I’m “biast” (con): not generally impressed by horror movies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I am shattered by this movie. I am horrified by it… and not in the way that horror movies are typically intended to horrify us: this one is deliberately carving out whole new realms of horror onscreen, realms that have always existed for some people in the real world while others of us have been blind to them, but realms that none of us have ever seen onscreen like this before. Get Out is paradigm-shifting stuff, not just for movies, for “mere” entertainment, but maybe even for our culture. Get Out could provide a new framework for talking about race, racism, and privilege, one that is very much needed.
This is what happens when new voices — here, African-American comedian and actor Jordan Peele, making his directorial debut — are given room to tell stories from perspectives that have been ignored before: we get exciting movies that are freshly compelling because they’re so different.
Moonlight may have been a groundbreaking in that it served as an extraordinary empathy machine that put the viewer into the life and mindset of one specific poor gay black man, and made his experiences feel universally human. Get Out does something that is perhaps even more important: it immerses us in a story told from a black man’s perspective in such a way so that it is not universal, so that it is all about what it means to be a black man in America that is different from what it means to be white. (I mean, I am presuming this. I’m white, so I cannot possibly know what it would feel like to be black. But I try to listen and understand, and it seems to me that Get Out at least gives me a flavor of it. I’m sure it only hints at the full reality of even just the narrow angle it takes.) Get Out makes you feel, in a deep-down bone-chilling way, that being black in America can be fucking terrifying.
As with Moonlight, it’s one thing to try to be a generally empathetic person and do your best to appreciate that other people’s experiences are different from your own… but it is quite another, and an infinitely powerful thing, to be inescapably plunged into another person’s life through well-told fiction. So while you can know that even well-meaning white people can do and say stupid thoughtless bigoted things to nonwhite people (and if you’re white, you’ve probably done this yourself, and cringed, and hated yourself immediately afterward), it’s quite another thing to be on the receiving end as Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya: Sicario, Kick-Ass 2) is when he goes to visit, for the first time, the family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), in their remote, exclusive, all-white enclave. Like how her dad, Dean (Bradley Whitford: Saving Mr. Banks, The Cabin in the Woods), keeps calling Chris “my man” in a dorky attempt to be cool. Maybe her mom Missy’s (Catherine Keener: Begin Again, The Croods) harping on how she can help Chris quit cigarettes with her hypnotherapy is more out of concern that he is exposing her baby to secondhand smoke than anything else, and maybe she’d be the same with a white boyfriend, but there’s definitely something a tad too patronizing and paternalistic and smugly superior about her.
But that’s only the beginning of the weirdness for Chris, which gets intensely weirder in a disquieting Twilight Zone-ish way very quickly. The Armitages have two servants, cook and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel: The Purge: Election Year, Experimenter) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson: Pete’s Dragon, Woodlawn), both of whom are black, and Dean’s white-person-cringe, trying-to-be-woke, half-apologetic explanation to Chris that he knows how it looks, the black help to the wealthy white family, is not even the worst of it. No, there’s something very wrong with Georgina and Walter, in a brainwashed, Stepford Wives sort of way.
What comes after this, what happens to Chris in this place, is full of crimes and terrors that are half familiar, because Peele is playing with tropes of paranoid science fiction, body horror, and social satire that we all know. But the crossover blend he finds between them is brand new. The absolute most sickening aspect of Get Out — and I mean this in the best way; it’s meant to be sickening and it should be sickening — is the larger metaphor under which it is all operating: this is a movie about how black people are denied their humanity by white people. Chris is, as Georgina and Walter are, seen as fit only to serve white people’s needs. This is a nightmare — a viciously unsettling nightmare — about the appropriation of black bodies and black lives by white people that started with the American slave trade and endures today with the mass incarceration of black men (who often then become cheap, near-slave labor for big corporations). There’s a scene here in which the guests, wealthy white people all, at a garden party the Armitages are hosting “welcome” Chris by invoking really revolting racial stereotypes, praising Chris for his apparent physical strength and winkingly asking Rose about his sexual prowess. They seem to believe this is simply charming banter with a newcomer, which is awful enough, but these encounters take on insidious new meaning in retrospect, after we learn what is going on here.
There is no way around this: The villain of Get Out is White People, not just the Armitages and their neighbors but all of us. It is white culture and white privilege and white entitlement, and white obliviousness to it all, and sometimes the white deliberateness of it all. What shattered me about this movie is thinking — knowing — that I am included in this villainy. I’m not a bad person! I don’t like to think that black people are wary or on edge around me because of the color of my skin. That’s not fair! #NotAllWhitePeople! But this is the power of Get Out for white audiences: it doesn’t just put us in Chris’s shoes but in the skin of someone railing at the injustice of being seen through such a narrow lens. And it also says, yes, all white people. We all benefit from the way things are at the expense of others, whether we want to or not, whether we like it or not.
This is the sheer brilliance of the truly terrifying, truly original Get Out: it is unnerving and alarming in a way that few other horror movies have ever achieved, by implicating much of its audience — and not unfairly — in the horrors it depicts. This ain’t an imaginary acid-drooling alien hurting people we come to care about onscreen, or even a crazed ax murderer. And this certainly ain’t, say, 12 Years a Slave, a movie allowing us white viewers historical distance from some long-ago awfulness of long-ago white people. This is now. This is how black people feel now, and how white people are not helping the situation. Get Out does not allow us any escape. It compels us, because it is so smart and so well-crafted and so just-plain entertaining around its underlying message, to shut up, sit down, and just listen to another side of reality. Get Out will make many white people very uncomfortable, but hell, isn’t that what horror movies are supposed to do?
But don’t worry, my fellow white folks: You get to leave the theater and stop worrying about the color of your skin. You get to leave this all behind in a “it’s just a movie” way that people who look like Chris don’t.