It’s been about 20 years since Wes Craven’s Scream franchise foregrounded what we all subconsciously knew: that African-Americans in horror movies are the most expendable of specimens, so detached from the white gaze that, by the time they’re dispatched as guinea pigs to the ominous cabin or the menacing basement or the moss-eaten manse, their chances of survival are less than nil.
White audiences, culturally sanctioned from the Other, are free to enjoy the sacrificial slaying of characters that were never more than tokens to begin with. Since the 1970s, the ubiquitous horror-film Black Friend has done his due diligence on the front lines, inevitably paving the way for the lily-white survivor girl’s grand exit.
One of the brilliant things about Jordan Peele’s ingenious horror comedy Get Out is how it upends, satirizes and updates this flippantly racist cinematic tradition for 21st-century anxieties. To do so, Peele’s debut as writer-director largely draws not from slasher history but from the wincing sanctimony of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Not coincidentally, Peele and his television partner Key have already riffed on Stanley Kramer’s 1967 feature in a classic Key & Peele sketch — remember the lizard tails? — which feels now like a trial run for Get Out.)
College students Rose Armitage and Chris Washington (Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya) are a picture-perfect biracial couple in a post-racial democracy. So much so that, five months into the relationship, Rose’s parents don’t know that their daughter will be bringing her first African-American boyfriend for a weekend visit to their isolated country estate. Her parents are color-blind too, she says. After all, her father would have voted for Obama a third time, if he could!
The elder Armitages, it turns out, are a strange pair. Bradley Whitford’s Dean, a retired neurosurgeon with a Freudian beard, goes out of his way to project tolerance and political correctness, discussing his fondness for an African-African pugilist and proudly displaying knickknacks he purchased in Bali; “it’s such a privilege to be able to experience somebody else’s culture,” he proclaims (emphasis mine, and Peele’s). Catherine Keener’s Missy Armitage is a practicing hypnotherapist who seems all too eager to regress her potential son-in-law and break his nasty nicotine addiction — and force him to explore a traumatic event from his past in the process.
Weirdest of all are the Armitages’ other houseguests: Georgina (Betty Gabriel), a black housemaid, and Walter (Marcus Henderson), a black groundskeeper. Dean is aware of the plantation optics, but the help don’t seem to possess any self-awareness: When engaged by Chris, they speak in antiquated diction, with plastered smiles and dead eyes, like body-snatched aliens from an M. Night cutting-room floor.
The oddness accelerates as, apparently unbeknownst to Rose, Caucasian family after Caucasian family descends on the chateau Armitage for an annual gathering, and these ancient, leathery, Botoxed 1 percenters stroke Chris’s musculature, pry about his athletic ability, and compliment the golf swing of Tiger Woods — because Chris, being black, must be a fan. Meanwhile, the few characters of color wander the grounds like lobotomized actors in some horrific antebellum production.
Gifted comedian Lil Rey Howery occasionally lightens the tension as Rod, Chris’ friend back home, who suspects foul play before anyone else. Indeed, the strategic wit of Peele’s former sketch-series day job is never lost here, and Get Out dances remarkably on the borderline between abject terror and uproarious comedy.
This deft balance belies Peele’s inexperience behind the camera. He has cited the influence of The Stepford Wives as a classic example of the proto-horror satire, and it’s an apt comparison. Aside from one cheap scare, Peele jettisons the sonically cued, jolt-a-minute impatience of modern horror syntax for the slow creep of ’70s thrillers and the delayed payoffs of The Twilight Zone. When he succumbs to Missy’s “therapy,” the sequence is a superb visualization of a hypnotic trigger; by the end of it, you won’t hear the unnerving sound of a spoon in a teacup the same way again.
But even as Get Out spirals into darker and more absurd places, it never loses its central purpose — as a potent expose of racial tension, exploitation and legally sanctioned abuse in a nation where black-and-white division is stoked daily, and where the meaning of “political correctness” is a double-edged sword with an unforgiving blade.
The film opens not on Chris but on another young black man, walking alone on a suburban street at night, lost. Post-Trayvon, he’s inherently a moving target, and when a car idles near him, piping contrapuntal circus music, we don’t need to be versed in the racial history of horror films to know what’s coming next. We just need to keep up with the news.
GET OUT. Director: Jordan Peele; Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Lil Ron Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root; Distributor: Universal; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at most area theaters