(Directed by Jordan Peele) (2017)
In the promos for Get Out, we see the agonised, frozen face of a black man, Chris. You will see more such faces in Get Out, but not all of them are black. Decades ago, having withdrawn from the tense atmospherics of a 1980s media party, L was chilling (there was still some hippie in the air, and L is very cool) in a quiet room, exchanging a few words with a well-known African-American singer, who was hoovering up some well-known Australian lollies from a jar on the mantelpiece. An older (white) couple paused on their way out to congratulate said singer with, “thank you for your music [well-known African-American singer].” They waited a beat before adding pleasantly, “Of course, you people have such natural rhythm.” There was not much to pick between the two expressions as the singer slowly turned back to the Smarties and L stared into space, like Chris. Although the Political Correctness Police had not yet assembled their forces, and bearing in mind that L could hardly be described as “PC”, the shock of this blatant reverse racism was still terrible. Unexpected for L, but we imagine, all too familiar to the singer.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a photographer who lives with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) in the city. Rose is taking Chris to meet her parents, Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and spend the weekend at their rural retreat. Dean and Missy – well-heeled, liberal and smug – are a well-known American film type and we recognise their mixture of interrogative friendliness and subtle condescension. It is not, we know, reserved for persons of another skin colour. There’s something odd about them, we can’t work out how they really feel about Chris; and their black retainers (whom they explain away with apparent embarrassment) treat him in a peculiar manner, to put it mildly.
But the racism in Get Out is all reverse. And relentless. The Armitages’ party guests are keen to meet Rose’s new beau. They tell Chris that, although fair skin has been popular for a while, dark is coming into favour now; a lascivious skeletal woman can’t keep her hands to herself around him; a Japanese man asks Chris to describe the African-American experience. It’s laid on rather thick and Chris greets the only other black guest with (racist) gladness and relief at meeting a “brother”. The young man responds with excessive courtesy and formality. It soon appears that he is the paramour of a woman of about 60. We’re not getting a good feeling about this and when someone yells at Chris, “Get Out”, we don’t know if it is an admonition or a warning, but we do know that it sure is good advice.
The cast are all excellent in a scenery-chewing kind of way. Special kudos to Caleb Landry Jones as the wanting son, Jeremy Armitage. The only false note is the character of Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) who is looking after Chris’s dog and warns Chris repeatedly that the white people want him for a sex slave. We think this might be true, and although Rod’s antics are meant to liven and amuse, they rather jar. After the big reveal – when we learn the truth – there is grim laughter enough as the script takes a turn for the preposterously funny. The ride from then on is pure horror schlock – including much gratuitous and satisfying violence – although the very final scenes are too long and would have benefited from being a little braver. The film-makers were wise to use less-well-known actors and to pare back the traditional horror-movie tropes (until the end). The look is mundane and all the creepier for it – special effects are few and some of the most frightening moments are delivered via an old wooden-box-television. There are however some beautiful and affecting moments, visually and emotively reminiscent of Under the Skin, The Box and the dying moments of Silent Running – all warnings about the dangers of playing God.
We know we’re not in the real world and the attempts to paint this film as a searing indictment of racial politics, sexism and class is simply off-putting. To watch the film in that expectation would be to short-change the film, discussion of serious issues and yourself. Watch it rather in the expectation of an intriguing and humorous horror movie.
[Minority Report: P agrees. Often horror films are by-the-numbers, lazy efforts that fall back on the formulaic (e.g. The Babadook). This is an amusing, knowing effort, where ‘racism’ is not a theme so much as a ‘blind.’]