What we can get out of ‘Get Out’

Spoilers follow.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris

Get Out is as good as everyone’s saying it is, only better. Its greatest achievement — other than the racial satire itself, which we were expecting Peele to nail anyway — and other than its phenomenal profitability — may be a sublime melding of content and form. It makes the “comedy horror” line it’s been saddled with look not just reductive but silly. The (depressingly spoiler-laden) trailer markets the film as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with jump-scares. Not inaccurate, I guess, but this doesn’t come close to getting at the film’s genius.

There are no gags in Get Out, only brilliant jokes. The film is nothing like Scary Movie or Shaun of the Dead, films that mix gags with (and make fun of) horror tropes. Because the racial subtext in Get Out is actually a racial text, the film is a great comedy precisely because it is a pure horror film. That is to say: if it were not a pure horror film, it would not be a great comedy. Yet the second we try to dissect these three aspects, we end up stripping the movie of its effectiveness as a whole, as something that could a) only be a film, and b) gets under the skin in ways that can’t be worded. Its quantum superposition is the movie’s greatest trick, and the reason we can forgive its waste of an ending. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Sticking rigidly to the horror form is what makes the film radical. The normality of the final reveal is, by horror standards, completely banal: evil scientists lure people to the basement to perform transpositional brain surgery. Add race to the mix — white scientists lure black people to the basement to put white people’s brains in black people’s bodies, thus physically controlling black people — and you get the most subversive hypothesis to have hit the screen in years.

At first, I thought the line ‘I want your eyes, man. I want those things you see through’ posited eyes as metonyms for perspective, even empathy — the joke being that even when trying to be empathetic, white people are appropriating. After all, when Chris’s girlfriend’s parents (the Armitages) host a party for their overwhelmingly white friends, the blind art dealer who ends up wanting those eyes is the only white guy who doesn’t alienate Chris. It’s another great joke — the only race-blind character is an actual blind guy.

Yet my empathy interpretation was proved wrong soon enough. The antagonists in the film — the vast majority of the film’s cast — are indiscriminate in their appropriation of black bodies. Chris’s friend Rod, when he suspects that Chris has been kidnapped, goes to the police and tells them that the Armitages have been ‘abducting black people, brainwashing them, and making ’em work for ’em as sex slaves ’n’ shit.’ This line will raise laughs in every cinema, not because it’s absurd (as we’d expect from a conventional comedy) but because it’s absurdly close to the truth.

Lil Rel Howery as Rod, the comic relief / wise fool

“Black bodies” is a recurring and resurgent theme in popular art these days. From the news, police body-cams, and Black Lives Matter protests, the theme has sprung into the popular consciousness, via viral essays by Ta-nehisi Coates, via bestselling novels by Coleson Whitehead, via bestselling records by Kendrick Lamar, via totemic visual poetry by Barry Jenkins. All of these artworks poeticise black bodies; even Kendrick’s abrasive, uncompromising To Pimp a Butterfly is capped by a lengthy, considered, beautiful spoken-word dialogue. So here’s another way Get Out is subversive: there is no poeticisation of black bodies. By rendering the exploitation (economic, sexual, whatever) of blacks as pulpy horror, Peele articulates the situation of blacks in America more effectively (if more obliquely) than anyone else: is there any other word than horror to describe Steve Bannon in the White House?

Get Out has been clasped to the breastbone of many who see it as a state-of-the-nation wake-up call. It wasn’t pretending to be this kind of film, but now that it’s been taken this way by millions all over the globe, it’s worth pointing out that it can’t quite live up to this claim. Class, for instance, is something it doesn’t really touch on, and though the psephology of the 2016 US election paints a murky picture — Trump bested Clinton in winning over people earning more than $50,000 p.a., while Clinton fared better among people who took home less, undermining the “Trump’s voters were poor whites” theory — looking at America through the lens of race isn’t going to solve many problems. In fact, it’s caused a whole lot of problems in the minds of people riled up by a post-digital progressivism that takes no hostages.

The film also (if taken as some sort of sociological document) ignores the completely arbitrary desire for any-kind-will-do change harboured by so many Americans. For the 8% of Trump voters who had voted for Obama previously, they were once again being offered ‘change’, but this time in shiny red giftwrap rather than tired blue packaging. There’s not much room for this depressing idea — an idea that undermines Obama’s electoral victories, making them look like the products of salesmanship — in Peele’s slavery schematic. The Armitages’ home even resembles the plantation homes we saw in 12 Years a Slave.

But Peele’s allegory is potent in its presentation of a physical, forcible perversion of black voices. White minds animating black bodies has faint echoes in the sheer number of blacks who voted for Trump despite his and his father’s chequered (read: racist) history in real estate, and despite Trump’s tweeting of fake statistics on the racial composition of America’s murderers. Whether it was Kool-aid or cranial surgery, the effects are the same: blacks acting against their interest. That is, if we take them to see themselves as black first and foremost, which millions of them probably don’t. You don’t need to have O.J.’s star profile to betray your own race.

Question: would Obama have won the presidency at all if he were as black as Daniel Kaluuya?

Kaluuya is pretty black (physically), and so’s his Get Out character (not just physically). Chris has one discernible friend, who’s black; Chris fist-bumps rather than shaking hands; he refers to the black stranger at the Armitages’ party as ‘a brother’; he’s clearly had a history of racism being done to him, and is wary long before reaching the house that holds a thousand racist secrets. Peele takes every opportunity to emphasise Chris’s otherness without descending into caricature or making it distracting — but the blackness of Kaluuya’s skin cannot go ignored. It’s part of the film’s aesthetic radicalism: seeing an attractive white girl actively smooch someone noticeably darker than the average black Hollywood actor is not something we are used to seeing. It’s a shame it ends up being subverted before too long, but while it’s there, it’s a pleasure to see it handled so casually. In a film predicated on us not being post-race, the contrast between the lovers’ colours is something we can celebrate, particularly because of its matter-of-factness.

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams as Chris and his girlfriend Rose

But society’s non-post-race-ness is betrayed by the ending of the film. It feels like a waste, but it was a deliberate decision by Peele: to have a police car drive up to a black guy strangling a white woman, only to have a sympathetic black guy (Rod) get out of the police car. It’s improbable: we’re wired to expect white guys to get out of police cars to apprehend black guys. This improbability extends to improbability within the film’s universe too, as so much of it relies on the way we’re wired, and on our assumptions.

According to Peele: ‘It was very clear that the ending needed to transform into something that gives us a hero, that gives us an escape, gives us a positive feeling when we leave this movie. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the audience go crazy when Rod shows up.’

A disappointingly Hollywood rationale for what was literally a cop-out. I reckon it’s not the full reason, though: it skips the racial implications entirely. My guess is that the original ending — a white guy gets out of the police car, and Chris gets apprehended — would have constituted a throwing down of the gauntlet that may well have alienated a lot of white viewers, the kind of viewers who, er, would’ve voted for Obama a third time if they could’ve. For all the film’s horror, maybe a comedic ending reflected where Peele was at; he was doing pretty well even before Get Out became a mega-smash, and such a bitter ending would need a bitter-hearted director. But it doesn’t really reflect where most blacks in America are at.

Or perhaps Peele was, once again, ahead of his audience. The film has found function, especially in America but also here by proxy, as a vessel for dubious catharsis. Audience reactions in many cinemas have been wild. Even at press screenings, the set-piece where Chris massacres his white captors has induced cheers and applause among blacks and whites (presumably the whites that would’ve voted for Obama a third time if they could’ve). It marks a strange, unsettling bloodlust, one that surely cannot be simply dismissed by a righteous “The tables have turned!” mentality, heavily ironised (by dint of being on screen) for 21st-century viewers. It brings to mind the beating of some innocent whites in the wake of the Rodney King video — understandable, perhaps, but healthy?

No doubt this audience mentality would be uncomfortable for Peele, an intelligent, sensitive man who probably would’ve liked to be able to film a scene of structural catharsis without having the audience getting a collective boner from the massacre of whites (however guilty the whites are in this film). He may have second-guessed the outrage, the overflowing emotions, that would’ve resulted from the original, bleak ending — so he toned it down. And in a way, I respect him for this: he’s taken a much higher road than, say, Tarantino, whose Django Unchained was unashamedly exploitative, lurid without intellectual justification, a largely unearned 170-minute catharsis-fest. Both filmmakers know their audiences, but Peele understands his without pandering to its worst impulses. Whether he’s the better filmmaker is up for debate, perhaps, but I think it’s safe to say he’s the better man.

‘Get Out’ by way of ‘American Gothic’. Credit: Eddie Holly