There’s a story I heard but cannot verify about why Dave Chapelle ended The Chapelle Show when he did, with tens of millions of dollars on the line. So the story goes, he was working on a sketch that dealt prominently with race issues, and he saw a white crew member laughing a little bit too hard at it. And “at” is the key word here. People who can relate to an experience laugh with it. People who can’t laugh at it.
At the screening of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s debut as a Serious Filmmaker, I sat in the back of the room. I was keenly aware that, during certain jokes, only certain parts of the audience were laughing. But I couldn’t tell who was laughing. Those jokes were very specifically geared towards the black experience in America, and so one would expect that the joke was landing. But I did see an older white man at one point guffaw very visibly a few rows down at one of these jokes, at which point I became a little less sure.
And then there was me, because I was laughing the whole damn time. And I still don’t know what that means.
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Director: Jordan Peele
Release Date: February 24, 2017
The opening shot of Get Out is a tour de goshdarn force. If you’ve seen David Robert Mitchell’s (exceptional) It Follows, this is in the same vein. We’re in a suburb, and we’re following a young black man as he talks on the phone. He’s in white people country, and he’s kind of lost. As he walks, the camera follows, and soon we see a car come up the street beside him. The car follows, and he turns around, because “No, not today” (cue first laugh of the movie). He goes into the street, and suddenly someone, face obscured, comes up behind him and chokes him out. This someone drags the man to his car and puts him in the trunk. The car drives away.
Nice. It’s the perfect preparation for what is set to come: a horror comedy about racism. A great horror comedy about racism. Probably the best one, though I’m not really sure what its competition is. Like most people, I’ve been of a fan of Jordan Peele’s since Key & Peele got started, and I greatly enjoyed his turn in Keanu (my review of which was also heavily focused on race; I don’t know why this keeps happening). But this is different. Having skipped trailers or really any information of any kind, I had kind of expected to see Peele play some role in the film. In fact, there’s a role that would have definitely gone to him were it in a K&P sketch. But that’s not what this is. He was just the writer and director here, and his debut film is all the better for it.
There will be people who say that this film spends too much time on race. They will say that, because more-or-less every single scene in Get Out is making a statement on race or racism, and that makes them uncomfortable. (I’m talking about white people.) Let’s take the premise: Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black man going to meet his girlfriend-of-four-months’s parents for the first time. Allison Armitage: Man, what a white name, right? He asks her if her parents know that he’s black. She says no but not to worry about it; her dad would have voted for Obama a third time, and he is definitely going to mention it. Because that’s what white people do.
Case in point: Me. Yesterday. Talking about this movie. Once I got to the office, I went around telling people in my office just how good Get Out was, but when I got to a black colleague of mine who I am friendly with but don’t know very well, I went about it a little differently. I mentioned John Wick 2 first, which I recently rewatched (still loved it). After recommending that, I mentioned Get Out, almost as though it was an afterthought. It was not an afterthought: John Wick 2 was an afterthought. But I was concerned that he might think I was telling him because he was black, so I changed my behavior. And you know what that is?
That’s racism. Subtle, harmless(?) racism, to be sure, but racism nonetheless.
Most of what we see in Get Out is a little less subtle than that. At the Armitage house, the parents are… off-putting, and Allison’s brother is disturbing, but the friends of the family who come to visit are really the point. As they’re introduced, they make various comments about blackness to Chris, seemingly expecting to be applauded for noticing his skin color without running away screaming. And through it all, Chris just smiles and nods. (When Allison goes on a tirade about her family’s behavior, Chris just agrees with a knowing look; this scene got some of those loud laughs from select sections of the theater. I assume that, for some, it was a lived experience… For me, it was just a well-constructed joke, but I continue to wonder exactly what that means. Was I laughing with it, because it seemed “relatable” on some level… or was I laughing at it because I know that kind of thing happens and thank gosh I don’t have to deal with it?)
Things get strange pretty quick. The white family’s hired help, a black man and black women, have terrifying smiles plastered onto their faces, and their actions and words feel… wrong. You know something is off pretty from the get-go, but you don’t know what. And then you think you know what, but you’re dead wrong. And you’re dead wrong for two reasons:
- The movie sets up a fairly simple explanation and then half-subverts it in a fairly fascinating way.
- The implications of what is going on don’t actually make a lot of sense (certainly less than the fairly simple explanation I was expecting).
The more you consider what exactly happened to these people, the more confused you’ll get. The conceit is cool. In the moment, it’s terrifying. But on reflection, it’s less “Ahhh!” and more “… Huh?” And, without spoiling it too much, the question becomes: Why? You can understand the expressions and actions to some extent, perhaps, but there’s a deeper level that just doesn’t make sense the more I think about it. (I’ll be seeing the film again soon, which I think speaks to how much I enjoyed it, and this is something I’ll be spending a lot of time trying to figure out if it feels Right. I hope that I’m being dumb and not the movie, but I fear it’s the opposite.)
Speaking of fear, aside from some Very Loud Noises early on, Get Out isn’t really overtly “scary.” It’s more generally creepy, and I’m a big fan of Generally Creepy. The way everyone acts is unsettling (at the very least), and the descent into madness gets into your brain. You wonder, especially early on, if something like this could actually happen. Could actually be happening. (You don’t wonder that in the final act.)
There’s probably an argument to be made that the comedy and horror stuff are too separated. There are the funny sequences, most of which involve Chris’s friend Rod, who is watching his dog for the weekend, and there are scary sequences, most of which take place at the Armitage home. There’s not a whole lot of overlap between the two. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Someone I talked to afterwards didn’t like it (he also felt like the race issues had somewhat of an anti-climax, a point on which I vehemently disagree). I think it’s strange but not necessarily bad. I’m not sure how levity could have really been injected into the actually horror elements, because on the face of it, the way people act is kind of funny. But it’s not actually funny. It’s horrifying. (Racism is bad, you guys.)
Before we wrap this thing up, let’s have one final digression about race: Get Out was shot by a white man. I knew this before I looked it up, because I spent a large portion of the film thinking about lighting. In an interview with Dealine, Selma cinematographer talked about the complexity of lighting dark skin. It’s relatively easy to light white skin, especially very pale white skin (we glow in the dark, so they say). But dark skin’s harder. Lit poorly, they seem to disappear entirely. Vox has a fascinating video about how color film itself (the physical object, not the medium) was originally designed for white skin at the expense of all others.
As one might expect, much of Get Out is shot at nighttime and in the dark. I mean, the dark is scary. However, said darkness should be obscuring the evil in the shadows and not the person who acts as our anchor. On more than a few occasions, it is difficult to make out Chris amongst all those shadows. Crucially: it doesn’t feel intentional. It feels like a mistake, one made by a man used to lighting white people in the dark. (He does this well, in the moments where it’s needed.) And that isn’t to say that someone has to be black to know how to light black skin, but it’s definitely not something that comes naturally. For the most, this is a film that looks quite good (I mean, that opening shot, though), but it’s a pretty glaring fault there and Get Out suffers for it.
But neither this nor any of its other faults keeps Get Out from greatness. It’s objectively well made, and a fascinating way to visualize the black experience. I don’t know how true to life it is, but my guess is that it’s more real than any of us want it to be. Some will write it off as a flight of fancy, but they do so at society’s peril. There are lessons to be learned from Get Out. I know I’m going to be thinking about it for a long, long time. And thinking about how I reacted and why I reacted the way I did. It got in my brain, and it’s supposed to. That’s what I’m focusing on, not the logical inconsistencies or any of the technical issues. I’m thinking about what matters. And sometimes the answers to those questions are tough to face.
Jordan Peele has shown himself to be a very talented filmmaker with a unique voice and vision. I am very excited to see what he comes up with next.