(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
Midway through our screening of Get Out, a white man in his late fifties wearing a blazer (and seriously, who goes to the movies in a blazer?) got up and stomped out with an audible harrumph. He didn’t like the vibes writer-director Jordan Peele was throwing out… and that’s kind of the point. Get Out wants to make people like him uncomfortable, though not for the reasons he seems to think. Though filtered through the lens of African-American men, and speaking directly to the African American experience, it also addresses the concerns of anyone labeled different. Anyone who’s noticed the judging eyes in a crowded room, anyone who’s heard “some of my best friends are…”, anyone’s who’s tried to make their way around a well-meaning relative who can’t get over the color of their skin… Get Out finds the implicit terror beneath that equation and holds it up to the light for all to see.
If you’re familiar with Peele’s comedic work on Key and Peele, you shouldn’t be surprised at this pivot to straight horror. The sketches on that show readily took a turn for the disturbing, and few have grasped the ineffable connection between horror and comedy like Peele and his longtime partner Keegan Michael Key. Get Out simply pushes the equation a few degrees further down the scale. Peele’s appreciation for earlier movies in the genre shows through, and he’s learned those lessons well.
He borrows liberally from the likes of The Stepford Wives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and implicitly understands how those movies achieved their immediate ends. On a nuts-and-bolts level, Get Out works quite well at developing a tense atmosphere – where something is deeply wrong but we can’t quite put out finger on what – and paying off with some solid scares.
But that’s not why that man left in the middle of the screening, nor why the film has become a conduit for the current zeitgeist in our country. Peele lends his own perspective to the scenario, working to demonstrate – in the most personal way possible – what it means to be the member of a minority in America. His genius comes in staying within that realm while connecting it to our common humanity, and how anyone not straight, white and male can be made to feel the way his protagonist does.
The plot concerns an ostensibly normal occasion with awkward, yet perfectly mundane overtones. A young black photographer (Danial Kaluuya) travels to his girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) house to meet the family. Right away, they seem weirded out by his race: well-meaning, but dropping odd comments about his genes and how much they love Barack Obama. When the local country club types arrive for a strangely unannounced party, things take a turn for the sinister.
But it’s not the sinister aspects that catch our attention. They’re creepy to be sure, but about what you’d expect from a mid-level horror movie. The unsettling moments come from the normality of the scenario. Our hero suffers from unwelcome scrutiny, casual objectification and the kind of “compliments” that sound worse than flat-out insults. It’s all so very ordinary, even when it extends into darker territory like the sight of a police car pulling up behind him or the presence of oddly sedate African American domestics in the home. That feels like your average weekend for far too many Americans far too often. Peele merely pushes it a few degrees further… and in a flash turns a solid horror-thriller into something far, far more potent.
He hits home hardest during the film’s finale – one of the most brilliant of recent years – but the slow build-up to that moment gives Get Out its real power. Peele’s ability to put us in this man’s shoes, to let us see what he experiences every day and how depressingly typical his treatment is, gives the more horrific elements a power that simply can’t be duplicated. He retains flashes of humor, too, and fans of Key and Peele will spot some popular targets (the TSA, in particular, takes its share of ribbing). But that too serves the film’s larger function, helping to make the unbearable bearable without disrupting the more unsettling truths he wants to reveal.
It’s a draining experience, and not something to watch without a certain amount of emotional preparation. But that comes from Peel’s underlying call to listen – for God’s sake just stop and listen – to what his community is trying to say. That man in the blazer didn’t like what he heard, so he chose to get angry instead. That’s the wrong response. It misses the point. Listening isn’t a false equivalency where “equal treatment” becomes a means of silencing the oppressed. White America’s reality is not the reality shared by far too many people, and asking for a little basic decency doesn’t constitute an affront to privileged status. Get Out doesn’t ask us to hate white people. It asks us to feel what it’s like for everyone else, and to see how easily a constant demand for trust from those in charge means nothing without actions to back it up.
Horror fans know how well the genre can serve as social commentary: saying the things that more “high-minded” movies can’t. The Great Depression begat the Universal monster cycle, while the Atomic Age manifested in giant bugs and invaders from outer space. Watergate and Vietnam triggered the rise of the slasher film, while 9/11 resulted in the (largely lamentable) torture porn movement. Get Out knows how to mine a real social voice from simple scares, and turn a reliable thrill ride into the first truly great film of the Trump era.
That man in the blazer will never hear the message. He doesn’t want to. The rest of us can’t be that closed minded. It’s not Get Out saying these things: it’s an entire community at the end of its rope. Peele’s singular trick is simply ensuring a powerful platform for their real, painful and rightfully strident voice, a voice that needs to be heard now more than ever. We walk out on it at our peril.