Half a century ago, still in the middle of America’s Civil Right’s movement and in the same year interracial marriage became legal in a historic court case Loving v. Virginia (recently brought to screen by Jeff Nichols in his last feature film Loving), Sidney Poitier gets introduced to his girlfriend’s white, liberal parents in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Not expecting their daughter’s boyfriend would be black, they try to keep their cool and be supportive, but are clearly uncomfortable by the fact that a black man is about to become a part of their family. This makes the film escalate into an inter-generational battle of him trying to justify his cultivation and education that would, despite his race, make him worthy of inclusion into their white nuclear family. And while the plot of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s brilliant debut feature, might at first remind us of Kramer’s classic, the times has changed, and so did the ways in which racism still pervades in our society, casually emerging in everyday encounters even when least expected. Which is why Get Out ends up being a very different movie, albeit no less relevant than Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner proved to be back in 1967.
More The Stepford’s Wives meeting Rosemary’s Baby than Poitier’s racial melodrama, Get Out explores and in many ways subverts the horror genre, all while delivering a scathing social commentary on contemporary racism. It flirts with a social satire, but nonetheless remains serious and horrifying in its accurate portrayal and dissection of race relations and subtle, hidden, almost invisible racism of white liberals who, by admiring black culture and treating every black person as a fascinating, exotic Other (while at the same time pretending they don’t even notice their skin colour, because “they don’t see race”), may be equally harmful as far-right alt-right groups and white supremacists whose racism is always straightforward and therefore easier to detect, condemn and argue against. But where Peele’s subversion of a horror/slasher genre really excels is in how it places a final guy in a position that is usually reserved for a woman – an innocent, virginal final girl. Few men have been in this position, and even fewer have been minorities such as Get Out‘s protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) – and it is this switch of gender and race that makes this movie that much more outstanding.
There is quite a few correlations between Peele’s debut and The Stepford Wives, but each film deals with a different type of social subjugation: if one dealt with a critique of patriarchal society and sexism in the highlight of second-wave feminism, this one delves deep into the core of America’s racism and systematic oppression of racial minorities. And even though it focuses on contemporary racial problems that people, disillusioned by Obama’s presidency and what it meant for racial relations in the country, tried to ignore until things completely escalated in Ferguson, Get Out isn’t afraid to look in the past and leave small hints linking modern-day reality to a time when slavery was still a reality to most African-Americans. Post-racism – a word that was widely thrown around after Obama’s first win, which was also when Peele started to work on the script – is not really a thing, and it never was. But it may have became harder to detect among certain groups of people – namely among white liberals, whose racism became more subtle and sophisticated, undergoing a makeover of political correctness that makes it ever more impossible to talk about race and racial issues in a way these issues should be talked about.
When Chris agrees to go to his girlfriend’s parents house over the weekend, we instantly know that nothing good will come of this. By what Rose (Allison Williams, no less white and privileged than in the role of Marnie in Lena Dunham’s series Girls) tells him, his parents are not racist – and indeed they seem extremely casual and cool by the fact that their daughter is dating someone who’s black. And yet casually (and in most instances, unknowingly) racist comments start to creep into the conversations after some time – especially when Chris finds himself in a company of Rose’s brother and her family’s friends. Some seem to be fascinated by his “genetic makeup”, his potential physical strength, muscles and supposed endowment, others feel like they have to mention at least one famous black person while carrying a conversation (“I know Tiger Woods!”), stating that they would vote for Obama one more time if they could, or simply state that “black is in fashion these days”. Even though each of them carefully avoids acknowledging Chris’s race, they are throwing out comments they would never even think of saying to a white person. Why? They simply see him as Rose’s black boyfriend, a generic black man, instead of as a person – Chris, a photographer that he is.
But things get even weirder when Chris realises that his girlfriend’s supposed liberal white parents who voted for Obama and pride themselves in being open-minded and enjoy to experience new and different cultures through their travels, have a black gardener and a maid; two characters that, at first, seem as the archetypes of old Hollywood’s representation of African-Americans. Walter, physically strong but somewhat creepy and potentially violent is a perfect representation of what was once known as “a savage”, and Georgina comes across as a classic mammy who seems to enjoy nothing more but to serve her white employers and swipe dust off drawers. But Peele’s mind-blowing twist shows that nothing is as it seems – not only is Rose’s family not what they present themselves to be, but Walter and Georgina also turn out being two entirely different people. As does Rose.
The entire film is permeated with symbolism and smartly coined phrases that only once you see the film all the way through – or revisit it for the second time – reveal their double meaning. It starts with the intro, where a seemingly unconnected story of a black guy’s abduction unfolds. A white car that creepily slows down and hunts down the man who got lost in the suburbs is reversing the symbolism of the colour white that usually represents something pure and innocent – in contrast to the colour black that tends to be associated with death and evil. Subtle symbolism such as this re-appropriation of the meaning of a certain colour (that in reality all too often gets extended to the understanding of a certain race; white as pure, black as deviant and evil, as portrayed from D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation forward) is to be found throughout the entire film – from Rose’s mother wearing white when she first hypnotises Chris, sending him into the Sunken Place, to Rose wearing white in the final, most brutal act where she goes full on psycho and her drinking white milk in a real A Clockwork Orange fashion while her boyfriend is supposedly getting lobotomised in the basement. On the other hand we have the colour black which is continuously re-appearing in relation to something dangerous and bad – as Rose’s dad quite early on explains, there’s “black mold” in the basement which makes it off limits, not to mention there’s people arriving in black attire and limousines that have more resemblance to the funeral than to an annual family meeting (that is, as it is later revealed, a modern-day slave auction disguised as a game of bingo).
But the symbolism hardly stops at colours that Peele smartly incorporates in certain scenes. On a way to Rose’s family estate, far out from the city, the couple hits a deer – and while the accident has a strong connection to Chris’s personal hit and run story, to the way his mother died, the dying deer is first and foremost meant to represent him. Not only is Rose the one who is behind the wheel, causing the accident (as she is also behind the wheel of a racist scheme her family is planning) – she is also the one that initially hunted him down like game and is just waiting to hang his picture up on a bedroom wall among her other trophies, in the same way taxidermied deer is exhibited on the wall where Chris is later held captive. That the deer is supposed to represent Chris who is walking into a trap no one could have ever predicted becomes even more apparent after they tell her parents about the accident. Her father’s response about hating deer and how eradicating them would be a service to their community has a double meaning if we pay close attention to the words he uses. When he casually slips the word “buck” into his argument about deer overpopulating the area, it is hard to say if he is really still talking about animals, since the word “black buck” was once widely used as a racial slur to describe black men who refused to bend down to the authority of white men.
Casually incorporated racial slurs that are mostly long forgotten, games of bingo that end up being slave auctions, a throwback to old Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans and a helmet resembling a Ku Klux Klan’s hat that Jeremy wears when abducting black victims in his ironically white car (an image that gives a whole new meaning to a “knight in shining armour”) is just a few of Peele’s reminders to tragic history of African-Americans. But although we overcame the portrayal of black women as devoted housemaids and men as savages, representation of black people still hasn’t broke free of stereotypes such as gang members, funny sidekick best friends and sassy girlfriends. White supremacists are also alive and well, maybe more than ever now that Trump’s presidency gave a big thumbs up to openly expressing one’s racism. But where I find Peele’s horror-satire most successful is in how it subtly incorporates the question of slavery into the film. Slave auction may seem horrific and somewhat archaic from today’s point of view, but modern-day slavery is a reality that we need to stop ignoring. An auction selling Chris’s body to the highest bidder represents just about any young black man who finds himself in front of a white jury and judges who have the power of holding his whole life in their hands. Chris’s captivity therefore directly correlates with a devastating number of black people currently incarcerated (and used as a free working force; which is nothing else but slavery transferred from plantations to private prisons), while disappearance of his conscience into the Sunken Place represents black people’s feeling of paralysis and helplessness for living in a system that was set out against them from the very beginning. And it is of course no coincidence that the only thing that makes them break free from the Sunken Place is a use of a mobile phone – as phones have been an important part of bringing the reality of police brutality and unjustifiable murders of black people to the public and made discussions about systemic racism, racial inequality and racial profiling possible.