Discomfort and Privilege in Jordan Peele’s Get Out

Get Out

Dave author picWhen I first saw the trailer for Get Out, the racially-charged horror debut of Jordan Peele, I was already one hundred percent on board. Across Key and Peele, Peele had already demonstrated an incisive attitude to race alongside a love for – and deep familiarity with – horror cinema. Pairing those two things together seemed like a perfect combination.

And, of course, it was. In a different universe I might have been granted the opportunity to signal boost this humble Blumhouse horror film, but in this one, you’ve probably already heard a lot about Get Out – assuming you haven’t already rushed along to one of its preview screenings before yesterday’s Australian release. The film is earning mad cash – over $170 million from a sub-$5million budget – along with mad plaudits from the critical establishment. Film critics – especially white film critics – can’t get enough of it.

I count myself among their number. Were we in that other universe, this review would likely consist of little more than a laundry list of praise, signalling out Peele’s tight control of tone, admiring the precisely-applied flashes of comedy, glorifying the works of the all-round stellar cast. I’d be avoiding spoilers altogether, feinting at the premise – Chris (Daniel Kaluuya; black) visits the parents of his girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams; white) and some crazy shit goes down – but avoiding clarifying beyond that. I don’t begrudge the critics who’ve taken that approach either; this is a great film, one of the best of the year, and if you’ve yet to see it you owe to yourself to see it as unspoiled as possible.

Still reading?

Okay, great. Because I think that, given the astounding success of Get Out, it warrants analysing the ways in which it succeeds and fails. Specifically, it’s worth understanding why a film that frames its white characters as pure, racist evil has been so broadly embraced by the (predominantly white) critical community. One can credit that to the progressive, perceptive mores of us intelligent critic-type folks, of course, but I think it’s also important to understand that Get Out is nowhere near as provocative as spoiler-averse critics might make out.

On the subject of spoilers, the gist of it is that Rose’s family – father Bradley Whitford, mother Catherine Keener, brother Caleb Landry Jones – are into some Face/Off, Stepford Wives-type shenanigans. Chris is the latest in a long string of romantic partners duped into attending, unbeknownst to them, auctions for the rights to their bodies. After he’s hypnotised and sent into the “Sunken Place”, the plan is to surgically transfer the wealthiest bidder’s brain into his body.

Like most excellent horror films, the premise is at once chilling and silly. You can see why critics have tended to tiptoe the screenplay’s particulars, because without an hour or so of suspenseful build up, it sounds rather ridiculous. But the side effect is that by sidestepping spoilers and focusing on said first hour, some of the chinks in Get Out’s armour are concealed. The first hour is revelatory for a privileged white bloke like myself because of how viscerally it conveys the profound discomfort of being made to feel unwelcome for simply being yourself. We’ve all experienced some faint shadow of this – a party, perhaps, where we just didn’t belong – but Peele’s film is savagely successful at demonstrating how normalised this is for people of colour. By framing it as a genre film, we’re encouraged to shudder and cringe – and occasionally laugh – along with Chris, but we’re also inevitably reminded of the times we’ve instilled such discomfort in others, even unintentionally.

When the curtain is pulled back to reveal the profane mechanisms of Rose’s family, Get Out loses a bit of momentum. In the film’s awkward midsection, Chris and the audience are treated to a rigorous explanation of all the brain swapping. It’s thankfully brief, but it commits three sins. First, it over-explains – ambiguity is invariably more frightening than clarity. Second, it’s rather boring; watching someone watch someone else explain their evil scheme on television isn’t the most dynamic way to frame these revelations. Most frustratingly, it feels like Peele’s stepping on his central allegory by attempting to answer the question “why black people?” The explanations offered – which include clumsy and unnecessary flashbacks – offer a meaning that threatens to overshadow the implicit racism of it all, the idea that black people are their exclusive victims because America’s white society continues to see them as tools rather than people.

This is undeniably nitpicking, and thankfully the film shortly thereafter shifts into some appropriately gory genre thrills in an action-packed finale. It’s easy to forget and forgive any fiddliness. Even with my minor misgivings, Get Out is one hell of a horror film – dynamic, terrifying and purposeful.

I question, however, if the film’s success within its chosen genre actually undercuts its political purpose (or perhaps vice versa). I think one of the reasons that it’s so easy for white critics to fall in love with Get Out is that, by embracing familiar horror features, it lets us white folks off the hook. Over at Vulture, Mark Harris can wryly note that “One of the sneaky joys of writing about the movie is the case it makes that I, a middle-aged white man writing in effusive praise of it, might be the devil” without any hint that the suggestion has troubled him at all. Get Out directs its ire at über-villainous upper-class white folks who prey upon poor black folks; despite suggesting that Rose might be inadvertently complicit, it soon twists her characterisation into Aryan evil.

This is killer for getting audiences on board, no doubt. The tension of the first hour is released in a sumptuous showdown between our hero and the ‘baddies’. And there’s a clever sting at the end, when a cop car arriving in the middle of a roadside confrontation between Rose and Chris suggests the injustice facing black men in the modern United States – what cop will believe that it’s the pretty white girl, not the athletic black guy, who’s in the wrong?

As a “machine that generates empathy”, Get Out succeeds. Us privileged white people are forced to confront upon how much better, how much easier we have things than people of colour. Yet we’re let off the hook, permitted to imagine mad scientists in place of well-meaning liberals doing more harm than good. I think of works of art that’ve made me really consider race and my complicity in white supremacy – from Lee’s Do the Right Thing to Coetzee’s Disgrace – and remember how uncomfortable they made me. Not simply in empathy, but in revulsion at my own role in an unjust society.

As I keep emphasising, none of this is to suggest that Get Out isn’t an excellent film. The praise and money its received are well-earned. What I’m imagining, however, is the kind of movie that could have weaponised its horror framework to really get into the psyche of white audiences. To not just allow you to empathise with what Chris experiences due to his black skin, but to feel uncomfortable due to your white skin, and all it entails. In short, I wish Get Out was the kind of movie that white critics – including myself! – might have hated, because it wouldn’t have been easy to watch.

4 stars

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