I have been to the party in Get Out. Not necessarily to those exact specifications — melting pale faces, the faint whiff of the plantation, brown liquors, and leather chairs — but certainly in the general vicinity. I’ve been the black boyfriend at the white social gathering numerous times. I’ve politely chuckled at a poorly thought-out joke. I’ve censored myself so as not to seem overly strident. I tip toe and I tap dance. That’s what you do. That’s how you get by.
But Jordan Peele’s brilliant feature directorial debut works whether or not you’ve had someone tell you that most black people can’t swim because their skin is heavier. Even if you aren’t black, Get Out plays with and subverts your ideas of what blackness in America means to such an entertaining, thought-provoking degree that it works across demographics.
The party that Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya, a British actor throwing on a subtle American accent) attends with his white girlfriend, Rose, (Girls’ Allison Williams, not straying too far from her well-worn persona of the uber-WASP) is sinister because of its symbolism. We’ve all seen enough po-faced slave narratives and grim historical dramas to understand the allusions. The lavish mansion, separated from the rest of society by a lake, seems to get smaller and smaller in every scene. The air is heavier and the forest seems endless. In those movies, running is never an option, because where would you run?
Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, as Rose’s seemingly woke parents, aren’t scary at first because they’re mere grotesques, but because they’re so eager to please. The dad shows off his trinkets from numerous trips overseas, tells Chris how he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have, and relates a story about his family and the Olympic runner Jesse Owens. The mom offers to cure Chris of his smoking addiction through hypnosis. They both try to cater to Chris’ every need and dote on him to the extreme. It’s the classic try-hard white family ineffectually reaching out to someone they don’t quite understand. That’s uncomfortable and distancing in reality, but with Peele’s lingering camera catching every awkward facial expression or nervous tick, it becomes excruciating.
It would be a colossal disservice to prospective audiences to elaborate any further on the machinations of the plot, but broadly speaking, Chris’s journey through upper class white America (in an unnamed town in an unnamed state; a true Anywhere, USA) causes him to lose himself on the way. When you find yourself in a place where you believe you are not wanted, you are not welcome, and you are not appreciated, you’ll do anything to either accentuate your differences or simply fit in to get in. It’s the conundrum of every minority in this country — to conform or to fight back, to swim upstream or let yourself drown. In some cases, you aren’t even given the choice.
Peele externalizes the internal struggle of the black experience in America — wanting to explode with rage, to “get out,” as the title puts it. The marketing campaign for the film preys on the idea that a black person in a white setting is not welcome, that they need to be expelled. What the film really aims to say is that we’re actually trapped here, in a nation that views us as alien, exotic curiosities — vessels for creativity and physicality, but not human beings worthy of appreciation. We’re simply tools for the white ruling class to express themselves. It’s a twisted, funhouse mirror version of white supremacy. It’s Donald Trump parading a recently hospitalized Kanye West around Trump Tower for a photo op. It’s the person who can’t help but say the n-word in a hip-hop karaoke song, because it’s “with an a, and like, it’s just a song.” It’s the football team owner who’s happy to see his black players bash their heads in, but loses their mind when one of them refuses to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. We’re stuck here because you brought us here hundreds of years ago, and now you realize how much you need us.
This is a surprisingly funny film, despite the heavy material it plays with. The comedian Lil Rel Howery plays Chris’ TSA agent best friend, Rod, like he’s in a conventional studio comedy. Twenty years ago, this would be Cedric the Entertainer or Bernie Mac, which probably has you rolling your eyes. After all, horror-comedy rarely works because either one or the other element suffers. Get Out is such a superbly constructed thriller and mines our collective racial anxieties so thoroughly that the moments of levity are such a relief that every time Howery showed up on screen, I audibly exhaled.
That expert pacing, sense of humor, and palpable catharsis elevate what, at first glance, might seem to be a run-of-the-mill episode of Black Mirror (no pun intended) into a film that can and should find a mass audience. Who would have guessed that a macabre examination of the African-American’s loss of self and identity in the 21st century would also be a potential crowd-pleasing blockbuster? In these troubling times, full of hatred and misunderstanding, I think we all need to see a racist get their face smashed in once or twice.