At first glance, Jordan Peele's new horror flick Get Out takes the age-old American fear of interracial relationships (and sex) between a black man and a white woman and turns it into a literal horror thriller.
But to read the movie as a simple narrative about race relations is to ignore its scathing commentary on the assumption that, in 2017, black people should no longer have to be afraid of white people. Peele takes the premise of a fantastical, post-racial America, rips it wide open, and mines it for devastating thrills.
When Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) agrees to accompany his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) on a trip to upstate New York to meet her parents for the first time, he's stunned to learn that she's yet to tell them that he's black. But Rose, the embodiment of a well-meaning white person, insists that her parents will love him. Her dad, she offers up as proof, would have voted for Obama a third time if he could.
The moment Chris sets foot on the Armitage’s small plot of land in the woods, Get Out begins to introduce instances of racial anxiety that ring true to the experiences of any black person (read: all of us) who’s ever found themselves isolated in a place with too many white people.
As Rose promised, Mr. Armitage (Bradley Whitford) seems comfortable with Chris, but it’s an uneasy comfort that’s left open to interpretation. The Armitages’ questions about Chris and Rose’s relationship are at once politely curious (“How long has this thing been going on?”) and thinly racialized (“How long has this thang been going on?”).
Get Out keeps you in this limbo of wondering whether the Armitages are Good White People™—until we meet their servants Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson), whose Stepford Wives-esque personalities are the first sign of the movie’s true horror.
Get Out is being released just about a month after the world learned that the woman who accused Emmett Till of catcalling and grabbing her back in 1955 admitted that none of her story ever actually happened. Her fabricated accusation of being harassed by a 14-year-old boy in the grocery store she owned, an explicitly white space, led to his death. That same racial animus linked to black bodies moving through white spaces is what led a pair of white police officers in 2015 to harass and assault a group of black teenagers whose only mistake was swimming at a nearby public pool in a predominantly white neighborhood. Though separated by decades of supposed social and racial justice movements, these two incidents pierce our illusions of just how much progress we’ve made.
The idea for Get Out first came to Peele during the 2008 presidential primaries, when the Democratic Party was suddenly divided over Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It was a moment, Peele said, that liberals (read: well-meaning white people) were forced to choose between progress for the Civil Rights Movement or the (white) Women’s Rights movement.
Obama won, of course, and “[f]or [a] while…we were living in this post-racial lie,” Peele said. “The idea of, ‘We’re past it–we’re past it all!’ For me, and for many people out there–as all black people know–there’s racism. I experience it on an everyday basis. This movie was meant to reveal that there’s this monster of racism lurking underneath some of these seemingly innocent conversations and situations.” Regardless of whether Peele would have predicted the administration following Obama’s, it turns out he couldn’t have gotten things more right.
While Peele has described the movie as a social thriller in the same vein of horror movies like Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs and Bernard Rose’s Candyman, the film’s most obvious parallel is Stanley Kramer's Look Who's Coming to Dinner. But whereas Look Who’s Coming to Dinner culminates in a moment of optimistic enlightenment, where the racist parents see the error of their ways, Get Out’s worldview is much more terrifying—and realistic.
Get Out repeatedly disabuses Chris of any notions of safety in white spaces, while cautioning the audience about believing in the existence of Good White People™. The movie puts forth that not only are black bodies perceived as being inherently dangerous, but should they ever wander outside the social boundaries that have been designed to keep them in check, they’ll be neutralized. Hypnotism and mind control are introduced as plot points that drive Get Out into its final gear as a horror movie about the erasure of black identity at the hands of white predators.