Ola is a writer-director originally from Lagos, Nigeria. He chats with podcast host and filmmaker Aditya Joshi about racism in the film industry, anti-Blackness within the Asian American community, and the inspiring genius of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning film Get Out (2017). Highlights from the conversation are below, edited for clarity.
Aditya Joshi: So good to have you on the podcast, Ola. But before we dive into Jordan Peele’s masterpiece, Get Out, why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and how you identify?
Ola Kalejaye: Yeah, absolutely. I am a writer/director originally from Lagos, Nigeria. It’s where I was born and raised. Then I moved to London, England, and went to school there for eight years. Then up in the States for college and grad school and beyond. So I’m kind of from everywhere.
Aditya: You are currently traveling in a van. Right?
Ola: That’s right. Yeah. My partner and I are doing the whole Van Life shindig. We were actually working on a travel documentary about people in the Van Life community before the old ‘rona took over.
Aditya: Let’s touch on this a bit — your partner is a white woman.
Ola: Yeah. So this is the best part. We had just started dating like late August 2016. So when the Get Out trailer came out, it was weeks before I was headed to my partner’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving for the first time. Immediately, that was the first fight we ever had in our relationship. Because I watched the trailer and I started freaking out like, “What are you not telling me?” It had me shook for real.
Aditya: Us came out last year and Candy Man is coming out. I’m sure that will be imbued with some social themes, even though it seems to be more of a straight up horror movie. But then Janelle Monáe also has this movie coming out soon called Antebellum, which seems to be of a similar vein. He’s built a whole movement.
Ola: I think specifically with Get Out, what Jordan Peele did was he said, “Let me show you how microaggressions really affect people.” If you’re not a Black person, if you’re not a person of color, you may not understand why things like the garden party scene hurts. But he perfectly shows you that it’s part of this same train of thinking that leads to this grotesque stuff that you can obviously see as bad.
Aditya: The nefariousness, to your point, of the little things. That even the people who are supposedly on your side can end up being the worst sometimes, because they enable the bigger stuff.
Ola: 100%. A lot of the ways that I’ve most experienced racism in the last couple years of my life have been through Hollywood. Through being at film school. Through trying to get a manager. Just going through the motions of trying to get stuff moving.
That scene with Jim Hudson and Chris is so indicative of this very specific racist-not-racist capitalist weird energy you find as a Black person pitching your stories to white executives. There’s something so poignant about how this is a blind man who’s admiring a photographer. So fundamentally, there’s a barrier. Jim cannot actually see Chris’ work. He cannot actually see Chris’ world. I think the line is something like, “You know, my assistant described it to me in great detail.” He doesn’t have that emotional visceral connection because he can’t see it. But what’s moving him is the abstract idea of the art itself.
It’s like all these executives and these producers, they want my eyes. They want the way I’ve seen the world. They want my life experience. But they want it to be separate from me. They just want to take me out of that as much as possible and leave me with what I can go and make money with. That’s so well expressed in that exchange.
Aditya: It feels like you always have to worry. And it’s amplified when you’re wary of people using you that way.
Ola: I’ve had the experience for almost my whole life of being the token Black person. It’s such a psychologically taxing place to live. Like, yeah, I want to get myself made. But I don’t want to do it at the cost of my humanity. I don’t want to have to go in and tap dance for a bunch of studio execs in a pitch. What’s the point of earning something if it doesn’t take into effect that you are a person, a complex person. It’s just taking a tiny sliver of who you are, namely your race and being like, “Alright, let’s run with this.”
That’s kind of what Get Out is like, that’s the crux of the whole operation, right? The procedure is, “Oh, you guys have something that’s useful, but you don’t know how to use it properly. Let me take this and I can really excel with it. I know what to do with your body better than you know what to do with your body. Give your body to me and then we’ll be better off because you can’t handle it anyway.”
Aditya: It’s not just, “How can I get through this,” it’s “How much do I have to compromise and dilute myself to get through it?” The fact that they cast Bradley Whitford as the dad is hilarious, because he plays the most well-meaning liberal of all time. It’s a subscription by that character, and by all those characters, to a specific ideal of what they think a Black person should be like.
Ola: What it comes down to as a Black man in America, more than any other Western nation, is that you’re fighting against so many preconceived notions on who you are.
My biggest ambition creatively is I just want to be a great filmmaker. I don’t want to be a great Black filmmaker. Donald Glover has one of my favorite quotes which is, “White people have no idea the lengths I go to to make them feel comfortable.” And I think that just captures the pain of everyday existence.
I’m 6’2", I’m a big dude. How do I explain to somebody that if I’m in an elevator and it’s just me and a small white lady, I have to physically shrink myself? Physically trying to make myself seem smaller. Because I know that if the wrong white person finds me intimidating that I could die.
We can talk about “the sunken place” as a metaphor for being a passenger. Your body’s doing all of these involuntary actions, you’ve learned to keep yourself alive in a hostile world in such a way that it doesn’t allow you to fully experience just being yourself. Because you’re just constantly making all these calculations of like, “How am I being perceived? How are these people thinking about me? Are they racist? Are they not? Am I safe?” All these years of constantly assessing all the time. And man, it’s exhausting.
Aditya: I mean, you went to two of the most well-known white private schools in the world.
Ola: I went to this British boarding school with a Harry Potter-type setup and I was the first Black dude to be in my boarding house. There was overt racism. There were people who said horrible things and did horrible things. But what there was much more of, and what ultimately weighed much more heavily on me, was the people who were like, “You should be happy you’re Black. You’re so big and strong. Everybody loves Black people. Black people are so cool.” Like, “You can say n******. You can rap. You can do all these really cool things.” It hurts. Because it’s like you are taken away from humanity.
Get Out is amazing because it helps people understand how these forms of racism that we’ve accepted and really propped up in society are just a way to keep up all of the terrible stuff that we can see is clearly wrong. You can’t take out racist police killing Black men without taking out objectifying Black men’s bodies.
Aditya: I want to make a slight shift to something that I only noticed on this rewatch. There’s a Japanese guy.
Aditya: There’s a reckoning happening in the Asian American community about how there are some absurd anti-Black tendencies for a group of people that came post-Civil Rights Movement. It was so smart of Jordan Peele to nod to that.
Ola: It really speaks to what racism is really about. It isn’t about, “Oh, you have different colored skin. I don’t like you.” It’s a system that exists to prop certain people up directly at the expense of other people.
White supremacy, the ideology of it, that’s actually secondary because it helps prop up what is really, “I want to benefit off of the exploitation of other people.” That’s where the model minority thing fits in because it’s like, “Okay, I know that I’m not at the top of the pyramid, I’m still suffering. But I’m really happy that I’m not at the bottom.” That’s part of what drives anti-Black sentiment. So then at that point, non-Black minorities also have a vested interest in upholding that system because things could get a lot worse for them if they suddenly were lumped in with everybody else.
That’s not just non-Black minorities. That’s also poor white people. It’s all part of the same power game. I think bringing in other minorities is helpful to the understanding of what racism really is, versus what people think of it as.
Aditya: The Japanese guy asks one question, “Do you find it better or worse being Black?” One of the big criticisms, especially of South Asian men, is that we adopt all the Black cultural signifiers without any of the Black societal signifiers.
Ola: It’s not only white people who are watching propaganda of scary Black people in the hood or whatever. Asian people are watching it, South Asian people are watching it, Black people are watching it also. It’s affecting all of us. Chris Rock has a joke about that as well, the Black people versus n*****. He’s like, “I’m looking over my shoulder for that person too because I’ve been watching the same TV as you.”
That’s why it’s crazy when people say like, “I’m not racist.” Like, no, I’m not even above it. Nobody gets out of this. We’re all dealing with the same shit.
Aditya: Right. Like when Rod goes to the police and it’s a Black woman officer. Then she calls over I think a Latino guy and another Black guy. They just don’t take him seriously. It’s, I think, representative of the way that minority communities are taught to think about their own suffering.
Ola: That line when she says, “Those white women will get you,” and specifically when Chris is trying to explain to Rose that Georgina might have unplugged his phone because she doesn’t approve of them being together is so specific.
Being in an interracial relationship opened my eyes to a whole extra spectrum of racism because one, I get more attention now because I have very dark skin and my partner has very white skin. So just looking at us, we draw attention to ourselves more so than if it was me and a Black partner. It’s not just white people looking at me more. Black people are looking at me more too.
Chris says, when talking about Georgina, “It’s a thing.” And it is a thing. When you’re in an interracial relationship, you do feel like, “I have to prove to people that I’m still about it.” You know, like, “I didn’t forget where I came from. I don’t hate us, I love us. I just happened to fall in love with this person who was this color.”
Aditya: We’ve been talking a lot about the themes of the movie. There’s one more, which is the way Chris’ mom dies alone on the street as a victim of a hit and run with nobody looking for her. Maybe this is a reach, but it seems symbolic of the way that society discards Black women. That’s the thing with Chris — he waits for hours and his mom is dead, because he didn’t go out looking for her.
Ola: He makes the fatal mistake of going back for Georgina after he runs her over by accident on his way out. He’s arguing with himself like, “Come on, man. Don’t do it. Just go, just go.” But he literally can’t bring himself to do it. In that moment, Georgina’s his mother. Yes, the brain is of a white person trying to kill him. But the soul and the body is of a Black woman who is in this position in the first place because society didn’t care enough to go find out when she went missing.
Aditya: You know, I liked Us better when I first saw it. I think having rewatched Get Out a couple more times, I don’t feel that way anymore. But that’s actually a good transition into talking about the lasting legacy of the movie. We mentioned at the beginning how there’s a whole Jordan Peele social thriller genre now. What else do you think is the lasting legacy of Get Out?
Ola: The fact that it did as well as it did not just as a Black film, but as a Black film where you’re cheering for the Black hero to murder a bunch of white people…you have to be like, “Okay, maybe there’s more to this.” I mean directly, a Queen and Slim doesn’t happen without Get Out. Sorry to Bother You, which is another one of my favorite Black movies in the last decade, I think Boots Riley actually even said, “Get Out gave me the confidence that this could be a thing.”
The idea that we can make a movie that’s specific and nuanced and it doesn’t have to be like a tiny arthouse project. It can have wide, massive global appeal and still be authentically Black. That was huge. I think that’s the legacy of Get Out.