Get Out

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Shane Danielsen

It feels, at last, as if some­thing is stir­ring, ris­ing out of the dust kicked up by #Os­carsSoWhite and Black Lives Mat­ter. The first traces, ad­mit­tedly, were not promis­ing: Ava Du­Ver­nay’s Selma struck me as sanc­ti­mo­nious and bland, the kind of film you make to make the kinds of films you want to make; and, its maker’s fail­ings not­with­stand­ing, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Na­tion seemed ev­ery bit as crudely ma­nip­u­la­tive as its 100-year-old name­sake. But then came Barry Jenk­ins’ Moon­light – to my mind, the best and most rav­ish­ing film of 2016 – and Don­ald Glover’s odd, be­guil­ing TV series At­lanta, as dar­ingly un­clas­si­fi­able as any­thing ever aired by a ca­ble net­work. More black sto­ries were be­ing told, yes – but also in more un­pre­dictable and com­pelling ways, and with­out the pious self-sat­is­fac­tion of those other projects. Sud­denly, an au­teur-driven sen­si­bil­ity was emerg­ing – vis­ual sto­ry­tellers ca­pa­ble of trans­mut­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences, per­sonal as well as cul­tural, into en­dur­ing, un­al­loyed art.

The lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of this is Get Out (in na­tional re­lease 4 May), the de­but fea­ture from co­me­dian Jor­dan Peele. His TV series, Key & Peele, with co-cre­ator Kee­ganMichael Key, traf­ficked in a sur­pris­ingly cin­e­matic style of sketch com­edy – yet the 2016 fea­ture Keanu (co-writ­ten by Peele and star­ring Key and Peele) proved a cu­ri­ous mis­fire. Helmed by their series di­rec­tor, Peter Aten­cio, and trad­ing mostly on its stars’ con­flicted re­la­tion­ship with AfricanAmer­i­can iden­tity (both co­me­di­ans have white moth­ers), Keanu played like one of their lesser sketches, pulled thin and stretched to fea­ture-length. Get Out, writ­ten and di­rected by Peele, feels like some­thing al­to­gether dif­fer­ent: the first stir­rings of a real film­maker.

Chris (Daniel Kalu­uya), a young African-Amer­i­can man, is pack­ing a bag in his bed­room in Brook­lyn, none too en­thu­si­as­ti­cally pre­par­ing for his first visit to the parental home of his girl­friend, Rose (Al­li­son Wil­liams). Rose is white, and that shouldn’t be an is­sue. But Chris un­der­stands that it is. Amer­ica, after all, is still Amer­ica. (Or, as the co­me­dian Dave Chap­pelle re­cently noted, “Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion was 50 years ago, and some­body called me a nig­ger in traf­fic last Tues­day!”)

Sens­ing Chris’ con­cern, Rose tries to set his mind at ease. No, she ad­mits, her par­ents don’t yet know he’s black. But it’s fine: they’re lib­er­als, and her dad “to­tally would have voted for Obama a third time, if he could”. Chris isn’t con­vinced. Like most young men of colour, he knows only too well the dis­tinc­tion be­tween what’s said and what’s thought. And so, for much of the film’s first act, Kalu­uya de­picts the wary, vig­i­lant mind­set of a com­bat­ant in en­emy ter­ri­tory, un­con­vinced by the par­ents’ bon­homie, the warm wel­come he sus­pects to be a lie.

His fears are con­firmed when he en­coun­ters two black ser­vants, so docile they ap­pear to have been lobotomised. And, a lit­tle later, by the ap­pear­ance of Lo­gan (Lakeith Stan­field), an­other African-Amer­i­can man, a dap­per sort of fel­low in a straw fe­dora, so mel­low and de­ra­ci­nated “it’s like he missed the Move­ment”. (Al­ways a scene-stealer, Stan­field seems here to be chan­nelling David Niven.)

Be­fore Chris can prop­erly get his bear­ings, there’s a gar­den party go­ing on, with what feels like the en­tire neigh­bour­hood in­vited. And here Peele pauses, to skewer ev­ery pos­si­ble strain of lib­eral racism, from spec­u­la­tions as to Chris’ po­tency to en­vi­ous com­pli­ments on his physique. A fetishised ob­ject, Chris finds him­self spo­ken of in the third per­son, as if he were not present, or was in­ca­pable, some­how, of un­der­stand­ing. The few guests who do ad­dress him directly, mean­while, are no­table chiefly for their con­de­scen­sion. And we watch as Chris’ po­lite smile tight­ens, by slow stages, into a snarl.

The ba­sic prin­ci­ple of the hor­ror movie is to place an in­di­vid­ual or a small group in a fright­en­ing and hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment, be it a haunted house or a zom­bie apoc­a­lypse. Peele’s script in­vites us to con­sider some­thing that many of us, smugly as­sured of our own tol­er­ance, would pre­fer not to ac­knowl­edge: for black peo­ple, a mostly white so­cial gath­er­ing may not feel so ac­cept­ing. Speak­ing with the house­keeper (Betty Gabriel), Chris con­fesses that he tends to get ner­vous when there are only white peo­ple around. It’s an ap­peal to the kind of racial sol­i­dar­ity he lacked in his ex­change with Lo­gan, the only other black guest, but he’s re­buffed once again. The maid gazes at him, her ex­pres­sion al­most ten­der. “No,” she says – and then be­gins to re­peat the word, over and over, her smile hard­en­ing into a ric­tus, un­til a tear fi­nally slides down her cheek. It’s a vir­tu­osic piece of screen act­ing from Gabriel, and per­haps the film’s most gen­uinely fright­en­ing mo­ment, not least for what it says about the still-un­pro­cessed trauma of the black ex­pe­ri­ence in the United States.

The film, Peele has said, is about slav­ery as much as it’s about race. How could it be oth­er­wise? The two are in­di­vis­i­ble, com­min­gled in the blood­stream of West­ern cul­ture. (Dur­ing a re­cent episode of Satur­day Night Live, Colin Jost joked about his Irish an­ces­tors hav­ing to em­i­grate to Amer­ica “be­cause God took their pota­toes away”. It prompted a dry, un­scripted aside from his black cast­mate Michael Che: “At least they had a choice.”) With undis­guised big­ots in­stalled at the high­est lev­els of the US gov­ern­ment, and far-right na­tion­al­ism mov­ing like a cold cur­rent across Europe, the themes that Get Out raises feel ur­gent as well as nec­es­sary.

That Peele elects to couch this provo­ca­tion in the con­text of a genre film is, how­ever, Get Out’s most au­da­cious con­ceit. With the ex­cep­tion of Ge­orge Romero’s re­mark­ably pro­gres­sive Night of the Liv­ing Dead (1968), black char­ac­ters have typ­i­cally fared badly in hor­ror movies. In­vari­ably the first to die, they’re quickly for­got­ten and rarely mourned. (“We don’t call them hor­ror movies,” the critic Elvis Mitchell once told me, wryly. “To us, they’re so­cial dra­mas.”)

Rose’s mother, Missy (Cather­ine Keener), a therapist who uses hyp­no­tism, of­fers to cure Chris of his ad­dic­tion to cig­a­rettes. (Amus­ingly, she claims to be do­ing it for her daugh­ter’s sake rather than his own.) He’s re­luc­tant, but in a scene of re­mark­able in­ge­nu­ity, in­volv­ing a looped snatch of sound, she en­snares him, and con­signs his con­scious­ness to a fath­om­less limbo she calls “The Sunken Place”. Where­upon the fam­ily’s in­ten­tions be­gin, at last, to clar­ify.

The signs, of course, were al­ready there. The re­fusal of Rose’s par­ents to ad­mit any dif­fer­ence be­tween the races asks to be read as en­light­ened con­sid­er­a­tion but also serves, in its way, to nul­lify the ex­pe­ri­ences of black Amer­i­cans. If we’re re­ally all the same, then no one’s griev­ance is stronger, no one’s pain deeper, than any­one else’s. From this false equiv­a­lence, it’s just a short step to the skewed logic of the All Lives Mat­ter counter-move­ment.

Yet, in­trigu­ingly, the film also im­plies that Chris’ own oth­er­ness, the skin that de­fines him for these peo­ple, may in some ways be a more fragile con­struct than he sus­pects. That, sur­rounded by sub­ur­ban WASPs, dis­con­nected from the city and its im­me­di­ate sig­ni­fiers of black­ness – in par­tic­u­lar, his best friend, Rod (Lil Rel How­ery), a straighttalk­ing air­port se­cu­rity worker who func­tions (via mo­bile phone) as a kind of Greek cho­rus through­out – his racial iden­tity risks be­ing erased rather than re­in­forced … as with the af­fa­ble, emas­cu­lated Lo­gan.

This is not a new con­cept: Ralph El­li­son noted in his 1952 novel, In­vis­i­ble Man, that for many Amer­i­cans – white as well as black – “to lose a sense of where you are im­plies the dan­ger of los­ing a sense of who you are”. But it’s a qui­etly dar­ing no­tion for a black film­maker to ad­vance, es­pe­cially in the wake of re­cent events. The 2012 mur­der of Trayvon Martin, for ex­am­ple – an in­ci­dent to which this film’s pre­credit se­quence makes none-too-oblique ref­er­ence.

In­deed, look care­fully and you may dis­cern, in the cathar­sis of Get Out’s fi­nal mo­ments, the shadow of an­other, far an­grier end­ing, more faith­ful to real life and the bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ences of black Amer­i­cans at the hands of their coun­try’s po­lice. But the film shies away, at the very last mo­ment, from this un­palat­able truth; it piv­ots to some­thing gen­tler and more au­di­ence-friendly, and, in so do­ing, en­sures its own suc­cess. When Get Out opened in the US in early March, Peele be­came the first black writer-di­rec­tor to have a first fea­ture gross $100 mil­lion – the kind of re­sult you don’t achieve by re­mind­ing your white au­di­ence just how ugly the world re­ally is. (He re­cently ad­mit­ted that an al­ter­nate end­ing was, in fact, filmed and edited; it will be in­cluded on the film’s DVD re­lease.)

Be­fit­ting Peele’s back­ground in sketch com­edy, his strength as a di­rec­tor lies in the snap-lock pre­ci­sion of his tim­ing, and his re­laxed but as­sured com­mand of tone. For much of the film’s length, he man­ages to shrewdly bal­ance satire and fore­bod­ing, and al­lows mo­ments to play out un­til their hu­mour shades into dis­com­fort or dis­tress, and the laugh­ter cur­dles in our throats. As a vis­ual sto­ry­teller he’s ef­fi­cient rather than am­bi­tious. By far the most pow­er­ful im­age here – of Chris sink­ing into a deep, light­less void, on his way to The Sunken Place – is ap­pro­pri­ated more or less whole­sale from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2015). Yet as I watched, I was re­minded also of a line from Ta-Ne­hisi Coates’ 2015 epis­tle Be­tween the World and Me, a fa­ther im­plor­ing his 15-year-old black son to re­main en­gaged, alert. “I would not have you de­scend into your own dream,” he wrote. “I would have you be a con­scious cit­i­zen of this ter­ri­ble and beau­ti­ful world.”

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