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.”