I can’t recall the last time I went to the cinema for a horror film and this certainly counts as a film that would never be on my usual radar. It got my attention due to the superlative reviews it received on Broken Forum and of course it helps that it has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 99%.
Chris Washington is a young black man with a white girlfriend Rose Armitage and they are visiting her parents at their house in a rural area over the weekend. He is nervous about the trip especially after she tells him that she has never had a black boyfriend before but she assures him that her parents aren’t racists. The father turns out to be a neurosurgeon while the mother is a psychiatrist who offers to help his kick smoking habit using hypnosis. The family has a male black groundskeeper and a female black housemaid but Chris is unnerved by their odd, stilted behavior. That night the mother subtly puts him into a hypnotic trance without his consent, but does seem to cure his smoking habit. The next day the family hosts a large gathering of friends who are mostly elderly whites and Andre is somewhat put off by their casual condescension. He becomes alarmed when he meets another black man at the party who also behaves strangely. When he takes photo of him with his phone, the flash seems to trigger something in the other man who warns him to “Get out”.
The film has a bog standard opening scene for an entry in this genre: a person is lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, becomes nervous when he realizes that he is being followed and inevitably gets abducted. It’s standard stuff and the inversions to the scene make it brilliant. Instead of the usual white girl in peril we have a black man and instead of it being the inner city or a creepy suburb, we’re in a visibly affluent neighborhood lined with McMansions. This sets the tone for the whole film and highlights its central insight: what a white person perceives as being safe and reassuring in America can be terrifying from a black person’s point of view. We’ve had plenty of conventional horror films that seem to be neutral but in hindsight really represent what white people think is scary. Get Out is great because it may be the very first film that plays on the fears and folk horror stories of black people.
Brilliant conception aside, director Jordan Peele also demonstrates superb craftsmanship. There are few jump scares and the tension is slowly but inexorably built up over the course of the film. Not all horror must be immediate and visceral. A great example is how it captures Chris’ growing discomfort at being the sole black man amidst a crowd of white faces. The racism here isn’t of the overt, screaming in your face the word “Nigger!” variety. It’s about strangers who grasp Chris’ arm without his permission and comment about how black people have stronger muscles. It’s about non-black people volunteering how they would be happy to vote for Obama for a third term without any prior prompting and asking him about the experience of being a black man in America. Worse of all is how he has to grin through it all and let it go to avoid causing a scene. When he has a chance to call his black friend back home and confide in him about all the strangeness, his sense of relief at being to act and talk normally to someone he trusts is palpable.
I love how the film presents surprises at every turn to avoid falling into predictable traps. Whether or not the Armitage family are racists is even open to some interpretation. Certainly they take advantage of the fact that the authorities are less concerned about black people going missing to prey on them. Yet at the same time, they seem to have genuinely no rancor about white women having sex with black men and seem to admire the physical attributes of black men. The stereotypical white racist would very much be all about white purity and the genetic superiority of the white race. Most films lose energy towards the end as the audience figures out what’s going on and so the film falls into a predictable pattern. Get Out avoids this fate both by being constantly intelligent about how it handles the issue of race and by shooting for a twist so outlandish that no one could ever see it coming.
It’s extremely heartening that this film has earned nearly US$200 million on a budget of less than US$5 million. I read an interview in which Peele claimed that he wrote this without any expectation that it would ever get made so he didn’t bother to tone it down for a more widespread audience. It’s great to see that it did get made and there is an audience for stuff like this. I’m also very pleased to see that it got notable enough that distributors would bring it to Malaysia.