I Wanna Be Black
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Jordan Peele, U.S., Universal
The contemporary horror and comedy film have more in common than not. The jump-scare and the gag are both matters of setup and punchline, and practitioners of each genre are very often aiming to elicit physical responses that are sometimes disconcertingly close—many is the collective gasp that is followed by surprised, nervous laughter in the horror movie, and much 21st-century “gross out” comedy veers close to body-horror terrain.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out is aimed squarely at the seam between the genres. It looks and moves like a thriller—and sounds a bit too much like one thanks to Michael Abels’s score, so prominently featured that one can hardly be indifferent to it—but its characters keep up a running commentary of facetious incredulity, as if they can’t believe they’ve been dropped into this kind of movie. This holds true from the film’s opening, in which a young, black pedestrian makes his way by night through a predominantly white suburb, making every effort to exude an air of minding-my-own-business. “Feel like a sore thumb out here,” he tells an unseen companion on his cell phone, shortly before a sports car ominously pulls up alongside of him, bringing the very trouble that he wasn’t looking for. This overture, which ends with the young man being assaulted and shanghaied, establishes the world of Get Out as being in close contact with that of recent headline news, in which folks sticking out like sore thumbs, particularly black men wearing hoodies, find themselves as tempting targets.
Foreboding established, we pick up with the character who is the film’s actual point of identification, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who is preparing to travel upstate to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), something that Chris is more than usually nervous about because Rose is white and he is black and her parents, as it happens, haven’t been informed of this fact. But Rose reassures Chris that her father would’ve voted Obama a third term if he could, and she teases and cajoles with playful post-racial banter, and he at least pretends to believe her, although that ominous preamble only confirmed for the audience what Chris as a black man already knows—that the post-racial moment is no more arrived than the overhyped End of History, and that he runs a certain risk by going into the white world, confirmed by a tetchy run-in with a highway patrolman shortly after the couple hit the road.
Police-stop scenarios have frequently been made into comic fodder on Key & Peele, Peele’s Comedy Central sketch program with partner Keegan-Michael Key, which grew steadily in viral visibility over the course of its five seasons before ending its run in 2015. Both men have since been gigging in films, with Get Out Peele’s second feature credit—he was co-writer of last year’s lightly likable Keanu, in which he co-starred with Key—and his first as director. It’s evident straightaways that Peele knows how to put together and handle a cast, for Kaluuya and Williams bounce off each other with ease and familiarity and, in short, feel like a real couple. (In light of later events in the film one might ask for some more ambivalent shadings to Williams’s performance, but the use of a Girls cast member as an engine of black genocide is quite satisfying nevertheless.) The Armitage family is also well rostered, with each member providing a different flavor of disquietude: the oppressive avuncularity of Bradley Whitford’s impeccably bearded physician patriarch; the physical threat posed by brother Caleb Landry Jones (pallid, orc-like Ilya from 2014’s Heaven Knows What), who appears to be on holiday from Funny Games University; and pinched, observant, quietly judging psychiatrist mother Catherine Keener, who hypnotizes Chris without his permission, purportedly to help him quit smoking.
Discomfiting first impressions are followed by a visit that’s a catalog of mortifications, Chris’s only respites being moments in Rose’s arms and in calls back home to his best friend, Rod (Chicago comedian Lil Rel Howery), who’s dead certain that these spooky white folks are plotting to turn his friend into a sex slave. The truth, as it turns out, isn’t that far off, and a good bit worse. As Chris learns entirely too late by way of an instructional video left behind by late Armitage grandfather Roman, the family business involves the harvesting of fresh, healthy black bodies to host the brains of aging and ailing white folks’ brains. This retrospectively explains the behavior of the guests at a lawn party of the Armitage’s—all of them old and white friends of the grandparents, with the lone exception of one elderly Japanese guy and a familiar-looking younger black man (Keith Stanfield) dressed in the height of barbershop quartet fashion—who flock to Chris and treat him as a specimen to be examined, feeling his muscles, asking Rose questions about his mythical African-American virility, and basically doing everything short of inspecting his teeth on an auction block. These weren’t just friends of the family, but potential customers.
The premise serves as a malleable metaphor for just about any racial anxiety you please: the white coopting of black cool, cited as one of the reasons for the Armitages’ selection of exclusively black targets; the ongoing use of unwilling black bodies to perform white labor from plantation to penitentiary; and the pressures of conformity borne by the blacks living among white affluence—it’s explained that the black “vessels” don’t wholly lose consciousness once occupied by their new white hosts, and are condemned to an existence acting as mute observers of their servility, a situation dramatized in a scene with housekeeper Betty Gabriel (also a standout in the ensemble of Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter), who begins uncontrollably leaking tears while keeping up the front of a pristine smile, the despondency of a prisoner begging to be put of their misery clearly visible behind her wet eyes.
In this moment Get Out adds a new, unsettling image to the annals of the horror film—an image of black subjugation capable of recalling the sightless “undead” of Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton’s 1943 I Walked with a Zombie, while seeming to belong entirely to this movie and this moment. More often, however, the movie sags under the weight of influences, most of them staples of a VHS-era movie buff upbringing: flashbacks of a young Chris plunked in front of a TV suggest the most famous image of Poltergeist; the gradual discovery of a coven-like conspiracy owes no small debt to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and its inspiration in the work of Ira Levin; and, when Chris awakes in captivity, he’s pinned down in a planimetric composition that’s difficult to see as anything other than Kubrickian.
It’s around this time that Peele starts to lose his grip on his movie, and Get Out turns into a rather rote rush to get out of harm’s way, enlivened by admittedly very fine motor-mouthed comic relief from Howery. Throughout the finale, Peele opts for payoffs that are clever and superficially satisfying—a deer-hater stabbed with the horns of a mounted trophy, say—rather than wounding in a way that might fester in the mind. Where Keanu was a sporadically funny movie that nevertheless felt like a hedged bet, the work of television comics trying not to stray from proven template while attempting their crossover, Get Out can’t be said to suffer from that same over-caution. Even if you accept the film’s premise that black is currently cool, risking the alienation of the uncool half of the domestic ticket-buying population is never an easy pitch.
Get Out is, however, afflicted with another kind of anxiety—the career comic’s worry over always having to be “on.” It’s a complaint that you almost never have cause to make these days, but Peele’s movie could stand to be longer, take its time, linger for a while in the listless atmosphere of unease, stretch out the tease before showing its hand. As it is, the strangeness of the Armitage family and their circle is too immediately discernible as something more sinister than mere burlesqued whiteness, notwithstanding the fact that their conspiratorial secret is baldly broadcast in the film’s trailer. To let Chris be on his back foot for a moment, given cause to doubt his own judgment, might have enriched the film with an additional element of disorientation, but this avenue remains wholly unexplored. Polanski, speaking about his practice in a 1969 Cahiers du cinéma interview, described his ‘fantasy’ works thusly: “The more ‘fantastic’ you are, the more realistic you become. That’s why Kafka is so brilliant… It all stems from the fact that Kafka places himself so close to reality that you can’t escape it, but at the same time he removes you from reality and you end up not knowing where you are.”
Chris picks up something amiss from the get-go—no sly slippage between the familiar and the bizarre here—and any relatively with-it audience member should be able to stay a few steps ahead of him. Peele is no Polanski, and that’s fine, but I don’t think he’s wholly himself as a filmmaker, either; none of which makes Get Out a failure, per se. It plays and it creates an effective admixture of comedy and intrigue, and it takes dead aim at the zeitgeist in a way that’s sure to garner attention—Peele has designated the film as a “social thriller,” a set-aside category that’s a tad confusing when you consider that literally every single thriller is set in a social milieu. At any rate it should get people talking, just like a thousand other pop culture phenomena blown away with the next stiff breeze.