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The Current Debate: Sharp Politics in "Get Out"

Critics have responded to the racial politics of Jordan Peele's new horror movie.
Jordan Peele’s new film, Get Out, has received a considerably warmer welcome than last year’s Keanu, Peele’s screenwriting debut (with Alex Rubens), in which he co-starred with his longtime comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key. That movie was rooted in the duo’s five-season run on the Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele, and suffered for it; Get Out, Peele’s directorial debut, feels comparatively substantial, in part because it translates the incisive satire of Peele’s comedy to a new and equally effective genre: horror. As Manohla Dargis writes at The New York Times, the movie’s opening scene sets the tone:
Mr. Peele is after more than giggles and shocks; he’s taking on 21st-century white racism and its rationales. The opener — a black man talking on a cellphone on an empty suburban street — briskly sets the tone, unsettles the mood and announces Mr. Peele’s way with metaphor. He’s working within a recognizable horror-film framework here (the darkness, the stillness), so it’s not surprising when a car abruptly pulls up and begins tailing the man. You may even snicker because you think you’ve seen this flick before. Except that when this man anxiously looks for a way out, the scene grows discordantly disturbing because you may, as I did, flash on Trayvon Martin.
This mix of political suggestion and genre tropes proves to be an effective formula—one that, as Tasha Robinson writes at The Verge, lends even the movie’s more quotidian moments a unique sense of terror:
Like the equally memorable opening scene of the recent horror movie It Follows, the initial moments of Get Out are a reminder that no matter how domestic and low-key the film becomes at other times, it’s first and foremost a horror movie, with an agenda of unsettling the audience, then scaring the hell out of them. But it’s also an overtly political movie, one that evokes current racial tensions both to make the story more relevant, and to make it more frightening.
Get Out is specific and pointed about white privilege and power and the inequities it creates, not just on a broad societal level, but in situations as small as social gatherings and casual conversations. There’s a lot of comic potential in the ideas Peele plays with here, in the possibility that any given racially tinged awkwardness between strangers might just be insensitivity, or might mask something much darker and more savage.
At IndieWire, David Ehrlich notes that the horror movie packaging also frees Peele from the limitations of the type of period film Hollywood typically makes about race:
When Hollywood wants to talk about race, it’s usually an inspirational film, set at some point in the past, that sparks discussion. It doesn’t matter if that setting is the 19th century, the civil rights movement, or even sometime last week; it’s any time that isn’t right this moment. Stories of injustice are always more comfortable being watched over your shoulder, so these films bring a wedge of distance so that (white) audiences don’t feel implicated in the on-screen suffering. “Get Out,” however, feels no such obligations. A broadly commercial horror comedy about a black guy trying to survive his first weekend with his white girlfriend’s family, it’s locked in the present, it’s about race, and — more than that — it’s about how it can’t not be about race.
K. Austin Collins echoes the comparison to historical drama at The Ringer:
Get Out has direct contemporaries in a number of hopeful historical narratives about interracial romance, namely Jeff Nichols’s Loving and the ongoing work of Amma Asante (Belle, A United Kingdom). Peele travels some of the same terrain as those films, insofar as both Get Out and a movie about miscegenation law suggest interracial dating can be, uh, difficult. But Peele, dealing with it through horror, examines cultural attitudes with much more imagination, reckoning with racism not as a historical challenge to overcome but rather as something uncanny and unknowable — terrifying for being easy to sense or understand but perhaps impossible to surmount.
Still, Get Out’s freedom to reckon with racism as a contemporary rather than historical problem doesn’t totally translate to its mode of filmmaking, which rather “sags under the weight of influences,” as Nick Pinkerton observes at Reverse Shot. Peele’s film has earned popular comparison to Rosemary’s Baby, but, Pinkerton writes, it lacks the spacious anxiety of Polanski’s film:
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.
At Vox, Alissa Wilkinson offers a counterargument:
I’m white, and have no idea what it’s like to be a black American, and I never really can understand it instinctively, no matter how much I try to empathize. But my female body thrilled sickeningly with recognition when I saw Rosemary’s Baby, and I felt an echo of that same sensation watching Get Out.
So, too, does Ira Madison III, at MTV News:
Peele uses Get Out to take control of black bodies and give black men in the audience an allegory that they've craved in horror for decades. In the final moments of the film, once Chris has come out the other side of the carnage, a police car arrives. A director unfamiliar with living in a black body might have gone a darker route and given Chris a new adversary, a white police officer who misinterprets the events of the film. But Peele has lived in his body long enough to want a fantasy, a morality tale of sorts with a hopeful outcome. The police car is Chris's cavalry, because a black man is in it and not a white man. In the real world, our bodies might not be our own, but in Get Out, they're our greatest tools for survival.
If Get Out isn’t Rosemary’s Baby (and it’s not), that’s fine; it’s still both effective political commentary and a popcorn-friendly almost-midnight movie, which is not an easy trick to pull off. Hollywood will hopefully take note; our multiplexes could certainly do worse than to show more movies like this one in the next four years.
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The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.

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