’ trope, and you’ll see it in hundreds — if not thousands — of horror films throughout the decades. We don’t so much as have a ‘final girl’ equivalent for black people in horror films, who are rightly viewed as being often mistreated in the genre, with the running joke for decades being that black characters in horror films almost assuredly die first. Get Out rightfully changes this.
There’s a small number of black characters in the genre as a whole, and that number becomes even smaller if we’re talking about lead black characters. Black characters rarely become the protagonist of these films, unless it’s a predominantly black movie or an unusual anomaly here and there, which is exactly what Night of the Living Dead was back when it initially came out in 1968 — a very important anomaly. At the height of the Civil Rights movement of the late 60s, Night of the Living Dead released with a black male as its lead hero — something never before seen in horror (and perhaps unsurprisingly, rarely seen since).
Writer-director George Romero had stated in interviews that he didn’t mean for Night to be a racially-charged film, citing that he had no specific race for the character in the script. According to Romero, the black actor, Duane Jones, was only chosen for the role because he was the best actor they knew who could play the part. But greater meaning has been attributed to the film since its initial release, and honestly, it’s a much better film when viewing it through the lens of its underlying racial themes. When — and this will be spoilers for the 50-year-old film, mind you — but when the main character, Ben, is mistaken for one of the undead and shot and killed right in the last moments of the film by a particularly lynch mob-like group of all-white zombie hunters, the film takes on a much greater subtextual meaning, even if it wasn’t Romero’s intended purpose. Get Out on the other hand is built from the ground-up as a racially charged film, and is allowed to take a much more obvious and purposeful stance with its significant themes.
This brings me to one of the film’s most striking, profound, and unforgettable images: the “Sunken Place.” In the time since Get Out’s release, Peele has been quoted time and time again stating what the “Sunken Place” represents. Even without his clarification, the intention becomes increasingly clear through your initial viewing of the film, and exponentially explicit upon multiple viewings of the film. What Peele is making note of through the inclusion of the “Sunken Place,” which is one of the film’s most relevant convictions, is the everyday silencing of minority voices. He’s stated in interviews before that “there is proof everyday that we live in the ‘Sunken Place,’” and it’s awfully hard to dispute Peele’s claim — all we have to do is look at the Starbucks controversy from this year, in which two black men had the police called on them simply for sitting inside one of the company’s stores as they waited for another guest.
As much as the idea itself is fantastic, it’s Peele’s visual representation of the “Sunken Place” that makes it absolutely brilliant. The few times it happens in the film, we watch in horror as Chris floats through the pitch-black space, screaming internally, unable to do anything but watch as the terror unfolds directly in front of him. It’s a horrifying image, and likely to strike marginalized viewers in a wholly meaningful way, as it’s probably similar to their own silencing they’ve encountered. While the film depicts the character’s suppression in grandiose, fictionalized fashion through paralyzing hypnosis, in real life, this translates to the paralyzing notion of consequences that may come for minorities when they speak up or fight back.
Get Out is a remarkable film, and honestly, I can’t think of another release from 2017 that deserved as much praise, success, and respect. Chances are, you likely have already had the pleasure of seeing Get Out. But one of the greatest things about it is that it gets better upon repeated viewings, which affords you the opportunity to pick out its plethora of plainly hidden secrets which coalesce and form the satisfying puzzle at its center. No matter the amount of times you’ve seen it, Get Out remains as entertaining and politically relevant as ever, and is primed to spark long conversations between you and your peers in which you dissect and discuss the film at length — a luxury you’re only granted by cinema’s greatest achievements.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor