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Dawn of the Social Thriller

Mark Read Mar 29

Issue 223

Get Out

Directed by Jordan Peele
104 minutes, Rated R

In the first ten minutes of Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele flips the script on the Hollywood trope that has echoed and reinforced white fears of black men for generations, from D.W. Griffith through Lena Dunham. How many films have shown that scared (or oblivious) white woman (or sometimes a man) walking through a “bad” neighborhood, past a gauntlet of hostile black gazes? Or maybe it’s a desolate, empty maze of streets, with the implied lurking presence of dangerous and criminal black or brown men. The specter of black-on-white violence, set within the disintegrating urban core, is stock Hollywood fodder. As a white audience member, I have been coached since childhood to empathize with that fearful and clueless potential victim.

The opening scene of Get Out turns all this on its head, convincingly and chillingly. A black man wanders lost at night in suburban America. He is on the phone with a friend or lover, agitated and panicky, creeped out. His fear is palpable, and surprisingly (for this white man at least) relatable. Relating to him caught me off guard. That’s the crux of what I see as the political work of the film. What does it say about how our culture has shifted for this scene and this movie to be so popular? It was the top-grossing film in the United States the weekend it opened in February, and more than 14 million people had bought tickets within three weeks.

For me, the opening scene’s credibility and power stem from the work of the Black Lives Matter movement’s activists and the cultural conversation that they have sparked. (As well as the work of generations of black activists, such as journalist Ida B. Wells’ 1890s crusade against lynching.) As a storyteller, Peele is able to take us places that news stories and memoirs can’t reach, deeper into the psychological and emotional truth of a situation. However, the hard work of activists has produced a wider understanding of the underlying reality, setting the scene for a film like Get Out to be as well received as it has been.

That first scene sets the stage and does the important work of generating overall empathy, but the tone quickly shifts, and then shifts again and again. This film is a shape-shifting, genre-bending tour-de-force. The first act feels like just another intelligent, well-written romantic comedy, with the political subtext of race relations to give it some depth. An interracial couple, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams of “Girls” fame), goes to meet her white parents. Awkwardness and hilarity ensue, as one would expect. It’s painful, but retains a sense of humor.

It then veers into more stock horror-movie territory. Something wicked lies below the surface, something menacing and deeply creepy. And it’s coming to get you. Peele intends to frighten us the way that any good horror movie does, and he fully succeeds, just as he had been succeeding with a politically edgy rom-com a little earlier.

The film’s horror comes with a smirk and a nod, however. It pivots back toward comedy through the tropes of the buddy film. Chris’ best friend, Rod, played by scene-stealing comedian Lil Rel Howery, desperately attempts to convince the police of the dangerous situation that Chris is in, delivering big laughs just as the story is hurtling toward its grisly conclusion. The surreal adventure rides all these genre tracks simultaneously due to some truly adept writing and directing, but ultimately comedy trumps horror. Peele is a comedian, after all.

Humor, of course, is a primary strategy for revealing and commenting upon difficult truths in a way that’s approachable to a wide (and/or white) audience. If done well, it enables people to be open to ideas that, if shared in a different way, might feel like an attack. It enables us to maintain emotional distance from something that might be too painful to look at directly. Jordan Peele is an adept enough comedic writer to expose the painful realities of black people living under white supremacy without pulling any punches, but in a way that whites can take it in.

This year, we have heard much from Hollywood-celebrity award winners about the importance of empathy and the role that films play in generating it. While it’s pretty easy to be cynical about the self-congratulatory Hollywood liberal elite, they do have a point, and this film is an example. It’s meaningful to me that I was in some small way able to experience, by way of imagination and empathy, what it might be like to be that guy, walking around in an unfamiliar white suburb, knowing that if a cop comes by they will probably assume something about me that isn’t true, and how those assumptions could put my life in jeopardy. Or maybe it’ll just be some paranoid suburban dude with a gun, or some teenage guy with something to prove. Who knows what’s coming, right?

This shouldn’t be trivialized. The basic building blocks for solidarity are empathy and mutual interest. If we can’t feel the former, we probably won’t see the latter. Empathy, or the lack of it, has real political consequences that we shouldn’t sneer at. Jordan Peele has given us a terrifically funny and popular film that does some really interesting and important political-cultural work. Bravo!