“Get Out,” comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, engages with horror movie tropes and references to racial violence to subvert expectations and create a distinct, intimate terror.
The persistent, specific anxieties provoked by racism explode when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a Black photographer, visits his white girlfriend’s family. The visit culminates in attacks on both his mind and body.
In the film’s opening scene, a Black man walks in a suburb at night and is suddenly attacked by a masked kidnapper who forces his unconscious body into the trunk of a car. The scene is cleverly crafted because it presents a familiar horror film convention that is turned inside-out, and used unconventionally. It’s practically a page from Horror Movie 101: Audiences are familiar with the scene of an unsuspecting victim walking alone through dark streets.
While the suspense in the scene is familiar, we aren’t watching a white girl walk alone in the dark through an inner-city of Trump’s imagination. Inside, we witness the anxiety of a Black man walking alone through a white neighborhood. The fear in the scene is a visual reference to the night of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
The white suburb is frequently used in horror films as a setting that represents normality and safety, threatened when a killer comes to prey. In “Get Out,” the white suburb itself is the site of danger and toxic whiteness, and is revealed as visibly hostile to Black bodies.
Chris’s girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) protests when a police officer requests to see Chris’ driver’s license after an accident, even though Chris wasn’t driving. But she’s silent when her brother’s drunk aggression toward Chris becomes more and more explicit, and does nothing when her brother puts Chris in a choke-hold, his arms like a noose.
The fetishization of Black men by white women is emphasized throughout the film, especially when Chris visits with one of Rose’s family friends, and an older white woman rubs Chris’ arm while flirtatiously asking Rose if he’s good in bed.
Later in the film, when Chris’ friend Rod (LilRel Howery) attempts to record Rose saying something incriminating on the phone, Rose deflects and tells Rod she knows that he’s always wanted to have sex with her. The moment calls back to the power dynamics behind the 1955 murder of Black teenager Emmett Till, who was lynched by white men in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a white woman. Instantly, Rose’s trap is shut and Rod hangs up the phone.
Bradley Whitford plays Rose’s father, Dean, with affable charm and sarcasm. He tells Chris that he’s the kind of guy who would have voted for Obama a third time and earnestly confides that he hates the aesthetic of the family’s hired help, both of whom are Black. “It’s such a privilege to be able to experience another person’s culture,” Dean tells Chris during a tour of the family’s house, as he palms a decorative figure from Bali. Rose’s mother Missy (Catherine Keener) is a tea-drinking hypnotist who invades Chris’ mind.
As Chris, Kaluuya masterfully conveys the steady escalation of terror that builds throughout the film. While overwhelming anxiety is pervasive in the film, Kaluuya makes the tension feel familiar and personal, allowing the film to transcend general social commentary and engage unflinchingly with lived experiences of racism.
The film’s secret is subtlety, and it’s in off-hand remarks and encounters that racism is exposed. The film confronts the notion of a “post-racial” world, where white people are enamored with people of color and are eager to establish themselves as “woke.”
People of color are frequently told that experiences with racism and insidious microaggressions are all in their heads. “Get Out” uproots this assumption, and powerfully characterizes racism as a visible attack on both body and mind.